I try really hard to be okay, but this school is eating me alive.
I’m actually in love with one of my greatest friends on campus, and it terrifies me.
I go to the gym every single day but I still can’t help but feel fat.
Nearly 2,000 Facebook users have liked the Northwestern Confessions page as of February 2014. The page describes itself as “a completely anonymous page to confess about your weird, funny, sad, fortunate, or unfortunate experiences, hopes, and dreams at NU!”
Anonymous platforms on social media are not unique to Northwestern. Across the globe, universities, high schools, cities and communities have similar pages. According to postdoctoral student Nick Merola, the phenomenon particularly resonates among college students because they are in a transitional stage of life.
“This is an age group that’s struggling to find how they fit,” says Merola, who conducts research at Northwestern’s Social Media Lab, a School of Communication research group that studies how social interaction technologies are, and can be, used for work and play, Merola says. “You know they’re out of high school, out of all that, and now they’re like, OK, here’s the whole wide world. How do I fit into it?”
According to preliminary research by the Social Media Lab, anonymous confession boards fit a unique intersection of anonymity and identifiability. Anonymity allows users to express opinions on taboo subjects, but also enables “flaming,” which is bashing or hostile conversation between Internet users.
Identifiability allows users to reach a known audience, but exacerbates concerns about their reputations.
But on a confessions page, posters can speak to a known audience without revealing their identity. The stakes are extremely low.
Merola says this kind of confession isn’t necessarily new. Advice columns, bulletin boards and op-eds have all accommodated anonymity to discuss taboo subjects. Social media, however, has just made anonymity faster, rawer and more expansive.
“I think the main difference is that these are archived for everyone to see. The barrier of entry is very, very low, and it spreads,” Merola says. “Communication is so much faster and there’s no lag time.”
Ultimately, Merola describes these confession boards as a “place where people can go to discuss things that they might not be able to with their peer group.”
Getting People Talking
I love Northwestern, but some days I have trouble justifying the debt I will be in and the continued financial struggles I’m putting my parents through.
NU Class Confessions is a Tumblr for issues about socioeconomic status at Northwestern. The page has been filled with hundreds of confessions about issues regarding money and student life ranging from eating out at restaurants to receiving financial aid packages.
The page was started by the Northwestern Quest Scholars Network, a group that includes low-income students in the QuestBridge scholarship program and allies to low-income students.
SESP senior Erin Turner, who helped start the page, didn’t expect it to blow up as much as it did. “It almost started as a publicity stunt ... a way to get people talking,” she says.
At first, Turner and the Quest Scholars Executive Board had planned to collect confessions through a Google Form and post them on a white board in Norris. After receiving 30 submissions within the first few hours, they decided to start a Tumblr.
Turner says that the issue of class is a taboo at Northwestern. For her, the page is “a way to get people to realize how much we don’t talk about socioeconomic status.”
On a Lighter Note
Connor Steelberg looks like he’s strutting down the runways of Paris whenever he walks down Sheridan. What a beautiful human being.
Twenty-two likes. Four comments. “WHO’S UGLY NOW, MOM??” Connor replied in a comment.
The trend of anonymous expression extends beyond the serious issues brought forth on Northwestern Confessions. Inspired by the Confessions page, Northwestern Crushes emerged last year, with much more lighthearted results.
The Northwestern Crushes moderator, who has asked to stay anonymous, says they like the lighter nature of their page.
“Our page has been kept very playful and not very serious,” they say. “I feel like it’s caused a lot of positivity on campus.”
The moderator started the page last April with four friends, but now only two of them continue to manage the page. In the beginning, they reposted every crush they received, but after some complaints from students and problems adhering to Facebook’s community standards, they began to filter out sexual, pornographic and non-consensual content.
“We don’t want to make anyone feel uncomfortable,” the moderator says.
Still, the moderator estimates that 99 percent of crushes end up being posted, and there’s no sign of the page being shut down anytime soon.
Making a Difference
Merola notes students’ positive responses to the serious issues that have surfaced on Northwestern Confessions.
“For people that are revealing these identities, these things they’re uncertain about, getting this positive feedback from their peers can be very positive for them,” says Merola, who has also noticed campus groups like CAPS and SHAPE are reading the confessions, responding to posts and connecting with readers.
Turner hopes for actual, substantial change through the discussions started on NU Class Confessions.
“I think different administrators are looking at this page, and I think this can hold some sway with them,” she says. “Something I would personally like to see out of this would be support groups for people who are dealing with a lot of financial stress.”
But for now, Turner is satisfied with what the page has accomplished.
“There have been some posts where somebody said ‘I felt so alone, but now I know I’m not,’” she says. “If that’s the only impact [this page] has, that’s incredible.”