Anonymity Shapes the Whitman Encounters Community

Evan Taylor

There’s only one place on campus where you can find declarations of love among intellectual discussion, where cackling trolls hide out under a bridge called diversion and where faceless people debate the merits of facelessness.

Whitman Encounters, a website created and facilitated by Whitman students, provides an open discourse through anonymous posts by users. The site––––allows for anyone, within or outside of the Whitman community, to view the various issues brought up in posts, ranging in topic from sex to Halloween costumes.

The website was created in February of 2012, with the goal of giving Whitman community members a space to voice critical topics they may otherwise keep silent.

“We saw a need on campus that wasn’t being fulfilled,” said one of the creators of the website, who serves as the site’s administrator. “The problem is this ‘Whitman nice.’ Everyone at Whitman is really nice, and that creates a problem because it’s not seen as authentic. We wanted to create a space where it would be possible for people to voice the things that they repress in order to maintain that niceness, and to say what everyone needs to hear, which is pretty far from really being spoken about publicly.”

The administrator preferred to remain anonymous because the website’s success depends on anonymity and disassociation with any individual.

The anonymity of the website is a key component for the type of vulnerability and honesty that occurs.

“If you were wearing a mask standing up in front of an audience of 700 people, you would never say half of the things that people say when they go on [Encounters],” said the site’s administrator. “Insecurities need to be voiced. Someone who is insecure about something can talk about it with other people that are in their community anonymously. They can get affirmation and find that there are other people with that insecurity or that it’s unfounded. Ultimately there are a lot of people who are actually on the same page and just never have the occasion to find out.”

However, the effects of anonymity are two-sided. While some find the courage to be honest and vulnerable through anonymity, others find a boldness to be crude and spiteful.

“It is very easy to get lost in the anonymity and the facelessness of the Internet. The anonymity of it has provided an opportunity for people to give harsher responses to topics that are important to certain people than they would in person, which sparks interesting debate,” said senior Nik Hagen. “Another danger of it is the removal of personal interaction. You get into these realms of objectification of certain people. It provides an opportunity for people to have some hurtful things said about them or be talked about without them knowing in a very public forum which could [be] embarrassing or uncomfortable, or perhaps even produce a feeling of not being safe.”

Another aspect of anonymity is demonstrated by the experiences of first-year student Colin Ogilvie, a poster on Encounters known as “Colin O” who was impersonated by other users on the website sometimes in a malicious fashion.

“By definition it’s a crime. Personally I don’t care. I’m strongly against it in theory and if there was a way to do it, I would suggest that legal action should be taken because it is a crime. But I kind of find it more flattering and entertaining in this sense,” said Ogilvie. “This is the problem with this Whitman Encounters in general: A large majority of the posters on this have not experienced life in the real world.”

Ogilvie finds that the site’s discussions relate mostly to dating and sexuality, so as a place for these topics, he created a dating website, Sweet Encounters–– Despite the parody of the name of the dating site, Ogilvie intends to improve and manage it seriously. He hopes to get in contact with administrators of Whitman Encounters so that the two sites might merge.

“For what they created [Encounters] to be, it’s rather weak,” said Ogilvie. “It’s very much weakened when it is used for ‘I like you. You don’t know who I am, I don’t know who you are, I still like you.’ That’s fine, but it gets annoying when it’s a lot of it. It has the potential to be so much more. A potential tab on Encounters could be the Sweet Encounters website for the Whitman dating scene. It would be nice to merge the two sites, but it depends on what the admins want. Rather than having two [sites], you would have just one. It’s the same target audience, but just a different purpose.”

Along with some of the faceless dangers of anonymity, there is the opportunity for intellectual discussion and debate concerning current issues within the community. Encounters conversations start with a post from a user, then other users comment on the original post, which sometimes leads viewers to talk about it with their friends. If a big topic is brought up on the site, most of the Whitman community will hear about it, whether or not they are a regular visitor of the site.

“If something happens on campus and it’s written about and there’s this massive communal discourse, even though it’s anonymous people are still reading and considering those ideas and opinions,” said the site’s administrator. “It doesn’t matter who says them; it matters whether or not they get said at all. Someone who doesn’t necessarily have a venue to express themselves publicly can voice their opinion and it carries its own weight. People don’t pay attention to it because of who’s saying it; they pay attention to it because it’s worth paying attention to, and I think that’s the value of anonymity.”

Dean of Students Chuck Cleveland noted that the title of the website, so close to that of the first-year core class, presents an issue.

“My biggest disappointment with the website is not necessarily the content but the fact that it’s called Whitman Encounters,” said Cleveland. “If you are somebody external to the college and you are curious about the academic program that involves Encounters and you Google it, you’re going to get the first 10 or 15 related to that site. For people who aren’t familiar with college campuses, or for people who are trying to make decisions, it may make a negative impression. In that sense, I’m disappointed that it couldn’t have been named something else.”

However, Cleveland appreciates the open dialogue of the website, and sees it as a potential resource.

“Free exchange is a positive thing in general for the college, so I’m not so bothered by the content. But some of the people I talk to aren’t crazy about all the topics,” said Cleveland. “I thought it was a good idea to check in on it on occasion because you get an idea of what’s on students’ minds. I’m not approaching it from the idea of policing it; I’m approaching it from the idea of ‘What are students talking about? What’s on their minds? What issues are coming up?’ From my point of view, I’ve encouraged many of my staff to check in on it on occasion. Probably wouldn’t hurt admissions to do the same thing.”

Anyone, including parents and prospective students, can look at the website if they hear about it. The website’s openness to the public and the possible impression the website could make of Whitman College has not been discussed in the Office of Admissions.

“[The website] really hasn’t been at all relevant to our office and isn’t something that prospective students have brought to our attention,” said Assistant Director of Admission Robert Street in an email.

Users of Whitman Encounters may not realize the popularity of the website. According to the site’s administrator, an estimated one-third of the Whitman community uses the website, and there are 700 weekly users of the website. Depending on the day of the week, there can be anywhere up to 500 unique visitors. There also show to be peaks of activity on the site during times of stress and procrastination––Sunday evenings show a consistent height in activity.

Despite the purposeful intentions of the website, as portrayed by the creator and website’s manifesto, many people don’t take it too seriously.

“I use it mostly as entertainment value,” said senior Katie Chapman. “People get a false sense of security from it, thinking that it’s a private Whitman site, and it’s really not. You have to realize that there are people outside the Whitman community that are probably reading it. It’s not like it’s a secret.”

Managers of the website aren’t keen on censoring content. In fact, many flagged posts will be reinstated because they are judged as acceptable. The belief is that it is more beneficial for topics to be presented freely. However, posts that are completely unpleasant without any useful issues backing them will be flagged and deleted, along with posts concerning vulnerable information about a specific person, slandering individuals, business promotions, recycled content from other websites or “trolling” posts, all of which are posted frequently.

A “troll” is usually a provocative post that leads away from the original topic and tends to irritates users. There are some common trolls that frequently post on Whitman Encounters––such as the user who goes by “Voice of Reason”––which either instigate more rage from serious posters or provide entertainment for those seeking it.

“It’s a fine line to walk between taking things too seriously and having fun with it and poking fun at people,” said Hagen. “It is a lighthearted, somewhat meaningful website that exists, and as long as it doesn’t become this incredibly creepy website full of very angry people, I think it’s fine.”

Although views of the website range from seriousness to entertainment value to irrelevance, the site’s administrator hopes that the website and its users progress as they take it more seriously.

“It provides the opportunity to widen the campus discourse of any given issue. The potential has only been grazed and I think that over time, hopefully the site will continue to grow in the way that it’s used [and] continue to change as people take it more seriously,” said the site’s administrator. “If people write with full knowledge of how many people are going to read it and they write carefully and with the intent of actually calling on their peers to consider something, think about something, judge for themselves, then we [can] actually have a much more honest and trusting and productive community.”