Graduating Administrator Plans Future of ‘Encounters’

Hannah Bartman

Illustration by Katie Emory
Illustration by Katie Emory

Whether it’s for creative expression, brutally honest opinions or sexual curiosity, Whitman Encounters provides a forum for the emotions kept behind doors on campus. It has become a Whitman norm, and with the graduation of the site’s anonymous creator, the fate of the website is put into question.

“[The future of Encounters] is up to everybody that uses it; I’m just as much of a user as anyone else,” said the administrator of Encounters. “I’m the arbiter about what gets posted and what doesn’t, and that task will be passed on.”

The future of Encounters is dependent upon popular demand, and that demand is not lacking, such that the site reaches roughly 1,200 views a day. The small amount of technical and operational work that the supervisors of the site must instate will not affect the future of such a site with their disappearance.

“I try to keep it free of malicious users,” said the administrator. “Most of what I do is reinstating stuff that people have taken down, because the Whitman ‘nice’ pours over even into that.”

Encounters was predated by LikeALittle, a website that focused more on the undercurrent of sexual tension on campus. Posters would specify the hair color and sex of their admired and a short message about them. At Whitman, LikeALittle was receiving up to 100 posts a day before Encounters knocked the website out of its fame.

“I think Encounters can get a little heavy, but LikeALittle was always just fun,” said sophomore Molly Streeter.

Looking back, the administrator saw a fault in this site as being excessively “banal” and “hetero-normative.” Part of Encounters still offers the possibility of sexual relations, but it has a greater nondiscriminatory nature towards gender. Sexual orientation is, most of the time, not presupposed to be strictly heterosexual, and other forms of sexual relations are engaged as well.

The dual ability of Encounters to provide the blanket of anonymity and the social comfort of the possibility of an email address gives students the possibility but also the responsibility to speak blatantly.

“It was a response to a feeling that I got that people don’t feel comfortable actually communicating at this school,” said the administrator. “It’s time to create another place for people to connect and have meaningful discussions without the pretense of reputation and the feigned niceties.”

The administrator created Encounters in February of 2012 partially due to a belief that Whitman has a culture “where niceness is valued more than honesty.” A key component of Encounters was the wish to embrace the true emotions of Whitman students––regardless of their confrontational nature.

Despite this original wish, the administrator believes that Encounters subscribers have only reached “five percent” of its potential value.

“I am utterly fascinated by the weird stories that people have to share and I feel like it’s so rare to hear them, especially on Encounters. You have to wade through a lot of posts to get to those few actual thoughtful tidbits, but it’s worth it to me,” said the administrator.

The quirky and love-starved posts do get their share of activity, but Encounters has opened new channels of communication for students––especially Whitman’s queer community. The site’s creator remarked that earlier in the year a group of students mentioned a Queer Girls Club, recruiting students who might not have heard of the club otherwise.

Encounters also offers an interesting perspective for discussions that are difficult to sustain without the anonymity factor that the site provides. One recent post opened a discussion on Whitman’s view on “race and/or racism.”

“I frequently feel that the Whitman community is trying to challenge me to talk about race more, but at the same time, the more I talk/think about it, the more likely I am to say something that will offend someone,” said an anonymous poster on Encounters.

Race is a topic that can promote perceived prejudices simply by the identity of the opinionated. Encounters provides discussion without knowledge of a poster’s identity; his or her sex, history, race, sexual orientation or reputation is unacknowledged and unknown to the ensuing virtual crowd. This provides discussion to be based simply upon the content of the post and not about the integrity of the poster. A personal offense to one’s identity cannot be felt because a disagreement is based on an argument.

In this way, the administrator believes that discussion is encouraged in a way that it usually is not on campus.

“What good is an intellectual community if you never talk about anything intellectual?” said the administrator.

However, some Whitman students find that the anonymity granted with the site offers the opposite effect.

“It saddens me that Encounters functions as a place for people to vent their emotions anonymously because it might discourage them from seeking help in the real world. There’s only so much that you can do on an online forum,” said first-year Ellen Ivens-Duran. “I don’t think it sparks really open and honest dialogue all the time. It’s not productive.”

The nature of this kind of site––its honesty of the truth behind Whitman’s student encounters––is an element that will not disappear from Whitman culture. The fate of Encounters, or a site like it, is unknown but relies on the student body’s inevitable demand for this unique type of outlet.

“The whole point of the site is to generate the possibility of a different kind of encounter, romantic or intellectual,” said the administrator, looking back on the progress of the website. “It should be a kind of encounter that can engender sincerity and growth: the growth that comes from surprise and difference.”