MSU Confessions: Internet Hate Machine or Community Forum?
By Pat Hessman and Brent Zundel
For the MSU Exponent
April 18, 2013
“Gotta love being a little drunk in class. So much more willing to answer questions.”
“I don’t get it, all these girls are like I just want a cowboy, but when I ride the electronic horse in the Walmart for an hour none of them come and hit on me.”
“i wish i knew anyone else my age here at MSU who has cancer too, it’s often really lonely having no one to relate to when you’re hurting.”
That was a sampling of posts on the Facebook page Montana State University Confessions (MSUC.) Chances are, if you are an MSU student or faculty member who uses Facebook regularly, you have heard of MSUC.
As of press time, MSUC has 4,403 likes — for comparison, ASMSU has 661 and the Exponent has 673. Even if you are not subscribed, you’ve probably noticed friends comment or like unknown posters proclaiming their love for a stunning girl in their econ lecture or their hatred for desk clerks/Greeks/RAs/gym bros/whatever.
Confessions pages are a national trend consisting of anonymous posts by specific communities, from colleges to high schools and small towns to big cities. Many posts consist of crushes, but also sexcapades, complaints and witty sayings stolen from Reddit. In some ways, they’re a Facebook-centric version of PostSecret.
Why does this Facebook page matter? Confessing to having sex in a library lounge or posting from the toilet holds little real-world relevance. However, these pages can be used for social justice or social debauchery, and the balance merits closer examination. The Billings West High Confessions page is one nearby example of this concept gone awry.
A group of unknown students created a page that quickly devolved into personal attacks targeting individual students for their reputations as sexually loose. School administrators brought in the FBI to shut the page down, but it kept returning again and again in a perverse game of Whac-A-Mole. After the appearance of a “West High Sluts” page, the school sent parents letters about cyber-bullying and held assemblies to address the problem with students.
Another concern about these pages — MSU’s included — is stalker behavior. Some may consider it flattering to see a confession calling them beautiful, but it could unnerve others — especially if the confessor mentions seeing them often or submits multiple posts about the same person. For example, one anonymous poster asked the object of his affection to dump her boyfriend, which may have worked, according to an April 16 post.
The administrator of MSUC, who wishes to remain anonymous, hasn’t received any complaints of stalking behavior, but has rejected questionable posts. “Nobody has personally messaged me about stalking concerns, but I have rejected many confessions where I found the content concerning and could possibly resemble stalker behavior,” the admin explained.
Despite the controversy (or stupidity) associated with these pages, consider a more important role confessions pages play: a community forum. A newspaper’s letters to the editor section might serve that role, but they require more effort and lack the anonymity of confessions. That crucial anonymity allows people to make controversial statements without fear of reprisal.
The administrator appreciates this opportunity for discussion: “The comments left on the confessions lead into discussions and debates between fellow students, [so they] have the opportunity to discuss things like equal rights, religion and inside jokes on campus.”
For example, many students witnessed the street preachers who visited the MSU Mall last Thursday. The taboo topic of religion was discussed in several posts that afternoon in a way that wouldn’t have happened publicly if not for Confessions, even if some of the discussion went in a less-than-civil direction.
Another example was a string of people’s opinions of the MSU Greek System. Some of the posts were mere unintelligent attacks, but they also presented the opportunity for people to voice serious concerns and for Greeks to respond to criticisms and defend their positions. No person or organization should be immune to legitimate criticism, and MSUC allows statement of opinion without fear of bullying or personal attacks.
However, if MSUC is viewed through the lens of a community forum, then enormous responsibility must rest on the shoulders of the administrator for facilitating reasonable discussions. Can one person effectively screen the hundreds of submissions received each week? And can he or she promote relatively constructive dialogue on the page?
If the answer to those questions is even a hesitant no, then perhaps confessions pages can offer little more than an insight into a masked human psyche that has nothing to lose, whether it speaks poems or profanity.
An anonymous community forum can be a benefit and a bane. Confessions pages risk displaying personal attacks and stalker behavior, yet with respect and careful moderation, those tendencies can be kept in check. Providing a community forum to discuss taboo issues may well be the most important function they provide. The next time you’re poring over anonymously submitted confessions, mentally balance the value of the forum and the entertainment provided with the potential for harm.