Anonymous Online Forums Stir Up Debate

Elizabeth Kuhr

Just days before the anonymous forum ObieTalk reappeared on Oberlin students’ computers and smartphones, a new Facebook page called Oberlin Compliments was created with the mission to spread positivity. The page’s overnight popularity and ObieTalk’s comeback have rehashed the long-standing debate about Internet discussion and anonymity on campus.

Two Oberlin seniors, inspired by a new national trend of virtually delivering compliments, created the Oberlin Compliments Facebook page in hopes of fostering positivity. The page gives students an anonymous forum through which they can compliment one another. To send a compliment, students must either message the page’s inbox or submit a Google form with the recipient’s full name and the compliment. The two founders will then post the compliment on the page, tagging the receiver.

ObieTalk, too, is an anonymous online forum. But unlike on Oberlin Compliments, ObieTalk users have the freedom to write about anything. Some comments are light or practical, such as discussions of music fads or questions about registration. But a darker side exists as well: some posts threaten suicide or sexualize students or express hate directed at specific individuals.

Although ObieTalk is used casually, the comments posted carry a weighty intentionality that can be destructive and hurtful to those mentioned.

“I’ve comforted my friends who have cried because of things that have been said on ObieTalk,” said College senior Anna Zeemont.

Many students are concerned about the website’s return. Over the past three years, the comments posted about her on the website have made College senior Sophia Yapalater feel harassed and disrespected. Yapalater has spoken frequently about her experience with ObieTalk, including in the video “BITCH/SLUT/CRAZY” and in an article on the feminist blog Jezebel. Recently, she posted a formal response discussing the site’s reopening, as part of a larger Facebook discussion with other Oberlin students.

“It makes me feel like I’m constantly being watched,” she said. “Like people are waiting for me to make a wrong move so they can criticize and shame me.”

When it comes to a discussion regarding ObieTalk’s place in the Oberlin community, many students disagree. Some see the forum as an important addition to the College. College sophomore Dylan Bleier considers the website as an extension of free speech.

“Free speech should be protected unless it’s actively inciting hate or violence against a group,” said Bleier. “If so, legal action should be taken.”

Furthermore, he believes that removing the site may not solve the problems with gossip on campus.

Others see attending Oberlin as informally agreeing to the College’s standards.

“We all chose to be here, and that means we all choose to follow a code of conduct in how you treat people,” said Yapalater.

Upon its return, ObieTalk has attempted to remedy this problem and protect students. The site’s creator, College senior Will Adams-Keane, added a report button, which requests a name upon submission, to keep the hate posts to a minimum.

The “Active” button is another addition to the website. Located at the top of the page, it supposedly provides a list of students who are visiting the site. However, in an e-mail to the Review, Adams-Kean claimed that the button is actually a joke which constantly updates with random Oberlin students. It is therefore not representative of visitors at any time.

The founders of Oberlin Compliments, conversely, refuse to publish any disrespectful statements.

“We [exclude] hateful remarks because, in the past, our campus has had problems with that on ObieTalk,” said one of the creators of Oberlin Compliments. “We didn’t want it to be that way. It doesn’t go with our aim.”

The founders themselves have decided not to reveal their names.

“It’s important for us to remain anonymous, because people want to be comfortable submitting compliments to our inbox,” said one of the founders.

Some students disagree with this decision; the creators receive several messages daily that demand they provide their names.

Anonymity continues to be a controversial subject in regard to ObieTalk as well.

“A lot of things I’ve done on this campus have been in response to my experiences,” said Yapalater. “What people don’t understand is when they anonymously sexually harass me for those things on ObieTalk, it’s exploitative of the way I feel.”

She is also unsure of whom to trust because she does not know which students have been making harsh remarks. Several students said that if the names of posters were provided, people would be less hurt when mean things were posted.

Bleier, on the other hand, views anonymity and mostly unregulated posting as valuable. He feels that these types of discussion provide a forum for people who are not otherwise comfortable voicing legitimate concerns.

“If you shut it down, you pretend that there aren’t things about Oberlin that you don’t like,” said Bleier.

Despite the fact that Oberlin Compliments is carefully monitored, some students support the site as a way to counter ObieTalk’s perceived negativity. College first-year Lucy Hall described the page as a glorified version of the anonymous forum.

“[It’s] what ObieTalk should have been to begin with,” said Hall.

The Oberlin Compliments founders said that, as soon as ObieTalk returned, Oberlin Compliments exploded with nice comments.

“It was extreme and completely random compliments from people,” said one of the site’s creators.

Hall sees the diversity of students complimented as an indicator of the page’s success that has positive implications for the Oberlin community.

Many students enjoyed receiving compliments and reading ones about their friends and acquaintances on the Facebook page.

“The affirmation by other students, especially those who feel marginalized, is what I’m here to do. That’s my purpose in student government,” said College senior A.D. Hogan, who received a supportive comment about their activist work on campus. With both Obietalk and Oberlin Compliments still active, this debate is not over. What many students have agreed upon, however, is the call for more in-person conversation. They want strangers and friends alike to approach them with compliments or concerns.

“I’m a little more into the face-to-face, to be real,” said Zeemont.