It was Sergio Charles' first week of college at Stanford University this fall. He felt homesick and isolated and didn't know where to go to express his emotions.
He turned to the internet.
In September, Charles started Cardinal Confessions, a Facebook page for students to anonymously share confessions of all kinds, both light-hearted and serious — stress, insecurities, relationship angst, questions about a course or grades, politics, campus gossip. He wanted to create a positive online community that would open up real-life conversations and create connections on a campus well-known for "duck syndrome" — a metaphor for students, like ducks, acting calm on the surface but paddling furiously to stay afloat (even though ducks are inherently buoyant).
"At Stanford, (with) duck syndrome, everyone acts like they're doing well but that's not necessarily true. As an antidote to that, I thought, why not create a forum where everyone can communicate?" Charles said.
Confessions pages are a growing phenomenon at universities and high schools across the country, including locally. Gunn High School has had at least two popular Confessions pages; one was shut down by the administration in 2013 but was revived by students last year and now has more than 9,000 posts. Palo Alto High School has its own page, though it's less active. Nearly 20,000 people follow the Confessions from the UC Berkeley page, including graduates and prospective students. At Stanford, there also are spinoff pages, such as Class Confessions, which is run by First Generation and/or Low Income Partnership (FLIP) and aims to foster dialogue about socioeconomic class identity.
For high school and college students living with ratcheted up pressure of all kinds, from academic to social media-driven, the ability to express themselves anonymously and unfiltered offers a rare kind of catharsis. Posts about mental health challenges in particular are often met with supportive comments, offers to talk privately and advice on how to get help.
But the student-run pages raise thorny questions about censorship, free speech and safety for their moderators, who without any training are tasked with filtering out posts that could be harmful, derogatory or libelous. In some cases, Facebook removes posts that the students have approved or even shuts entire Confessions pages down for violating the social media company's terms of service.
While there's "enduring value" in people being able to give voice to their innermost thoughts anonymously, anonymity is ripe for abuse, said Jeff Hancock, founding director of the Stanford Social Media Lab.
"It's perhaps not a surprise that something that allows you to remove your official identity and play with identity and figure out, what is it like to say 'I'm struggling? What is it like to be mean? What is it like to bare my soul?'" has surged in popularity, he said. "There are a lot of reasons why adolescents and young adults can find value in anonymity."
Confessions pages are like holding up a mirror to the lives of a particular group of people, Hancock said.
Sometimes what's expressed under the shroud of anonymity online can require a response in real life. At the University of California, Berkeley, for example, an online confession about mice and bedbugs in a campus dorm last March got picked up by local news outlets and was addressed by the university. At Gunn, a post sharing outrage about the administration's response to reports of sexual assault galvanized a group of students to meet in person to discuss ideas for advocacy.
In one extreme case, a Gunn student who submitted an anonymous shooting threat to the Gunn Confessions page last December led to Palo Alto police taking the student into custody for a mental health evaluation. (The submission was never publicly posted to the Facebook page.)
"I think it can be a healthy outlet when the posts are constructive and aid students in moving forward in a positive way," Gunn Principal Kathie Laurence said of the Confessions page, which is not officially affiliated with the school.
"It can also be very harmful by creating a negative spin and subsequent piling on of negativity, a sort of groupthink and group polarization can take place. This is not constructive."
Confessions pages read like students' unfiltered streams of consciousness.
"It's been a rough quarter so far, but everyone just looks like they are so on top of everything. I feel like a failure."
"People in the US are in no place to criticize Chinese people about creating coronavirus."
"Wishing you all a good week."
"Who has the biggest biceps at Gunn?"
"Is it true that If you get two C's first semester senior year that UCs can rescind you?
"I took on a bunch of new work this semester to distract myself from my break up but in the quiet moments my heart hurts so f-- much."
The pages allow students to stay anonymous by using Google forms to accept their submissions, which the page moderators review before posting to the page. The administrators can't see who submitted confessions. The Gunn Confessions form reminds students of content that won't get posted — offensive comments about a named person, advertisements, "blatant" troll posts, repetitive or vague comments, hate speech, cyberbullying, negative accusations — and that their submission might be "modified to be less explicit or offensive." The page also lists a text number and hotline for mental health support.
"All I do is read the confession to make sure that there's nothing that is outwardly annoying, mean and or spam, to make sure no one's directly hating on someone," said senior Erin Vetter, one of two students who moderates the Gunn page. "It kind of is wishy washy in that there is no one set of rules.
"If it seems genuine, then you post it, but if it's just spam, then you don't post it," she said. "I have some things that I just I don't feel comfortable posting — like if it's about someone else, I think, 'If it was about me, would I want someone to say it?'"
Before she was a moderator, Vetter was an avid fan of Gunn Confessions, checking the page obsessively during lunch and breaks at school. She was one of the students who responded with enthusiasm to the post about sexual violence advocacy.
"I think it's being able to hear someone's secrets, but also yourself being able to stay anonymous," she said of the page's appeal. "We live in a bubble community, so there are a lot of things that you might want to say that you aren't allowed to socially. I think that's why it blew up so fast."
In some cases, students' online confessions have revealed problems that required a real-world response.
Vetter was at home on a Thursday evening, reviewing posts, and was the first to see the submission. It threatened a shooting at Gunn the next day. She immediately took it seriously.
She and the other student-moderator contacted the Gunn graduate who started the page, now a college student, and together they wrote a letter to send into the police department's tip line. She also called 9-1-1; because the threat was made about the next school day, she worried that action wouldn't be taken soon enough.
She heard back from a police detective and then, late at night, got a call that the student had been identified and that it would be safe to go to school the next day.
For Vetter, the underlying sentiment of the submission — which she described as deep frustration with the academic pressure cooker that many students experience at the Gunn environment — was worth paying attention to. She wishes it had opened up more conversation about school shootings and mental health at her high school. (That Friday, she said only one teacher in her seven classes brought it up, and only to warn students against spreading rumors.)
The anonymous shooting threat made Vetter take her role as moderator more seriously.
"It makes me read the confessions a little bit deeper and take it a little bit more seriously," she said. "It made me feel like, OK, someone needs to be here."
The gatekeepers' challenges
Behind the scenes of every Confession page is a student or group of student-moderators acting as the gatekeepers for both powerful and potentially harmful posts.
This is often a subjective process, the moderators acknowledged.
If a post is "outwardly harsh," Vetter said, "it ends up being, 'Well, what do you think is outwardly harsh? What do you think is spam?'"
In 2013, the previous Gunn Confessions page was shut down after concerns about posts criticizing a Gunn staff member, according to student newspaper The Oracle. At the time, Palo Alto school administrators said they contacted Facebook more than once to get Confessions pages deleted, according to a 2013 Palo Alto Weekly story.
"There is a certain power that people get from a sense of anonymity and they feel they can write things to an individual that they would never say to their face," then-Principal Katya Villalobos told The Oracle. "Even though I didn't have a real jurisdiction over Gunn Confessions, I was very disappointed because it didn't match what I know our students to be."
Laurence said she's "uncomfortable" with profanity on the Gunn Confessions page.
"I believe that we all need to take a step back and, before posting something, ask ourselves, 'Is this something we would be comfortable with our parents, grandparents, friends seeing? Is it something that we would like to see written about us? Is it kind or is it intended to hurt someone?'" she said.
When Charles first started Cardinal Confessions, he would read each submission and post it manually. But as word about the page spread beyond Charles' freshman dorm and the number of submissions grew, he decided to automate the process. Every submission automatically posts to the page within five minutes, so he has a short window to determine whether they're appropriate. This system usually runs without issue, but not always. In one case, a submission alleging an inappropriate relationship between a student and a dorm resident assistant was posted to the page. A resident assistant almost immediately contacted the page and asked Charles to take it down, which he did. Posts about suicide have been quickly removed by Facebook, he said.
"The whole thing with automated posts ... it enforces this idea that censorship isn't very good, but at the same time, it also had ramifications," Charles said.
He had to create ground rules for the page, including asking users to stop tagging other people in comment threads that can run awry. A thread about a party at his dorm turned contentious and personal — it was finals week, so some students were upset that a party would be happening and called out other students directly — and he eventually removed most of the comments.
"I'm fairly tolerant of most things. I don't like censorship too much," Charles said. "I think I need to be a little more stringent, quite frankly, if the page is going to improve in quality of content. But at the same time there's been some criticism about censoring certain topics.
"I have to take certain precautions," he said, "in how much I try to censor and how much I don't try to."
Spencer Hill, who started the Berkeley Confessions page in 2018, also struggles with his responsibility as a moderator. His vision for the page is a "real depiction of people's deep thoughts" that provokes thoughtful conversation on campus.
Posts about sexual assault allegations are particularly difficult, he said.
"You want to post them for the purposes of giving those people their voice and not silencing them but you also can't post them because of the imitations of the Facebook page and also the limitations of being a responsible moderator of content. It really has to be dealt with on a case by case basis and it requires a lot of thought," he said. "I've had to learn some lessons about what you can and can't do."
Recently, he posted a confession accusing a leader of a campus organization of sexual harassment because it didn't name the person. It resulted in the organization reaching out to the page for more information.
Facebook has sometimes stepped in, flagging posts about race or removing ones that the social media company deemed as "too sexual" or as hate speech, Hill said. As the page administrator, Hill's account is then restricted from posting for a few days by Facebook.
Behind the Berkeley page is a team of about a dozen people, both current students and graduates. Some of their names are listed on the Facebook page, which is unusual, as many moderators remain anonymous themselves.
Hill, a senior majoring in applied math with a concentration in data science, said he made a conscious choice to not be anonymous.
"It holds you to a higher level of accountability, which I think is good," he said. "If you were anonymous you might be tempted to do some crazier things, fearing no repercussions to your real self."
Reshaping digital accountability
Different anonymous social media pages and apps cycle through a rise and fall among teenagers and young people every few years, Hancock noted. Several years ago, anonymous messaging app Yik Yak dominated college campuses, including Stanford, before it shut down in 2017 following criticism that it allowed for cyberbullying and racism. Students also used Yik Yak to post shooting and bomb threats.
When Confessions pages are at their best, Charles said, they provide a "platform for communicating with others and expressing yourself in a way that you're not constrained by any social stigmas."
In a recent Cardinal Confessions post, a student described feeling hopeless and unable to sleep. In another, a student divulged a childhood sexual assault. Others have expressed struggling with what Charles had experienced when he arrived on campus — feeling alone and inadequate in a place defined by so much outward success.
This dichotomy, Charles believes, is at the core of why Confessions pages have become so popular at high-pressure universities across the country.
"It's a reflection of the fact that we're all humans," he said. "We all go through something."
The pages also underscore a need for more conversations about mental health on college campuses, students said.
"There shouldn't be a stigma around just discussing how you feel on a certain day, but there is. I think a lot of that is attributed to the perception of these places as paradises, which they're not," Charles said. "It's sort of incredulous to think that they should be."
Vetter said she felt similarly after the shooting threat.
"Why are we having so much stress that causes people to want to hurt other people because of the stress? Why are we having so much stress that causes people to want to hurt themselves?" she asked. "I think we need to better address the stress we have in our community so we can deal with it."
Charles also recently launched an app that brings together all of a user's Facebook pages, including Confessions and other groups, in one place. Called Campfire, the app's tagline is "be yourself, beyond picture perfect moments." Charles modeled the app after philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau's social contract theory, which asserts that laws are only binding when they are collectively agreed upon by all citizens. On Campfire, users have to contribute positively — which is measured by other users' "up" or "down" votes — otherwise they lose the ability to post anonymously. A post with 90% "down" votes will be automatically deleted and the user will be prevented from posting until their vote score reaches a set threshold. (This also puts moderation in the hands of the online community rather than a single administrator.)
"We want to enable free-expression and be a space for vulnerability, connection and support," a Campfire description states. "We want to reshape digital accountability through our social contract point system where you are anonymous until you have broken community standards."
Despite the success of Cardinal Confessions, Charles — who is studying computer science (CS) and math — believes fervently that the social media page isn't a substitution for in-person connection. But he does see it having his intended effect: When the page blew up with concerns about the party at his dorm, students who wrote online that they felt unsafe or unable to raise concerns about their living environment prompted a dorm meeting and the RA's to create an anonymous feedback system, Charles said. When students have voiced grief on the page, others reached out with offers to meet in person to talk further.
"I think people should, and society in general — and this is coming from a CS major — instead of resorting to the technology, actually have meaningful, real-life conversations with people," he said.
Available mental health resources:
• Text anything to 741741, the Crisis Text Line (crisistextline.org), to start a conversation with a trained crisis volunteer.
• Bay Area Clinical Associates serves youth through age 25, takes insurance, and has offices in San Jose, San Mateo and Oakland. Fill out the online appointment request form at baca.org and someone will contact you within 48 hours.
• Palo Alto mental health nonprofit Children's Health Council serves youth up to age 17 and offers free 30-minute care consultations: 650-688-3625; Español, 650-688-3650.