By Koko Christiaanse
It is March, 2020, and I get a friend request from an unfamiliar Instagram page. It has only three posts, but its purpose is obvious; it is a confessions page, an online forum that publishes anonymous student confessions, which are submitted through a form. This one, titled “auc0nfessions”, is geared to those in the AUC bubble.
Since March 10th, @auc0nfessions has posted 183 posts and accumulated 830 followers. Confessions range from the mundane to the sensational, friendly to angry, apolitical to activist. In a small college of approximately 900 students, @auc0nfessions has taken a hold on the social landscape of AUC. With new confessions being posted nearly every week, prompting bustling comment sections and garnering hundreds of likes, the question arises: What, or more specifically, who, is behind these confessions pages?
During an anonymous phone call, the page owner of @auc0nfessions tells me it all started with a group of friends sitting together right before lockdown. They say, “a friend of mine started watching “Gossip Girl”. I thought; that would so not work in our society.” Nevertheless, they created the page as a joke, and started following people from AUC. To their surprise, it did work. The instagram account snowballed during quarantine, with hundreds of confessions submitted every week.
The owner of @auc0nfessions was not aware of the existence of confessions pages before they started one themselves. Others, such as the owner of the “uvahappenings” confessions page, were. The page owner of @uvahappenings, a confessions page oriented towards UVA students, says; “a lot of the universities where I come from have confessions pages. I quite like them, I think it brings people together and creates common interest within their university.”
For the page owners of “luconfessions”, who cater to Leiden University College students, this community aspect was a major factor in starting their page. They say, “There was already a Leiden university confessions page, but it didn’t concern LUC. For a lot of UC’s, LUC included, the community is very specific, you have your own bubble traditions and jokes. This didn’t fit with the previous Leiden confessions page; our page is really specific to LUC.”
@auc0nfessions believes that the environment of a university college is ideal for beginning a confessions page as students all live on campus, increasing the likelihood of knowing the person who posted a confession. “It’s like a small town that really likes to gossip,” says @auc0nfessions. “When people have discussions in the comments, it’s your peers, not strangers on the internet.”
The UCU confessions page, which is the longest active university college confessions page in the Netherlands, has seen the social impact of its forum firsthand. The extremely popular confessions page has been passed on over the years, managed by “The Victorias”, a moniker that alludes to “Victoria’s Secret”. Victoria #7, one of this year’s “Victorias”, says the page is “oddly really popular” and that “everyone is aware of how big of a deal the page is.” According to the “Victorias”, both teachers and students reference the confessions frequently. Victoria #10 says, “I think it’s a community thing, it’s nice to see what’s going on on campus. They play into things that are happening.”
UCU’s confessions page is an integral part of campus life, granting the “Victorias” of UCU a unique insight into more serious, undiscussed issues. In spring of 2020, the “Victorias” received a number of confessions that indicated that sexual assault was occuring on campus. They reported the situation to the campus life officer, who directed them to resources that they pinned at the top of the page. Victoria #9 says, “it feels helpless sometimes, seeing people have very negative thoughts and not being able to help them directly.”
Another similar situation occurred when UCU had a chlamydia outbreak on campus. “We posted about it, without targeting one person,” says one of the “Victorias”. Indeed, most confession pages refrain from posting negative confessions featuring names in them. @uvahappenings says, “Recently I put up some questions, and the feedback from that was not to post stuff with people’s names unless it’s good. If it’s horrible, about someone, I don’t post that. That’s a bit pathetic.” The “Victorias” solved this problem by creating the “Vic-List”: a list of all names mentioned in positive submissions, without including the actual confessions.
Although the confession pages are not regulated, all page owners filter their confessions to check the quality and to manage the quantity of submitted confessions. This is to the annoyance of some. “Someone actually was a bit bothered that we didn’t post their confession. There are over 400, we can’t post them all,” says one of the owners of @lucconfessions. AUC’s @auc0nfessions says, “sometimes people get really restless, like they want their confession out there. Out of spite I don’t post it.”
There appears to be a general code that the confessions pages abide by, but decisions regarding the content of the page are largely based on the moderator’s discretion. When I asked page-owners what makes a good confession, the word “spicy” came up frequently. In terms of what doesn’t make it, most account managers remove repetitive, unfunny, or inappropriate confessions. Not all filter political content. @auc0nfessions says: “Some people criticize the political stuff I post. Some stuff is worse. I don’t get slurs, per se, but if it’s an opinion without any kind of argument and it’s just nasty for the sake of being nasty I don’t post it.”
@auc0nfessions was put in a tight spot when they started receiving messages from prospective students doubting whether to go to AUC due to the content on the confessions page. Such content often referred to AUC’s perceived leftist culture. @auc0nfessions says, “It’s difficult. I don’t want people to not go to AUC; I think I got a message from one or two people asking what it’s really like. I reassure them it’s fine.” However, @auc0nfessions does not deny that there is an aspect of the confessions that are reflective of AUC’s culture. “I do think it’s something prevalent, that people get witchunted over something on facebook, that on the grand scheme are very small and well-intentioned. I think the page is a way for people to voice their dissatisfaction for that fact.”
@auc0nfessions cites the Coronavirus pandemic as a large cause for frustrated or angry confessions. “There were a bunch of confessions last year about people who needed to learn or behave, adhere to lockdown measures. Corona definitely adds a layer of frustration and loneliness.”
Across the board, owners of confessions pages report that a high percentage of current confessions are about loneliness or difficulty with lockdowns during the pandemic. These are often not posted due to their repetitive nature. Some pages, such as @uvahappenings, see themselves as a forum for connection during the pandemic. They say, “there is less social interaction in the real world, more on social media. I think people feel connected in this way, like a uni life going on. A bit of normality.”
There have been instances of confessions pages succeeding in connecting people in real life. @auc0nfessions says,“my favourite thing running the account is that there’s two couples I’ve connected. For example, someone wrote in a post they are looking for someone, and then someone else DM’s me and says it might be them.” @luconfessions was similarly able to connect students who were spending Christmas alone for a socially distanced dinner.
With all this power over a socially significant forum, do the owners of these confessions pages feel responsible? Some do. The “Victorias” say: “Yes, we feel responsible. We want to make clear that things that are mean and offensive: this isn’t the place. Which is why we vet the confessions.” One of them says, “I definitely feel responsible, and uncomfortable if people say the page is boring. They are my selections, it’s my little secret baby.”
Others, like @auc0nfessions, feel responsible in a limited sense. They say, “I don’t feel responsible for the confessions. Like sometimes people say the confessions are shit, and I’m like, well, send in better confessions.” Simultaneously, they understand the impact their page can have: “Anonymity makes people more emboldened. It can be interesting at best, but I guess it can also turn to be ugly and rude at its worst.”
For now, all the confessions page managers want to remain anonymous. The manager of @uvahappenings says, “I try to dissociate it from myself, the page to me, is anonymous.” They also say that keeping themselves anonymous gives people more freedom to confess what they want, whilst simultaneously protecting themselves. For the “Victorias”, it’s all a matter of mystery. “It adds to the fun, if they knew who was reading their late night thoughts I don’t think they would be saying the same things. It’s kind of a conspiracy, everyone wants to know who runs the page,” says one of them.
With hundreds of confessions being submitted every month, @auc0nfessions doesn’t plan to stop posting anytime soon. When they do, they hope to pass on the page; “I’d have to pass it on to someone I trust. I’d hate for it to become a page for trolling or something that doesn’t voice anything interesting. I guess I’ll have to see.”