Seventh Annual International Symposium on Digital Ethics →

Confession Ethics

  • AuthorNora Dunne
  • Published Tuesday, March 18th, 2014
  • Comments6

Do you want to hear a secret? Can I confess something to you?

It’s a rare person who can turn down such an opportunity, the chance to hear a deep, dark and — one can only hope — excruciatingly intimate revelation.

Print publishers have capitalized on this aspect of human nature. Cosmopolitan magazine promises that “readers share their most shocking stories and steamiest secrets” on its “Cosmo Confession” page, and Seventeen’s regular feature “Traumarama” says, “You’ll laugh out loud (or cringe).” In a way, “Dear Abby” advice columns, where readers divulge personal problems under pseudonyms, are cut from the same cloth.

It’s no wonder, then, that the Internet has become a mecca for people who don’t want to keep their private thoughts to themselves.

Consider the PostSecret website, which exhibits anonymous secrets mailed on artsy homemade postcards. On March 9: “My mother only sleeps with married men. I’ve lost all respect for her.” “Telling people I’m an atheist is going to be WAY harder than coming out ever was!” and “I make both our lunches every day—But I only wash my apple!” Since 2005, the project has racked up millions of secrets, even more site visits, five books and speaking tours for its creator and curator, Frank Warren.

Despite some heavy secrets throughout the years — about suicide, abortion, betrayals, you name it — the project has avoided major controversy, and there’s no public evidence of lawsuits.

For a brief time, Warren opened a comments feature on the website, but he ultimately decided to disable it. He explained his reasoning in an interview with Mediabistro:

“Some of [the comments] were very harsh and judgmental, and I didn’t want people to feel like they couldn’t trust me with their secrets, that the place wouldn’t be safe any longer,” Warren said. A short-lived PostSecret app had the same fate, for the same reason.

Warren’s philosophy about comments is not universal. Especially when those pages reside on social networks, like Facebook, Twitter or Reddit, where comments are a defining part of the user experience.

Confession websites are popular, in particular, among college communities. A PostSecret could come from anyone in the world. But on a college confessions page, the scandalous disclosures come from people that share your location and experiences, people you might know. It’s an alluring premise.

Usually, enterprising (or maybe just nosy) students create these pages on social networks. They share a link to a Google form or a survey tool. Confessors use that link to submit their messages anonymously for the site administrator to post, thus preserving their identities. The administrator might publish every message received or selectively decide which ones to show the public.

I searched for my alma mater’s confessions page on Facebook and found a wide variety of secrets spilled in the last month. There are comical laments about campus amenities (“I find it extremely frustrating that they have grapefruit in the dining hall and no serrated spoons for it”), tender pleas to humanity (“Somebody love me”), vehement statements about ethnic conflict (“All the Jews on this campus who are fighting for human rights in support of Israel need to stop being naive”) and some posts not technically confessions at all, but instead frank words of encouragement (“ya’ll should be your goddamn fabulous selves”). Many covered stereotypical college topics: brief anecdotes about sex, partying, smoking pot; complaints about classes, professors and roommates. Some funny, others sad and many vulgar.

A site’s middleman — that administrator — might censor revelations that are obviously made up, or ones that are particularly derogatory. But that task is subjective. There’s no doubt that some confessions, especially ones that touch on topics like gender, race and ethnicity, will offend lots of readers. Also potentially contentious are the comments. Interestingly, on a site like Facebook, users can’t comment anonymously; their name is attached to whatever they say. But that doesn’t always make people censor their responses to confessions.

Media outlets have suggested that these sites can be venues for hurtful discourse and even cyberbullying, causes for concern for university officials. Colleges can block them from appearing on campus networks, but they can’t delete third-party websites or stop students from accessing them off the school network.

However, when minors are involved, as with high school confessions pages, schools and parents have more control. Many anti-bullying laws cover cyberbullying (sometimes phrased as “electronic” forms of bullying), usually when it targets juveniles in or around schools. These laws can give administrators grounds to ask social networks to control or remove confession sites.

According to its community standards page, Facebook will “take action on all reports of abusive behavior directed at private individuals.” The company also says it will “remove content and may escalate to law enforcement when we perceive a genuine risk of physical harm, or a direct threat to public safety.”[i]

But in general, the First Amendment protects students contributing to confession pages. Colleges may worry that these websites are bad for their brand, but they can’t stop students from writing about their escapades and controversial opinions in the public sphere.

Contributors do have to be careful about identifying others in their confessions or comments. It’s a guideline many of these sites establish outright. It’s a smart move from a legal standpoint.

Say someone reveals a secret about a specific person. If the statement can be proven defamatory — false and damaging to one’s reputation — then the victim could sue for libel. Even if the statement is technically true, if the identified person interprets it as verbal assault, harassment or intimidation, they can pursue legal action against the confessor.

A site administrator’s promise to preserve anonymity is not always a guarantee in these scenarios. Even through anonymous submission forms, investigators can sometimes trace IP addresses.

Madison Confessions, which claims to be the “largest college confessions page in the nation” explains this explicitly. Its submission form outlines several rules for its University of Wisconsin-Madison users, including “Never state specific names” and “Don’t confess about anything extremely illegal.”

The website doesn’t live on a social network; it’s privately hosted, with a lengthy terms of use agreement. Among other provisions, the contract states, “We reserve the right to disclose any information in our possession if required to do so by law or in the good faith belief that such action is necessary.”

It’s interesting to consider hypotheticals — defamation lawsuits, murder admissions — but the vast majority of submissions don’t enter such territory. Perhaps the solution to more common quandaries, such as outcry over crude secrets and offensive comments, is to ignore the sites. People who are oversensitive shouldn’t visit the sites. College administrators shouldn’t give them attention and, by extension, press coverage. It’s an over-simplified resolution, but one that could subdue many critics.

Warren, of PostSecret, has said that confessing secrets can be therapeutic; it’s a way to connect people. That connection between writers and readers is a point for ethical consideration itself. Will college students with literally life-altering confessions, like thoughts of suicide or stories about abuse, turn to these websites for a cure to their anguish? Will support from classmates through comments provide the help these confessors really need?

Nora Dunne is a Chicago-based freelance writer and full-time editor whose work has appeared in the Boston Globe Sunday Magazine, The Christian Science Monitor, Metro newspapers and Kirkus Reviews. She earned a bachelor’s degree in journalism from Boston University in 2010.

6 Responses to “Confession Ethics”

  1. Emily W. says:

    I actually cringed when reading Meghan Murphy’s comments about Twitter. To say that a forum where ideas and articles are shared and talked about is “divisive, hurtful, unrepresentative and bad for
    feminism” is misinformed. Yes, social media is a breeding ground for ignorant comments, hate speech, and bullying, but this is a result of the vast amount of ideas and opinions being communicated in such a public space. Much of my knowledge of feminist, LGBTQ*, and other issues are in fact due to the
    information and articles shared on social media. I have partaken in many a movement and discussion online in order to better educate others about the injustices happening in the world. I have seen my fair share of negativity online, but that is what happens when so many differing opinions come into contact with each other. Like the author asserts, Murphy is attacked because she is controversial, not because they don’t respect her. To me, it is unfair to write off a forum filled with so much power to change the world just because there are people who disagree with you. If done in a polite and educated manner, one can even learn from opponents; if someone points out another’s abuse of privilege, they can learn from their mistake and not repeat it again. Many times online I have been asked to check my privilege, and in certain cases, I learned more about a topic or issue because someone disagreed with me. There are always going to be people in the world who are unfair or mean or cruel; it makes no sense to blame technology for fostering these negative actions. People define social media both positively and negatively, not the other way around.

  2. Arianna says:

    Nora Dunne’s article on confessions is very relevant to today’s culture. With the boom of social media, confession sites are becoming more and more popular. I’m an avid reader of the “confession page” Post Secret and I definitely agree with Frank Warren that the secrets can be therapeutic for the author as well as the reader. In many cases, it allows the reader to feel connected to others in sharing very personal experiences or secrets that are not usually openly discussed in society. It also provides an emotional release for the author to anonymously share something that’s been weighing on him or her. I think that in this situation, a confession forum like Post Secret is completely ethical. However, confession pages on college campuses can be a very different story. On Loyola’s “LUC Secrets” page, there have been secrets that are blatantly illegal and/or offensive. I think only the seriously illegal or harmful submissions should be reported/removed, but I don’t think that these pages are unethical. I agree with Dunne that people who are oversensitive should steer clear of these sites and college administrators should leave them be. College admins shouldn’t infringe on their student’s expression or freedom of speech, regardless of whether or not it taints the college’s image.

  3. Nabeel Hasan says:

    don’t think the contributors of confession pages or websites have any ethical
    problems with it and the moderators of these websites operate the way they
    should. I believe the websites are
    intended for entertainment, to relate to other people’s habits and to share
    weird and unusual thoughts. The comments
    can be inappropriate and very strange on these confession pages, but isn’t that
    partially the purpose of the website?
    The identities of the contributors are protected, however, the website
    or page knows who said the comment. As
    long as the website doesn’t reveal the contributor’s identities, I don’t think
    there’s any ethical dilemma with that. The
    contributors should know that they’re voluntarily posting their thoughts and should
    post their comments knowing that they can have an affect on others. I’ve seen a Facebook confession page for a
    certain university and the comments weren’t cruel. They were funny to me and I didn’t see any
    comments that raised offensive issues. Nevertheless,
    racist statements or comments bullying a certain person should never be published
    on a website or page. I think the
    moderators need to monitor those kinds of comments and make sure they don’t get
    posted. Also, any comments with specific
    people’s names should be deleted or not used in the pages. If someone’s identity is revealed, then they
    can be very upset because most of these websites promise to keep their identities
    a secret. Most of the contributors
    wouldn’t be posting on confessions pages without that condition because some of
    their comments can be embarrassing and impact their reputations. Overall, I don’t have any problems with the confession

  4. angelic venegas says:

    I personally love the Postsecret stuff. I don’t think these are harmful in anyway.
    Some are funny and weird but it sucks when
    you read a sad one, saying “I cut myself.” You forget that these aren’t just
    made up secrets, some might but when you read one with real issues on them it
    makes you feel uncomfortable. I still don’t think it’s unethical through, it
    probably felt good to get that secret out even if it is anonymous and you probably
    won’t be receiving feedback. I don’t know if it’s ever happened but if the
    Postsecret got a, “I’m going to kill myself here and at this time,” then they
    would have a problem. I would feel implied to do something but with an anonymous
    sender how do you do anything? My guess would be they wouldn’t publish that
    secret but that would put an unwanted guilt in my stomach if I received that secret.
    The confession sites are interesting. I’m a junior in college and I ran into my
    first confessions page. I’m a transfer student and I overheard some kids
    talking about LUC love notes. I had no idea what it was so I had to check it
    out. It’s through Facebook but people send things to the administrator (I have
    no idea who that is) and they post their love note on the Facebook walk of
    someone you thought was cute or a “shout out to the cute guy who head the door
    open for me.” Those seem harmless besides the self-esteem of no one ever writing
    about you. But there was another one I didn’t get the name of but a student
    wrote horrible things about one of my professors and a lot of people read it
    and how nasty it was. The harmful confession pages are the ones I think are
    unethical because you are intentionally listing someone’s name and then bashing
    them to whoever has access to the website.

  5. Olivia Mavec says:

    This article reminds me of dorm life, freshman year. I lived on an all-girls floor in the smallest form on campus. Only 3 floors. The other 2 floors were all-boys. It seemed that there was an issue of forming a community on the all-girls floor. The floor was in the shape of a U. My roommate and I happened to be right in the middle of that U. The two opposite sides of the U never mingled. Because of this, our RA thought it would be a good idea to create a PostSecret bulletin board right across the hall from my and my roommate’s room. It confuses me to this day as to why she thought that was a good idea. Maybe she thought the posting of very personal secrets would create bonding moments for all of the girls on the floor? I can only guess that was her intention. I thought this was a terrible idea because, in my own experience, once you give girls the opportunity to talk trash on others anonymously, they will do so. Apparently a group of the girls had been bullying one girl throughout the whole semester and they took the opportunity to post horrible, reputation-damaging secrets about this girl on the PostSecret board. From there, it spiraled into an “east coast-west coast” civil war between the two sides of the floor. My roommate and I were right in the middle of the floor so we honestly had no idea of what was truly going on between the two sides. And I thank God to this day I never got wrapped up in all of that drama. It turned out that this group of girls came forward about it in a hall meeting and all was resolved. Yes, I think the idea of a place where people can go tell their secrets as a means for therapeutic release is an amazing one. But, that is what a therapist is for. To share one’s secrets in a public setting is giving others the opportunity to scope you out and use you to their benefit if they wish you ill. One must be extremely careful of what you share to the public. You may think you are anonymous but, there are definite means to crack that anonymity. I believe people should become more introspective and seek private therapy before telling deep secrets to the world.

  6. lcola says:

    I go to school at Loyola of Chicago.
    Loyola has its fair share of secret confessional boards such as LUC love notes and LUC Sexcapades and a few others. These Facebook pages are in my
    opinion safe and harmless if not crude. Intimate details are posted about ones
    Love life and secret crushes. As
    identified in this essay, however these secret confessionals are in no way harmful
    since one has the choice to view or not view them. Yes someone may be mentioned
    in them but these are typically confessions of a personal nature and rarely if
    ever defame someone else’s name. I do not in anyway think these Webpages are
    unethical and am in accordance with the articles view. In addition the
    confession of secrets can by therapeutic as this essay claims and I agree with.
    With so many problems in the world one more place to vent about life in general
    cannot be detrimental in my view. One more shoulder to cry on or in this case
    confess on is not an unethical or unneeded addition to this world.

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