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Cobber Confessions: empowered by anonymity

Christiana Hennings, a sophomore at Concordia, was sitting next to her friend as they submitted a statement about her to an anonymous source on Facebook.

“Christiana Hennings is the hottest girl on campus. #noticeme,” they wrote on March 12.

The statement was copied and pasted from the submission onto the Facebook page, Concordia College Confessions. An anonymously run Facebook page, Concordia College Confessions is a place for students to submit confessions they have about the Concordia Community under the coat of anonymity. Several other colleges and universities, such as St. Olaf and the University of Minnesota, have similar pages.

University of Minnesota’s page is how Hennings first found out about such sites but said there is a big difference between the University and Concordia’s pages.

“The University of Minnesota is big, so you have no idea who the posts are talking about,” she said. “It makes it less personal.”

Hennings also said that the topics discussed on the University of Minnesota’s page include lighter topics, such as partying, whereas Concordia College Confessions talks about self-esteem issues.

Dr. Stephanie Ahlfeldt, associate professor of communication studies at Concordia, teaches Computer-Mediated Communication, a communications capstone that highlights anonymous communication. Anonymity can be empowering, according to Ahlfeldt, and it allows one to say what they honestly feel without facing judgment.

Hennings said she thinks the anonymity of the page at Concordia is a positive. If a name was attached to a post, people may be afraid to posts concerns or doubts they have. A specific instance came to mind for her.

On March 14, someone submitted a post regarding their suicidal thoughts, and the administrator of the page published it. Ten comments were made on the post offering concern, support and suggestions.

“(If their name would have been attached to the post), they wouldn’t have written anything,” Hennings said. “They need help, and if we can somehow help them, then that’s a positive.”

The protection of anonymity, however, may not always be good thing. Ahlfeldt said that with face to face communication, where anonymity isn’t an option, people have to filter what they say and think about the implications. She said when we remove that from our discourse, we take away a step of human interaction–consideration of others.

While protected under anonymity, some take advantage and exploit the freedom of simply being unknown. There can be significant implications, she said. Some people post to get reactions. If they don’t get what they are looking for something bad could happen—some recent cases have led to suicide, she said.

“How can we help them if we don’t know (who they are),” Ahlfeldt said.

Hennings said students need to know that they can get help outside of the Facebook page.

“We need to get to the underlying problems,” she said. “There are some people who need help. They don’t need to be insecure (about it).”

Ahlfeldt said that the anonymity of the pages, specifically the Concordia College Confessions page, raises the question of power. Who is the gatekeeper? Is every submission posted?

The posts are submitted via a link found on the page where people can write in a confession and submit it.

The administrator of the page responded to a post on March 13 apologizing for inaccurate posts—they simply copy and paste statuses. They reassured that from now on, posts would be double-checked for accuracy before being published. This raised discussion by other Facebook users over whether or not posts previously published were offensive or infringed upon the rights of others.

Ahlfeldt said that with the Concordia name attached to the page, the reputation of both students and the school itself are on the line. Students posting are future graduates, and therefore representatives, of the college, she said. The behavior on the page and comments being posted are disrespectful and aren’t an accurate reflection of the entire student body, she said.

Vice President for Student Affairs at Concordia, Dr. Sue Oatey, said that students have approached both her and other faculty and staff members regarding their concerns for the page. She has referred a few students to Chief Information Officer Bruce Vieweg, who is helping them file the necessary complaint forms to Facebook, which Oatey says can be a very long process.

Ahlfeldt said that even on the Internet, students are influencing the world through their behavior and actions.

“It’s irresponsible to not think about the impact on other people,” she said. “Is this responsible?”

Oatey said that even if the page is taken down, it has still been published and exists. You never know when it might pop up again, she said.

The Twitter account, which went under the same name, was shut down. However, the tweets sent from the account are never fully erased. Steve Lohr, writer for The New York Times, explained in his April 2010 article, “Library of Congress Will Save Tweets,” that “the library will archive the collected works of Twitter.” He went on to say that although the library is doing it primarily for documenting the social media aspect of the nation’s history, it also has the potential to influence the habits of the site’s users.

“People thinking before they post on Twitter,” Lohr wrote. “Now that would be historic indeed.”

The same extends to Facebook,in this case.

The administrator of the Concordia College Confessions page posted March 24 about being criticized for the contents of the page, for some users viewed some posts as offensive, even though the posts were copied and pasted from the submissions. They mentioned shutting the page down, however, after comments from people in support of their page, it remains up and running as of Sunday.

Another page has recently surfaced, attempting to do the same thing as Concordia College Confessions, but so far with a much lighter tone. Hennings said that these pages have provided her with entertainment and she comments on them when she feels as though she has a response.

Although the pages may not necessarily be productive, she said, they are fun and the people submitting might just need to get something out of their system. But Hennings recognized the dangers of the page, even if students feel the anonymity is therapeutic.

“I think we need to be careful of what we say on Concordia Confessions,” Hennings said. “Even though people can’t tell who you are it doesn’t mean that it’s not hurtful.”

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