The Blessing and Curse of Anonymity: CollegeACB

20 11 2010

It seems increasingly common these days to read editorials and columns in the Daily Sun that reference the extremely controversial website CollegeACB (Anonymous Confession Board). That and the alcoholic energy drink Four Loko seem to be the two things that dominate the collegiate news articles this semester (personally, all the news I hear about the drink just makes me more tempted to try it, but I don’t find myself at convenience stores often enough to remember to do so). Reading through the threads on the CollegeACB Cornell page is like a lesson in everything that is “wrong” with people; the website is well-known for its tirades that seem to know no ethical bounds, which include posts that are racist, anti-Semitic, sexist, classist, fetishist and all sorts of other comments that play up the darker side of human character.

I think most people who are on the internet these days have seen something like this before. Before CollegeACB, it was Juicy Campus, before the internet people made use of public spaces; I think there was a stump that used to be near Olin Libe on the Arts Quad in the late 60s and early 70s that was used extensively for spray-painted or paper-posted anonymous messages. Anonymity gives people the guise of security; their comments can hardly be traced to them unless they write something that clearly indicates it was them, or someone sees them typing and posting onto a forum. The sex columnists (the people may change, but the pattern is familiar) go by initials or self-created nicknames so as to avoid the coming up on the radar of potential employers and put up an extra barrier to protect against unwanted attention. Sure, a lot of folks might have a pretty good idea who the writer is, but unless it can be concretely proven, they can feel somewhat secure.

CollegeACB is a site that I can despise, and in some perverse sense, understand at the same time. I think ad hominem attacks on certain individuals is wrong, but censoring those opinions isn’t exactly the right thing to do either, since people value the concept of “personal freedom” so much. It’s a moral gray area to me; I would never do it myself, but I wouldn’t necessarily take away people’s ability to do it for a site that advertises anonymity as its big asset (I am being a bit hypocritical here; I have prevented a couple offensive comments, both of which were personal attacks because I mocked the now-cancelled Ithaca Olive Garden, from being published here on the blog; I initially okayed them, but I wasn’t comfortable leaving them on the blog and deleted them within hours).

Yet, sometimes that anonymity is what it takes for someone to take their guard down and see what they really think. People at Cornell are just as capable of being racist and homophobic and sexist as anyone else, and while those posts are offensive, and some of them are just grotesque attempts at grabbing attention, I can’t help but think there’s at least an ounce of someone’s personal beliefs in there. Objectionable as those posts may be, they demonstrate that Cornell is not a perfect world, and a lot of the tension that gets swept under the rug publicly will rear its ignorant head if given the opportunity.

In a previous post, I compared finding useful information on that site to finding a diamond in a pile of crap. Occasionally, the guise of anonymity can be helpful, and an honest, valuable opinion that would otherwise been kept silent is voiced. But you never know how much truth there is in a post, so the “diamonds” might just turn out to be pebbles of glass. I think a statement and a little research can go a long way in proving a comment right, but that’s not always possible.

I guess the topic really sticks out to me because of Ithacating in Cornell Heights. This blog is written semi-anonymously, in that although I’ve never written my name once, there’s enough information out there that I write as if the posts had by name on the top of each entry…which defeats the purpose of anonymity. My major reasons for continuing it like this are partly because of routine and partly because I prefer what I write to be dissociated from me.

The posts that make up the site are unpleasant, certainly. But I think it’s more a reflection of the people writing anonymously than the existence of the site itself. Maybe people just hold themselves to a low standard. Maybe I’m holding people, myself included, to a low standard because although I don’t condone it, I accept it.  My view is pessimist because I don’t expect people to hold themselves to higher standards, which that website proves every inflammatory day.

I’m too much of a curmudgeon to put a smiley face on this and write how we should behave better. It would be nice, perhaps, but I think it would be unrealistic as well.



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