Viewpoint Editor, Laura Beveridge, assesses the anonymous Facebook pages used by students at the University of St Andrews to see if they reveal anything about the student culture on campus.
These are strange times. “Unprecedented” has shown itself to be the favoured word of media, governments, and administrators alike to describe our current unstable and uncertain situation both on campus and in the country at large. It appears so often in news headlines and corporate emails telling me that we can work through this together, that I fear it has lost all impact. Yet, despite the “unprecedented” state of constant flux that we have found ourselves suspended in, one entity has stood stalwart through it all, offering a digital reminder that some form of St Andrean social fibre still exists, despite the two metre distance between us at all times. So, while the pandemic may have been able to eradicate the Bop, staying at the pub past 10, or hugging your nan, the one thing that it has failed to rid our community of is its abundance of Facebook pages where students are able to submit their thoughts anonymously.
Over lockdown and the subsequent summer break, I couldn’t help but note that I often found myself scrolling through the aforementioned Facebook pages filled with the crushes and confession of my peers in the moments when I most strongly pined for a return to campus. I believed most of the posts to be largely paltry, yet through reading them I somehow felt like I was keeping up to date with the St Andrews community; validated when I saw a post verbalizing the way I was feeling and re-affirmed whenever I was tagged in the comments by friends. Even pre-pandemic, in times of late-night coursework reading, I’d often find myself surreptitiously glancing at these pages, similar to how one casts their eye over the front page of Heat magazine at a newsagent when they know they should be looking at The Times.
Since returning to campus, it feels like these pages are more active than ever, growing in popularity as new, yet similar, pages emerge (I hate to admit how often I’ve checked How long is the queue outside Pret?). But perhaps the most active of all these pages is St Fessdrews which boasts over 6,500 followers on Facebook, and while not all its followers may be current students, this number equates to roughly 72% of the St Andrews student body.
St Fessdrews was originally set up as a light-hearted page for the posting of anonymous confessions as implied by its tagline “ever to confess”, a play on the University’s motto, but has since morphed into something else entirely. With the death of pages such as St Feuddrews, St Fessdrews has since become a free for all – a void for any and every thought, cry, or gripe to be cast into. Oscar Wilde once said of anonymity: “Give him a mask, and he will tell you the truth,” but does the existence of pages such as St Fessdrews and the content that inhabits them reveal any deeper truths about the collective culture or mindset of St Andrews students? Are they innocuous or impactful? Harmful or helpful?
There’s no doubt that these pages, being as popular as they are, disclose something about our community and, in terms of their impact, we’ve seen both the power that these pages are capable of yielding, and the damage they can inflict. Pages that rely on anonymous submissions aren’t a unique phenomenon to St Andrews. In fact, this article idea was inspired by an analysis of Oxfess in the University of Oxford’s independent student newspaper Cherwell. And, in that article and others like it, the negative aspects of such pages were often brought to light as they were shown to reveal a more serious, darker, or toxic side of student culture. Indeed, the mere act of posting anonymously online is often viewed negatively with the image that springs to mind being that of some nefarious hooded figure, protected by his laptop screen, posting cruel or trolling content.
But rather than just speculate about our own anonymous pages, I wanted some hard evidence to draw any conclusions from. So, I scrolled through a fortnight’s worth of St Fessdrews posts, which amounted to 1167 posts (an average of 83 posts a day), and sorted them all into different categories based on subject matter. Never mind Mark Zuckerberg mining your Facebook activity, a 19-year-old with a Dell laptop and an essay she’s putting off writing is doing it instead.
In what was a much more labour-intensive process than I had originally anticipated, I found that in amongst the uncategorisable masses (a complaint directed towards Tesco for selling their Christmas chocolate in September), a few common topics of discussion emerged.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, the most posted about subject was coronavirus (104). The largest sub-category of these posts consisted of critiques of the University’s response (31): from not allowing in person teaching to allowing in person teaching too soon, from criticising being asked to return to campus to questioning the effectiveness of online learning. Only three posts defended the University’s response, while a further nine posts were dedicated to criticising the Government’s response. The second largest sub-category (18) comprised of questions regarding what is and isn’t allowed under university and Government guidelines. The majority of these questions sought clarification on the rules about having a significant other visit Halls (this in return solicited three posts asking people to stop asking this question). The final notable sub-category on this topic consisted of a plethora of posts articulating the feeling that students were incurring unfair blame for the spread of the virus.
Thoughts regarding this year’s modules constituted 41 posts. While many of these posts were memes about module content, the largest sub-category consisted of students asking for advice or help with module content, accessing resources, or effective tutorial participation (17).
Political posts accounted for 31 posts with the majority of these pertaining to the Conservative and Republican parties, both in support of and critiquing. However, amongst these posts could be found one solitary confession that the anonymous post-er was, in fact, a Lib Dem.
Questions regarding dating and romantic relationships, in particular asking for advice or questioning what is and isn’t acceptable behaviour in a relationship, constituted 43 posts. Fourteen of these related directly to the issue of body image in a continued discourse of anonymous replies.
Furthermore, posts regarding feeling lonely, low, isolated, or losing confidence accounted for 31 posts.
Other note-worthy, though lesser posted about topics, included: adoption (11); societies (20) (indeed, the post with the most comments (110) was about the founding of a Taylor Swift society); SalMap (usually in meme format) (7); 4 posts about an alleged 29kg cat living somewhere in town; discourse on if hall catering has caused strange changes in bowel movements (6); 5 posts criticizing a certain storage company; and last but not least 11 posts regarding Nando’s reopening.
But what can be taken from this? First and foremost, I was glad to discover a lack of “toxic” posts that the media warned these pages often attracted. While there may have been one or two isolated “provocative” comments, no one seemed to be using the mask of anonymity to dish out cruelty as so often is the case online (or at the very least, these posts weren’t getting past the admins).
Perhaps, most noticeably, the categories reveal what topics are important to the student body and deemed worthy of extended discussion via anonymous post after post. Besides the intense concern over the future of Nando’s (I can confirm that it has officially reopened) and a preoccupation with a certain vice-chancellor, it’s no surprise that on a campus where almost every second person you meet studies IR, that politics was a topic highly represented on St Fessdrews.
While it was not unexpected that coronavirus would be the most posted about subject, I hadn’t expected such a large number of these posts to be asking for advice on what is and isn’t allowed under university and government guidelines. I too, on occasion, have found myself confused by the ever-changing rules, and perhaps this trend’s pre-eminence suggests a lack of clarity of communication or succinct direction from the bodies in question.
I was further struck by the number of posts regarding feeling low, lonely, or isolated. Some may argue that this is to be expected, simply a symptom of the pandemic. However, I would argue differently. For the three years that I’ve attended this university, and subsequently been on its anonymous pages, posts voicing loneliness or an inability to find people to reach out to have made constant and steady appearances on my Facebook newsfeed, attesting to the pervasive nature of loneliness as an issue on campus. It appears that other people have noticed this trend too with the establishment of pages by students like St Friendrews and St Safedrews. The founding of these pages, alongside the myriad comments offering a friendly chat or cup of coffee that more often than not reside in the replies to these posts, shows the benefit anonymous posting can offer not only in facilitating the highlighting of such issues, but through creating a platform for their discussion.
On a similar note, the comments from students offering support or genuine advice on posts pertaining to relationships shows that St Fessdrews provides a forum in which people feel safe to share their experiences. However, this could be a double-edged sword as while the anonymity allows people to ask for help, it also removes the possibility of providing them with direct assistance.
While for some the anonymity of St Fessdrews provides an environment in which they feel they can reach out for advice, the motives of other posters are more elusive: perhaps it is the want to elicit a response or the validation felt by having other students agree with your statements, or, possibly it’s even the desire to have a post so popular it gets pinned to the top of the page a la the recent satirical take on the Principal’s emails.
In a journal entry on “the affect of confession”, Anna Poletti wrote of the urge to post anonymously: “the form of the confession is used to normalize a structure of feeling – relief, a feeling of being seen and recognized for who one really is” and added that the advent of these pages was a modern day example of “the knowledge-power formation of confession mapped by Foucault… where subjects confessed to an individual who had the power to heal them by hearing the truth” – or, to put it simply, anonymity offers a safety net, a catharsis of sorts, freeing the individual in their search for affirmation.
However, it’s important to remember that while 72% of the student body may follow St Fessdrews, it’s almost certain that 72% of the student body are not frequent posters to the page, and therefore the discourses had on St Fessdrews shouldn’t be taken as entirely representative of the University – meaning that, maybe, just maybe, the possible presence of a 26kg cat on campus is not the most pressing issue on every student’s mind.
So, while I’m not sure what Oscar Wilde would think of the most recent development in the uses of anonymity, I do feel confident enough to draw the conclusion that the impact of anonymous pages on campus is positive at best and innocuous at worst. So, for now, enjoy scrolling during your procrastination ventures as we all share a collective chuckle over posts about Mapstone’s latest antics.