Email, isawyou, MIT Confessions, and the problem with anonymity

As a member of class council, I have received a variety of rude emails from members of our class: those signed with “dissapointedly yours,” thinly veiled statements about their discontent with this or that, accusations of favoritism, passive-aggressive posts to the class Facebook group. You can never please everyone, but sometimes people just want to complain, not actually change things. On top of these, I’ve received phone calls, text messages, emails, and face-to-face requests for special treatment – asking me to bring friends their tickets, save them a spot, let them order apparel after the deadline – as if I were not an MIT student as busy as themselves. If I were to fulfill these requests from every acquaintance who asked, it would be like having another 12 unit class!

Don’t get me wrong – I love being on class council – it’s extremely rewarding and fun. But being on council has given me a perspective I wouldn’t have otherwise seen here: MIT students don’t do well with anonymous communication. Yes, email is not strictly anonymous, but sending an email to a mailing list of people you don’t know can certainly feel anonymous. Maybe it’s unintentional; we’re busy and sometimes brief emails sound terse and rude. Yet I’m not sure that’s it. I’ve never seen these sorts of emails go out to my department or get sent to me personally. I think students have a general disregard for those they don’t directly know. (Note: I’m not claiming this is unique to MIT students, but I am surprised that some of the brightest, best educated people, who know that those they talk to are part of the MIT student body can be just as vitriolic as those on any online forum)

Don’t believe that? Check out recent isawyou posts, or MIT confessions posts. If you have a little time, read through the MITsexism tumblr. Read the sort of things that students say about each other – knowing that the other posters are members of their own community, even if they don’t know names – is rather disheartening. Since this class is focused on gender and media, looking at anonymity in the context of hateful speech (especially about women and minorities) proves really interesting. Never before online communication has there been such an easy way to remain anonymous to those around you and share your thoughts with thousands of people. And sometimes, I’m not sure that it’s for the best.

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3 thoughts on “Email, isawyou, MIT Confessions, and the problem with anonymity

  1. I can definitely relate to this. This year I was on the exec board of a group that is very dear to my heart. Last semester, we were getting so many disrespectful, disheartening, anonymous feedback responses that we ended up having to remove the survey. The crazy part for us was having to give a presentation to our group, in which members should have similar values, and explain why we could no longer accept any anonymous feedback. Anonymity is so often just a vehicle for people to be uncensored and hateful. I think it affected everyone on the board very personally.

    And unrelated, I had never heard of the MITsexism tumblr. No words 😦

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    • The first time I somehow ended up on the MIT sexism page, I actually went back and searched some of the posts because I just couldn’t believe that students were saying things like that. I wanted it to be fabricated or pulled out of context, but nope – they really sound like that.

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  2. This is a really good point and I’m glad you brought it up. Something about anonymity seems to bring out the worst of people–or maybe it’s just bleed-over from the culture of online trolling. I definitely know people who have taken to trolling people even offline, claiming that they’re just “having fun” as if we live in a postsexist, postmisogynistic, posthomophobic world where everyone understands insults as jokes. This obviously gets amplified in large online forums like mailing lists and MITConfessions. You’re right–I’m not sure that it’s for the best. But I’m not too sure how to address it, either. Maybe the best we can hope for is that eventually, the decent-minded will outnumber and silence the trolls, and hate speech will die out. Call me optimistic?

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