Anonymous hate and crippling workloads: is the strain of running a confessions page doing more harm than good, or is it worth it for the closest community of students we have?
University confessions pages are a staple amongst many of the UK's institutions, from Oxbridge to the big cities up North to our own campus here at Surrey; students love the opportunity to share embarrassing anecdotes and calls for advice anonymously to a large portion of the student body. Whilst many students see the posts as simply a way to engage with our community or a place for a quick laugh, behind every post is an admin, slaving tirelessly away, at the potential cost of their degree.
If you somehow missed the memo, SurreyFess is a Facebook page where students from the University of Surrey can submit personal confessions anonymously, allowing other students to comment and react in response. However, in February earlier this year the admin of the page announced they would be closing it down since they no longer had ties to Surrey after graduating.
As a result, there was an outcry amongst students, with the crying emoticon being the most popular reaction on the announcement post. SurreyFess has been there through exam seasons, nights out, and it's even helped provide people with advice when at their lowest points. It is arguably the strongest community of Surrey students that we have; it is our collective inside joke, and so it is unsurprising that the very thought of the closure of the page seemed impossible. Thankfully, a new admin came to the rescue at the end of March, saving the page and with it our hopes of remaining connected.
The original admins closure announcement post from the 9th February
Unfortunately over the past week the site has taken a darker tone, with regular commenters receiving harassment online, students being banned from the site, and racist posts being submitted en masse anonymously. The admin handling all of these issues, as well as the usual confessions, is a student just like we are, and we often forget how much can happen in the background. I spoke to both the original and the new admin of SurreyFess to provide an insight into what really goes on behind the confessions.
Unlike other university confessions pages, SurreyFess is a relatively recent creation, starting in July 2018 and taking off instantly: by the end of the first week the page already had around 1,500 likes - a huge success.
"The page became much more popular than I'd imagined for sure," the original admin tells me. "Over a year and a half I posted somewhere close to 34,000 posts - I still find it surprising that I've reviewed that many - and when you include rejections, it's probably closer to 40,000-45,000 posts.
"I think one of the main reasons it was a hit was that there was a constant flow of content: you'd have a few new posts every hour, so it was something that you could always check in lectures, or when you woke up, and still see something new."
With a constant flow of content being published onto the page it's easy to forget that there's someone behind it all, reading and accepting (or rejecting) each post. It's important to remember that this student was not just a first year looking to fill up those wasted days spent hung over; the original SurreyFess admin was a final year student with a degree to complete - and then following graduation, a working adult with responsibilities.
With this in mind, I asked whether it affected their university experience at all. "It definitely did. Keeping posts running to the page 24/7 meant that I had to approve and queue on a really regular basis, which was almost always daily. I'd usually split it up throughout the day, at times that meant queuing posts in lectures, when I was trying to study, or right before sleeping.
"I felt a pressure to stay on top of it too, so if I'd queued posts it was always on my mind that I had to find more time before the queue emptied to approve more submissions."
At the height of its success, the admin had to review around 160 submissions per day. It's almost shameful to imagine that we would send impulsive posts whilst drunk, bored or to off-load anonymously, and the SurreyFess admin was having to rifle through each one every day for over 18 months.
The admin tells me that they didn't have any help day-to-day; it genuinely has always been a one-person passion project. When it came to the more controversial posts, however, the admin did have people to reach out to and help determine the suitability of a submission. There is a responsibility that comes hand-in-hand with having a following of that scale, and the admin shared that learning what posts to reject came with time.
"Anything that went onto the page had this potential to spread really quickly, so it was making sure you weren't going to cause anyone trouble for what was posted. Admittedly, a lot of what I learnt also came from people asking to take down posts that were either insensitive or inappropriate and had slipped past me, or they were about themselves and they didn't want their initials associated with it publicly.
"I think what made me step up with filtering and censoring posts the most was losing the initial page when a link to a cam site slipped through in one post. The page was run on a backup account which I was locked out of, and rather than make a new account, I ran the page off my main Facebook account, so I really didn't want to lost that. I found I got stricter with filtering posts over time."
It is here that we remember the cost of anonymity on the internet. It's a potentially dangerous game to play, allowing anyone to say anything with no consequences. Trolling has been an issue on the internet since its inception, and a solution has never been found - surely an anonymous outlet with this much reach could have devastating repercussions.
And indeed, it can. Whilst SurreyFess' experience of a post slipping through that linked to a cam site is one thing, over the past week the number of racist comments and attempted posts have escalated rapidly. Unfortunately, this is not the first case of hate crime on a university confessions page, as Exeter university's 'ExeHonestly' experienced something similar at the end of last year.
In November 2019 an ambiguous racist post, sharing numbers associated with the Nazis, was published onto the page that had 13,000 likes at the time. As a result the Police Hate Crime Department were contacted by the university to deal with the incident, and in a statement the admins declared that they would be closing down the page in its entirety, although they attributed that to feeling overwhelmed with the workload and pressure associated with running the page, rather than the scandal that had taken place.
Thus we can see the two primary concerns for admins running these confessions pages that we love: anonymous hate crime and impossible workload. When I spoke to the new admin a few weeks ago, they were yet to experience either of these, with more time to approve posts due to lockdown, and the reintroduction of a ban on political posts being their biggest hurdle so far.
"Ultimately I think SurreyFess should be a positive place to share funny confessions, so I understood where people were coming from [when they complained about the influx of political posts] and put it to a vote," the new admin explained. "Although most people were relieved political fesses were banned, there were still a number of people angrily DM-ing the page over the decision. You can't please everyone I guess!"
Interestingly, in an interview with The Exeter Tab, the ExeHonestly admins declared they would not take any blame for the racist post being shared on their page, due to them being unaware of its meaning and thus having no malicious intentions with its publication. The incident, and particularly this refusal of blame, highlights the responsibility that admins have over their university's confessions pages. Despite the content being submitted by students across campus, the responsibility will almost always be linked back to the admin, and perhaps that is a strong argument for keeping political confessions away from SurreyFess.
However the removal of political confessions has not guaranteed SurreyFess to be a safe space. The admin has had to ban one student for white supremasist comments, and on the 24th May they posted an 'AdminFess' revealing that regular commenters had been in touch to say they were receiving insulting messages and harassment online. Once again, we see the admin, one of our peers, be sought after to resolve an issue much larger than that of political debate. It's a thought which adds pressure to this volunteering student, but perhaps a necessary pressure to ensure that they won't be afraid of taking action. Maybe this is why the original admin was hesitant in passing the role on; there is a risk and a responsibility that comes with running a page of such a huge scale.
An AdminFess from the new admin reminding users of the page's no hate policy
In regards to the scandal at Exeter university, it was reassuring to hear that the new admin of SurreyFess was aware of the incident and has taken some important lessons away that they can implement into their strategy as the new person in charge of SurreyFess.
"I remember reading about that incident. Exeter's confessions page, like all university confessions pages, had the 'no racism/sexism/xenophobia/homophobia/transphobia' guideline, however the post in question was ambiguous and at first place seemed innocent. I think all confessions pages have learned something from this incident which is to Google fesses that don't make sense, just in case. Whenever a fess comes through that references something I'm not familiar with or a name I do not know, I always Google it just to check it's not offensive."
This has certainly been put to the test recently, as they shared another 'AdminFess' on the 30th May announcing that many of the posts from the previous 24 hours had been deleted due to them containing coded racist messages, much like those from the scandal at Exeter university. The admin explained that they had deleted posts that they didn't understand, even after a Google search to be extra safe, showing how the admin has diligently stuck to their word since our interview - what more can a university student do in a situation such as this?
AdminFess posted on Saturday 30th May
Overall, we can see that being admin of a confessions page is a taxing job, but one that seems to be kept alive by the sheer enthusiasm of students towards anonymous sharing. Not long after ExeHonestly announced its closure, a new confessions page ExeFess, now standing at 5,700 likes, was quickly created. After such a serious scandal, why would someone new take up the role so willingly? As our new admin put it, the original SurreyFess admin was "the most iconic faceless BNOC [big name on campus] Surrey has." Maybe, like the superheroes we read in comic books or see on the big Marvel screens, there is something to be said for undercover fame, a sense of secret, humble power to yield over the whole of campus.
What we can say for certain is that confessions pages will be sticking around for as long as admins are willing to tackle the responsibility. I think we can all agree that when done right, the work is worth it in the end. Until now, SurreyFess has always been one of the strongest networks at our university binding us together, and hopefully we'll find that again soon: providing us entertainment mid-lecture, advice in tough times, and for managing to find a way of bringing our often-disconnected campus closer together.