On anonymity and dialogue: Oxy Confessions revealed

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In some ways, looking at old posts from the Oxy Confessions Facebook page is akin to opening a time capsule — a slice of what campus life was actually like at any given moment in time. There are the light-hearted flirtations and complaints about the lack of salt shakers and Sriracha bottles in the Marketplace, but there are also more serious themes: confessions about feeling isolated and lonely, debates over student protests. And with over 6,000 posts and 2,000 Facebook followers, it’s safe to say the Occidental community has a lot to get off its collective chest.

Despite consistently enduring criticism over its anonymous posts, Oxy Confessions has become an icon of Occidental’s culture since its inception in 2013. Within hours, posts can rack up over 100 likes; debate rages in the comment sections of those with particularly controversial content. To this day, over 11,000 confessions have been submitted to the page — and Ali Goldberg (senior) has had to silently sift through them all.

When Oxy Confessions administrator Goldberg first created the page in October of that year, she never imagined it would become such an integral part of campus culture and dialogue.

“I never wanted it to be at the center,” she said.

Goldberg’s inspiration for the page was born out of a love of reading NYU Secrets, a similar page featuring anonymous confessions made for students at New York University. At the time, Mary Richardson (senior) was running a separate confessions page for Occidental called Oxy Fess, which she launched in April 2013. Richardson was also anonymous at the time.

 

Like Goldberg, Richardson was inspired by sites at other schools (she cited Brown and the University of California, Los Angeles, as examples); also like Goldberg, Richardson intended for the page to be silly.

“It just looked like a fun, funny thing to kind of expose your crush or say something funny that you saw but didn’t want to admit it,” Richardson said.

Richardson ran the page for about half a year before she decided to stop.

“It started to get really political and was less about fun, funny things and more about ‘I want my opinion to be heard, but I’m too nervous to say it,’” Richardson said.

While she was the administrator, Richardson received about 1,000 submissions; she tried to post the most humorous ones every other day.

Still, Goldberg felt that Richardson updated Oxy Fess too infrequently, and one slow night during her first year at college, she decided to take matters into her own hands. In order to publicize the page, she also created a Facebook account called “Oxy Fesstwo” (currently titled “Oxy Fess”), friended students and invited them to like her newly created page.

Goldberg’s rules for which confessions are eligible to post are simple: First, posts cannot name anyone in the Occidental community directly (though, traditionally, confessors have circumvented this rule by dropping hints such as the subject’s appearance or residence hall in order to make their identity clear). Second, submissions cannot be overly cruel or possibly considered direct bullying of another student. Any other post is fair game, though they are still subject to Goldberg’s discretion.

Posts are submitted via Goldberg’s anonymous Google form, a mechanism she created to preserve students’ anonymity. Students can also send their confessions via Facebook message to the page.

Goldberg has been the woman behind the curtain for nearly four years, save for a brief stint when she was forced to hand off control of the page to Meghan Luera ‘14 while Goldberg was without internet access during a summer internship in Uganda. Before fall semester of 2015, only a few of her closest friends knew about her identity.

That isn’t to say that she hasn’t had some close calls — more than once people have approached her while she was in the process of posting, though she was ultimately never discovered. And in the beginning, she would receive push notifications on her cell phone whenever a student commented on or liked a post.

The closest she came to being exposed was while she was in New York participating in the Oxy at the U.N. program. Facebook changed its location settings and, before Goldberg could adjust the privacy features, several posts showed that she was posting from New York City. Because of the incident, she decided to disclose her identity to some friends also participating in the program. She even received a series of messages via the Google form from someone who claimed to have seen her update the page in New York, though they eventually stopped submitting them.

Goldberg said this secrecy, even from friends, was necessary because some of them sent in confessions themselves, and that they would feel uneasy if they knew that she was the moderator — but total anonymity was a challenge to execute.

Difficult, too, has been seeing some of the submissions sent in by Facebook direct message, which allows Goldberg to see the student’s identity. The hardest, she said, are those in which students expressed feeling depressed or alone on campus.

“It’s sort of like an anonymous hotline,” she said. “You don’t want to go and ruin the secret and ruin their privacy, but you want to help too.”

In one such case, Goldberg asked a friend who knew the submitter to reach out to them. In other instances, she has posted phone numbers and links to supportive resources.

Another challenge was moderating discussion on debates regarding people she knew, such as the conversation regarding the impeachment of former Associated Students of Occidental College (ASOC) President Chris Weeks (senior). Although the two weren’t close at the time, Goldberg struggled with how to balance the conversation and keep it constructive.

“It’s actually kind of what sparked our friendship,” she said. “I felt pretty bad about that. There were some pretty bad things that were said.”

Goldberg was also confronted with the challenge of having to moderate strongly opposing views during the occupation of the Arthur G. Coons Administrative Center last fall. This was particularly challenging given that she was at the U.N.

“It was really weird, because I was getting such an inside view of what was happening, and I wasn’t even there,” Goldberg said.

She found herself conflicted about which posts to include, again trying to only post submissions that added something to the dialogue.

“I have the right intentions,” Goldberg said. “It’s hard to strike that balance.”

Indeed, Goldberg sees the space as a forum for dialogue — but with a variety of opinions and a politically active student body like Occidental’s, that goal can be tricky to achieve.

“It’s been really hard to do that,” Goldberg said. “Because obviously that’s one of the biggest issues with it, trying to find that balance and providing a range of opinions; but I try and only post ones where there’s a lesson to be learned, or there’s not too much negativity.”

Richardson had also begun to receive more serious confessions after running her page for several months; unlike Goldberg, she refrained from posting the majority of them.

“You don’t want to not post what someone’s saying if they want it to be heard, but also it’s not really my responsibility to be your hidden voice,” Richardson said. “That feels a little iffy.”

Richardson admitted that she has thoughts she would rather not share on her personal Facebook timeline — but, unlike Goldberg, she didn’t feel that an anonymous Facebook page was a good outlet.

Conversely, Gabriel Parra (sophomore) believes that attaching a name to an opinion isn’t necessary because Occidental students are not interested in maintaining a two-sided dialogue.

“I feel there really isn’t a dialogue,” he said. “Because if you own statements that are posted on Oxy Confessions, it’s committing social suicide here. People are not interested in associating with opinions that are different from theirs, they try and insulate themselves by people that say the same things and utter the same social justice shibboleth.”

Though Goldberg maintains that she had a hard time grappling with the criticism the page received for posting anonymous confessions, she said that it provides opportunity for people who don’t normally have their voices heard to speak out.

“I think that it provides a unique space and a needed space — it’s not always the safest space, but I think it’s a necessary space,” she said.

Moreover, Goldberg added that she heard the page has come up during meetings of both the administration and ASOC Senate. Though she doesn’t know whether President Jonathan Veitch reads it, she thinks it could be a good way for students to have their voices heard by an administration that can be difficult to get in touch with.

Still, there are posts that Goldberg chooses not to include. She will even take some down that technically follow the rules if someone asks her to or if she feels that they are blatantly offensive or unconstructive. But she also believes there is an advantage to posting controversial, or potentially misinformed, confessions to the page.

“It’s also good when people engage with the post,” Goldberg said. “When people say, ‘No, this is why you’re wrong’ or ‘This is what I agree with’ … I think for the people who do post things that are not great, I think that obviously they’re going to see their confession, and obviously they’re going to read it, and they’re going to read the comments. Hopefully, that provides space for them to learn something new about one of their opinions. Or at least get a different perspective.”

Indeed, Goldberg said that her own opinions have changed from reading the views in expressed Oxy Confessions submissions over the years. And it has also affected the way she views the Occidental community. Though it has heartened her to see students comment on posts offering their support to those who talked about being lonely or depressed in their posts, she has also received a surprisingly high number of racist submissions.

“It’s hard to see that, but I try to show by not posting them that it’s not okay,” she said.

Yet in reflecting on her experience, Goldberg was sentimental. Having never thought the page would take off — and despite the controversial reactions to the page in general — Goldberg said she would do it over again if she could.

“I think it’s been an interesting thing to have on campus,” Goldberg said. “I think, regardless of some of the bad things that have happened, it’s what it is meant to be. It’s supposed to be funny. Where people can confess funny things about themselves and confess — you know — who they have crushes on. And that’s mostly what the page was intended for. I think it provides that fun space. I don’t know. It always brightens my day when I post.”

Nevertheless, Goldberg is ready to move on. As a second semester senior, Goldberg has been busy finishing her senior comprehensive project and spending her final months with friends and doesn’t have the time she once did to post.

For this reason, she’d prefer to pass the position on to a younger student — probably a sophomore or junior, though she will consider rising seniors. She’s looking for someone who is familiar with the role of the page on Occidental’s campus but could give the page a fresh start — someone who can post consistently, moderate fairly and can commit to keeping themselves and the page anonymous.

“I’m sure whoever takes it on next, it will change again,” she said. “They will have a different perspective on it. It’ll be really different. So it’s been fun.”

Students who want to become the next Oxy Confessions moderator should send a paragraph about themselves and their interest in the position to goldberga@oxy.edu by May 15.