Silenced by Anonymity

Join one of Aditya Hurry’s tours of campus for prospective students and you will surely hear him characterize Tufts students as “passionate.” As a former Resident Assistant, current tour guide, and the Head of Public Relations for the Tufts Association of South Asians (TASA), Hurry says he has gleaned a well-rounded view of the Tufts student body. “If there is one common factor of every Tufts student, I’d say it’s passion—for the things they study, for the things they love, and for the things their friends are passionate about,” Hurry announces on his tours.

This Tufts passion means that Tufts students have opinions. Most recently, Tufts students have been interacting and communicating their opinions via anonymous social media sites like YikYak, which accumulates posts by location, and the Tufts Confessions Facebook page, started in 2013 by a previous Tufts student. Posts feature student voices on everything ranging from the new two-ply toilet paper in the academic buildings, to the 2016 presidential race, to the student protests at Mizzou, reflecting both the playfulness of Tufts students and their ability to debate current social issues seriously.

While some posts receive validating comments, others are criticized for their naiveté: on November 12, for example, one YikYak user wrote, “Let’s take a moment, amid the racism going on in schools elsewhere, to appreciate the caring and accepting environment we have proudly created here at Tufts.” The post received 71 up-votes and over 40 comments within five hours—some blatantly disagreeing with the original poster, others echoing the same sentiment.

However, the fiery passion displayed online has not been continued offline by student publications, says junior Zach Merchant, who believes the primary purpose of a student newspaper is to “facilitate conversations.” While other schools’ newspapers “manage to engage in productive discussions over sensitive topics,” said Merchant, “at Tufts, it seems, those discussions are carried out more on YikYak and Tufts Confessions than in The Daily.” By identifying this growing trend, Merchant submits it to inquiry: why do Tufts students communicate through anonymous online forums and, subsequently, what are the effects?

While Merchant does not deny the positive attributes of anonymous discourse—such as the opportunity for people normally marginalized in conversations to participate—he admits, “It’s tough to feel good about chiming in when the conversation is often centered around anonymous social platforms.” When the discussion exists only within the anonymous realm of social media, participants cannot be held accountable, nor can there be a follow-up discussion in person. Merchant insists that student publications must pick up this slack and continue the conversation by inviting and encouraging formal, public discourse in their content, potentially in the form of letters to the editor or responses through additional articles.

Despite Merchant’s opinion, Tufts students continue to participate in online discussions over student publications. Junior Ashleigh Baker told the Tufts Observer in an email that when she wants to post “something very personal—something race related perhaps,” she prefers to use Facebook as an outlet. Judging student publications as indicative of only “the beliefs of the herd [of] Tufts students [who] like to agree with each other.” Baker said she wants to avoid being “over-edited.”

Baker formed her opinion of student publications last spring when the Tufts Labor Coalition (TLC) protests, which received a lot of publicity from students both online and in print, took place after the Black Lives Matter demonstrations on campus. Because the Black Lives Matter movement was “on [her] mind everyday” and Baker is “conscious of [her] skin color in every situation at this school,” she was disappointed in Tufts students who did not seem to have the same passion for the Black Lives Matter movement that they did during the TLC protests. Unfortunately she refrained from sharing her opinion outside of small groups “because synchronized opinions are hard to break apart.” She feels that unless they are dedicated to seeking out opposing opinions, Tufts students typically remain unchallenged.

Expanding on Baker’s observations, Hurry cited the student population’s passion as a reason why Tufts students seem to shut down in the face of opposing viewpoints. “Tufts students are often thoughtlessly reactionary,” Hurry said in an email. Based on observations of his own friends’ status updates and pages like Tufts Confessions, Hurry believes he has identified a trend in the student body: “We’re quick to run to Facebook for some quick validation, get it, and then use that fuel against anyone who opposes our views…educated and reasoned as [they] may be.”

While Hurry encourages the use of social media as a tool to “spread awareness” about important issues, he believes that problems arise when people refuse to see the value in an opposing opinion. “Somehow immorality is conflated with having a differing opinion,” Hurry observed. He says this prevents us from engaging in productive arguments. If students were “to read an article that is diametrically opposite to what we think of the issue,” for example, and in turn to “take the time to let a complex issue marinate,” Hurry believes that arguments could be more productive. Instead, he says disapprovingly, arguments online tend to devolve into nothing more than “Facebook comment pissing matches.”

Student Nik Dean attributed this ruthlessness of online culture to “sheer human nature.” He explained to the Tufts Observer, “people are more brutal on anonymous sites…[because] people are more willing to be mean when no one knows it was them.” Behind a screen, regardless of anonymity, debaters are further distanced from the emotions of their opponents than when interacting face-to-face, allowing a “harsh and mean” culture to exist “without penalty.”

According to junior Quinn Metoyer, it is this aspect of social media that turns him away from online discussions—“the chance of being publicly humiliated [by] a rebuttal.” Metoyer commented, just as “people are hesitant to share their views on social media because it’s such a large population,” students in the classroom show lower confidence in their questions and thoughts when among more classmates.

Metoyer’s observations make connections between the social media culture upon which our generation thrives and our interactions in person, connections of whose existence most of us are aware but cannot yet put our fingers on. As with any form of communication, there are trade-offs to these anonymous forums and social media communities, trade-offs that we as pioneers in the technological revolution are beginning to weigh.

As Tufts students, we understand the activists, debaters, and intellectuals who graduated before us through both their actions and the media through which they communicated. But as millennials, we do not yet understand the full effects of our social media culture. The silence of students like Merchant and Baker introduces us to social media’s negative attributes, and Hurry believes online forums allow Tufts students to be thoughtlessly reactionary. Metoyer’s experiences in the classroom are the first of many that reflect our online habits in the academic world—how else do the two cultures interact? The beauty of social media, and perhaps its greatest downfall, is its ability to change with its users; this means, however, that when we graduate, our Facebook profiles disappear from campus too, leaving future classes without any evidence of our thoughts, debates, or progress. Therefore, we must consider the best arenas for honest, open, public discussions about the campus that we have only four years to change.

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