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November 5, 2017

The Power of Confession

While far from perfect, UChicago Secrets offers students a much-needed outlet for authentic confessionals.

Confession is a sacred thing. In Catholicism, Buddhism, Islam, and even Alcoholics Anonymous, confession has long been the sort of catharsis that rests at the core of spiritual healing. It's a baring of the soul, in plain sight or behind a veil, that offers relief, a purging of sins and guilt and pain. Confessions are emotional fire escapes. They're a statement of vulnerability in a world of masks.

UChicago Secrets is a sacred thing. It's a shot of brutal authenticity and tasteful satire bottled up in the faux intimacy of a Facebook feed. It's a peek into the raw emotional underbelly of a place that can at times feel so disconnected and isolating. It's a confessional for the Internet age, a rare breath of honesty in a social media landscape dominated by airbrush and Photoshop and carefully curated personal brands. In a world where social platforms have been accused of making us lonelier, UChicago Secrets offers an avenue for the kind of emotional nakedness that can lead to true connection.  

UChicago Secrets isn't alone. In response to the deep human desire for confession, the increasing perfectionism of online social presences, and the latent loneliness of life, there are countless other college confessions pages. Additionally, numerous apps such as Ask.fm, Whisper, and Yik Yak have emerged in recent years, aiming to take advantage of this niche market.

But there is a ugly side to anonymous confessions, if they are not kept in check. Anonymity may produce more authentic discussion, but it also encourages reckless and inappropriate behavior in some instances, offering an invisibility cloak of sorts for participating users. Especially in the case of anonymous apps, which have been involved in controversy after controversy, users often have the opportunity to spout hateful beliefs or make threats without any meaningful fear of reprisal.

Ask.fm in particular has been linked to instances of cyberbullying that have led to teen suicides. In one particularly sobering incident that garnered international notoriety, a 15-year-old hung himself after facing brutal cyberbullying on the app. Indeed, a notably egregious personal Ask.fm page was an offense that played an instrumental role in the expulsion of a student at my high school. Apps like Secret or Yik Yak, formerly a staple of UChicago campus life and a source for deep controversy, have descended into irrelevance nationally largely due to the frequency of targeted insults or threats of violence. Anonymity can be cathartic, but it has a dark side too, providing a mask for the ugliest facets of human interaction.

The problem with anonymous apps doesn’t necessarily lie with the offer of anonymity alone. Overly permissive apps like Yik Yak, for instance, rely on automation and user input to curb inappropriate behavior, while UChicago Secrets offers a slate of moderators to bring in more discerning but still imperfect element to the endeavor. Indeed, UChicago Secrets has had its fair share of controversy and has certainly not been immune to allegations of inappropriate and harmful content. Critics argue that the page’s moderators are far too lax, publishing too many offensive, racist, or otherwise hurtful submissions. And of course, there’s always the opportunity for more aggressive moderation when submissions could cause campus uproar. But the presence of moderators and a well-defined set of moderation policies make UChicago Secrets a much better prepared platform to make the most of the good that anonymity can provide while minimizing the opportunity for abuse.

The beauty of college confessions pages like UChicago Secrets is that they push back against the unattainable perfectionism that social media has often come to represent. College can be a lonely place. Large swaths of unstructured time can be difficult to manage, and especially in times of academic duress, social interaction is hardly guaranteed. And with social media, with the proliferation of “highly curated selves,” as UCLA psychologist Elizabeth Gong-Guy calls them, there is always the nagging sense that somehow, in some way, we're missing out on something. We consume a constant scroll of pictures and videos that our friends have selected as most flattering, and we mistake those highlights for how our lives could and should always be.

But UChicago Secrets gives people an outlet for their own truths and their own realities. It peels off the veneer of perfection that people so often attempt to project and revels in the raw messiness of humanity. Anonymity provides a sort of liberation from the self-conscious preening of public personal pages and gives students the space to express their truest, darkest thoughts. And that's so important and so valuable, especially at a notoriously high-stress institution like UChicago. It helps to be able to say you're not okay or to read a post and find solace and validation in the fact that you're not alone. It helps to be able to vent. It helps to be able to pose controversial ideas without fear of personal backlash. And it helps to see something relatable, tag your friends, and have a good laugh despite the weight of all those problem sets and essays and that grim dark thing we call the future.

So thank you, UChicago Secrets, and never leave us.

Lucas Du is a first-year in the College.

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