In recent months, the nature of postings on the online forum ObieTalk has elicited responses of anger and confusion from various members of the Oberlin community. The number of official complaints from students and parents has risen alongside increasing racist, homophobic, sexist and otherwise offensive posts on the site. In response to these concerns, Dean of Students Eric Estes and Vice President of Communications Ben Jones have proposed instituting a community monitoring system that would allow site users to flag inflammatory comments for removal.
ObieTalk is hardly new to criticism. Student Senate has held a number of forums in hopes of increasing non-digital dialogue about the site, which has been posited as problematic by a number of students. In addition to last spring’s community symposium on ObieTalk and other cyber communities, this semester Student Senate held a forum titled “Vandalism.Adderall.ObieTalk.,” in which Estes and other panelists focused primarily on the website’s effect on the campus. After the recent surge of hate speech on the site, though, Estes and Jones wrote a letter printed in the April 20 issue of the Review outlining their intention to implement a community monitoring system with the help of ObieTalk creator Will Adams-Keane.
Adams-Keane, College junior, created the website during his freshman year. Though he said he does not actively monitor the site, Keane said he does remove posts upon request and, when time permits, he removes negative posts targeting particular individuals.
“I get a lot of e-mails from people asking me to remove posts that are embarrassing or hurtful to themselves or their friends,” Adams-Keane said.
Like Estes and Jones, Adams-Keane said he noticed a recent increase in the number of offensive posts on the site.
“I think there have been more racist [and] homophobic posts recently, but they usually aren’t targeted towards a particular person in the community; they’re just made with the intent of getting a rise out of people,” Adams-Keane said.
Estes and Jones shared a similar understanding of many of the bigoted posts. In their letter to the Review, Estes and Jones characterized these posts as “trolling,” or aiming to provoke rather than to honestly express individuals’ positions. While it’s possible, though unverifiable, that offensive posts are written for the purpose of provocation, many see comments on the site as representations of actual prejudice.
In a letter printed in the April 13 issue of the Review, members of Oberlin’s Africana community and its allies quoted hate speech from ObieTalk to express the “ugly legacy of racism and prejudice” in the town of Oberlin. Posts referring to President Obama as a “nigger” and all black people as “fucking lowly niggers” were paradigmatic of the offensive nature of many of these posts.
While they said their aim is to remove content containing hate speech, Estes and Jones said they are not attempting to remove all posts that contain controversial opinions.
“There is always something to be learned from the expression of viewpoints, even those we may personally find repulsive. But there is a big difference between objective dialogue on controversial topics and blatant hate speech that is clearly posted for no other reason than to make people angry,” Jones said.
Consequently, the regulatory system conceived of by Jones, Estes and Adams-Keane would ideally function as a means for ObieTalk users to self-monitor.
“The hope is that ultimately the site will incorporate technology that will allow any user to flag posts that fall outside a set of guidelines to be set by a group of students representative of the spectrum of opinions related to ObieTalk. After a certain number of flags the post will be automatically removed. Will, Eric and I also discussed an appeal process for those who feel their post was removed without appropriate cause,” Jones said.
Adams-Keane said he was open to working on a way to regulate his site when approached by Estes and Jones.
“As on other community forums on the Internet, moderators can be successful in enforcing rules and cutting down on inappropriate posts, but what makes ObieTalk unique is that there really aren’t any rules and so hardly anything is considered ‘inappropriate.’ It’s only the really offensive posts, the ones that might actually hurt people here at Oberlin that I’m concerned about,” Adams-Keane said.
Ilyssa Meyer, student liaison of the Student Senate, said that she felt a system of monitoring the site would preserve ObieTalk’s usefulness as an anonymous space for dialogue, while limiting its ability to harm.
“ObieTalk is only alive because we, as a community, keep it that way. When issues are debated on that site and not in a public space, like the Review or a community forum, they seem ungraspable. Monitoring ‘trolls’ on ObieTalk will eliminate the problematized issues to allow for a productive anonymous space for conversations to occur that wouldn’t otherwise happen in public forums,” Meyer said.
Estes and Jones were adamant in expressing that the administration wants no part in the regulation of ObieTalk.
“Like Ben, I don’t think the administration should be monitoring ObieTalk. I think the key is empowering students to help shape acceptable discourse for themselves,” Estes said.
Adams-Keane said he is as of now unable to implement the monitoring system, but in the meantime is working with Jones and Estes on a short-term solution to regulate offensive comments.
“The idea proposed by Dean Estes and Ben Jones, which I agreed with, was having a group of moderators who would have the ability to delete posts [and] comments, and who would be primed on what is acceptable and what should be removed,” Adams-Keane said.
Eventually, though, Adams-Keane said he hopes that the regulatory system will function in a “democratic” manner.
“Ideally the power wouldn’t rest in the hands of a select few. By that, I mean I think the best system of regulation would be one which would involve everyone on ObieTalk, through some democratic process. If this could be done in such a way that it would work quickly and without abuse, then that would be ideal,” Adams-Keane said.
As for who would orchestrate and oversee this process after his graduation, Adams-Keane said he hadn’t yet thought that far ahead, though he suggested one solution.
“I’ll probably keep it up, and right after I graduate, add everyone’s name to their posts and get the hell out of Oberlin.”