Freedom is nothing else but a chance to be better.
Albert Camus, Defence of Freedom, 1960.
This morning, I learned that Obie Talk has been shut down by its creator. Over the past few weeks, there have been many discussions on campus, through which we have made collective progress on how to effectively moderate Obie Talk. None of us expected it to just disappear. Apparently, Will Adams-Keane would prefer to take it down now and to spend time creating his own community moderation system for the website, rather than to proceed as the college and student body were proposing, and as he had previously agreed to, with a group of volunteer student moderators starting immediately, working to remove hateful posts.
Regardless of today's turn of events, it is important to recognise that had this not happened, we would have continued to work hard to find solutions, and that if the problem of cyber-abuse reappears, the student body and administration will resume these efforts.
We, as students, have been working together with our institution to stop anonymous discrimination and hate speech, in order to build a safe and free community for everyone. Students have called for change in Obie Talk for years. By making our voices heard in the real-world discussions that have been taking place at Oberlin recently, we now have had an opportunity to enact that change. We are looking forward, to determine how the future of Oberlin's online community will address the long neglected problems of its past. We are considering how anonymity serves us as at Oberlin, and how we can maintain the benefits of that anonymity without endangering one another.
The first step was a student discussion forum on Friday, May 5th, arranged by the Oberlin Center for Dialogue. Around 50 students attended. The discussion was extremely productive and respectful, facilitated by the dedicated staff of the Oberlin Center for Dialogue, in order to allow everyone present the opportunity to express their views. Many students shared personal stories of how Obie Talk had helped or harmed them. It made for a very informative discussion and represented a true opening-up of the issue on campus. There is a summary of the minutes by a student here.
Concrete proposals to emerge included:
- Remove all anonymity - every user on Obie Talk or similar sites should be required to enter their name in order to comment.
- Entire anonymity - if you won't share your own name, don't share somebody else's. This system currently works at Grinnell College, under close moderation.
- A college-wide student survey should take place, asking what should be done next - although we don't intend to democratise the question of discriminatory language.
- Real life forums and support networks should be established, following the model of organisations such as 'Alcoholics Anonymous', to provide outlets for those who have been affected by Obie Talk or simply feel disconnected from our community in any way.
- A brand new online forum should be created with a regulatory system already in place.
- There should be separate areas of such sites for advice, support and hate speech.
- Remove the 'search' option from the website, so that you can't look up certain people's names.
- Shut down the website.
- Boycott the website.
The range of views were wide, and yet almost everyone agreed that the Obie Talk status quo could not continue. We need to find ways to move forward, to not fester in Gun Rights analogies along the lines of: 'the internet doesn't hurt people - people hurt people,' and to decide, as the vast majority of us seem to have, that targeted online discrimination and harassment must be stopped, and that it is well within our capability and social responsibility to do so.
The Oberlin Student Senate met to discuss their formal recommendation to the administration on behalf of the student body, based on the results of this student discussion. The idea of a college-wide student survey was supported and would have been initiated before the end of the semester. Perhaps, although Obie Talk is currently shut, it would still be a good idea for all students to receive a survey through which they could register their views as to what course of action should be taken with regard to such sites in the future.
Many students volunteered to be moderators of Obie Talk, and those students met to discuss what the exact moderation regulations would be last week. I will report on those decisions if and when they are made available.
Another student-run anonymous online forum, Obies Anonymous, has just launched. This website requires you to log in using your student ID, but the information is encrypted, so your comments remain entirely anonymous. However, this means that if a user repeatedly posts hateful comments, they will develop a 'reputation' by being 'flagged down' by other users, resulting in a decrease in the number of times they are allowed to post per day. The site also has the potential to block those who abuse it. If you flag a post as being about you specifically, moderators delete it immediately. The hope is that, in stark contrast to its predecessor, the culture of this site will be established as one of safety and support from the outset.
And suddenly, Obie Talk has gone. We cannot know what will happen next semester, but one thing is certain: Oberlin has begun to actively address the problem of cyber-bullying democratically and productively, and we will continue to do so should the need resurface. The absence of Obie Talk is a chance for us all to clarify exactly what, if anything, we gain directly from such a website, and if those benefits can in fact be found in other, safer, more positive ways. The past few weeks of discussion have yielded great progress and we are building the foundations for sustainable change. For now, goodbye for the summer from a cyber-abuse free Oberlin.