Everybody has their secrets. It could be a little quirk that makes them tick, a guilty pleasure they’re obsessed with, or something more serious, like issues within their family or home. Secrets, for the longest time, have been kept under wraps at all costs, as those who know about it are also warned not to tell a soul.
But that mentality seems to be changing — for college students at least — with the rise of university confession pages. This is how they work: any person with a Facebook account can message the administrator of a confession page about what they wish to get off their chest, and the admin then posts that confession anonymously on the Facebook page. Now one’s secrets are online for people to read, but their identity and dignity remain intact.
SFU’s confession page in particular has recently gained popularity. With over 10,000 likes, the page has become the go-to way for SFU students to connect over the woes of SFU student life.
“SFU Burnaby is one of the most confusing places I’ve ever gone to,” one student writes. “I feel like a mouse running through a cold, rainy maze every time I go there, except there’s no cheese as a reward. . . just lectures.” Another student laments, “Today, when I finally found my lecture hall, the lecture ended.”
Confessions such as these get several ‘likes’ and comments, which range from empathetic exclamations to words of advice. There is no doubt that SFU Confessions is one of the most vibrant online communities out there for SFU students. Yet in the midst of all these posts, one element remains constant: anonymity on behalf of the posters. Even the page administrator’s own identity is concealed.
So Why Confess?
The word “confession” has two meanings. The first is “the act of telling people something that makes you embarrassed, ashamed, etc.,” which constitutes a majority of the confessions on the page. But the second definition, “the act of telling your sins to God or to a priest,” is also one that should be taken into consideration.
The Catholic sacrament of confession, or reconciliation, is one that ultimately focuses on renewal after acknowledging one’s sins. There is an anonymity and confidentiality aspect to the sacrament as well, as it takes place in a private booth where only the priest can hear the words of the penitent (the person confessing their sins) through a small window that obscures both of their faces from view.
The premise of confession is for one to feel sorry for their sins, and to resolve not to commit them again. In addition to confessing one’s sins to a priest, Catholic confession involves a careful examination of one’s conscience, contrition or repentance which should come from a love of God. Ultimately, the priest will offer advice for the penitent to repair the damage caused by their sins.
Father Fernando Mignone, a priest at the Interfaith Centre at SFU, defines the sacrament of confession as “an action by which a person confesses to Jesus Christ his or her sins and is forgiven through the mediation of a priest.”
“Like the confession booth in a church, the online confession offers the opportunity to get something off your chest.”
Richard Smith, Associate Professor ‧ SFU Communications
According to Mignone, “the sacrament can never happen through the Internet or a phone. It has to be personal and individual, person-to-person with a priest. The one who is forgiving the sins is God and not man, and so they are not confessing their sins to a man.”
The SFU Confessions page certainly does not serve this specific purpose, and as Fr. Fernando pointed out, some confessions are not even truly confessions, but are more like accusations against somebody else. However, some parallels may be drawn between the Catholic sacrament and the SFU Confessions page.
“Like the confession booth in a church, the online confession offers the opportunity to get something off your chest without necessarily implicating you or generating a backlash,” says Richard Smith, an associate professor in SFU’s School of Communication. “The online version doesn’t offer the Catholic’s promise — God’s forgiveness — but perhaps we don’t need that as much as we just need to confess in the first place.”
So why, then, are people being drawn to this page and feel this need to confess online?
“If they are [truly] confessing their sins [on this page], there is a psychological need for people to be reconciled to God or to others. People also confess to inquire about whether a decision they have made or feeling that they have is right or wrong,” says Fr. Fernando.
Some people have certainly done this on the page, asking for confirmation from other users about whether their actions or feelings were justified in a particular situation. On the flip side, others offer advice to people that they’ve learned from a particular situation or experience in their lives.
Indeed, being able to get something off of one’s chest does have a liberating quality to it. Yet much like a priest in a booth, the SFU Confessions page administrator has had to contend with the sensitive nature of the posts that get sent in.
“I think this site wouldn’t work if people knew who I was. People are more inclined to send in [confessions] if they don’t know who they are sending them to,” she says, “I have never revealed the identity of any confessors. I feel that people come to the page with complete trust of having their secrets kept safe, and I take my responsibility of keeping their secrets very seriously.”
Some of those secrets are tough reads, ranging from stories of relationships gone wrong to cases of depression or abuse. “It’s a lot of work being an admin,” she admits. “When people send in depressing posts, it does take an emotional toll on me, but then there are also a lot of funny posts to make up for them.”
While the page is a place for people to send in their secrets, it is also an online page — and, as with any online page, SFU Confessions is subject to the best and worst parts of the Internet.
Some confessions engage in the art of trolling, looking to start arguments or discord about a particular topic. Others are short and witty, gathering likes because they are relatable and easy to read.
The comments section can occasionally steal the show, as an awesome comeback to a particularly upsetting confession can gain many ‘likes’ and replies as well. The confession pages can then ironically become a bit of a popularity contest within the guise of anonymity.
While people may be posting confessions to gain likes, nobody has the satisfaction of knowing that that particular person posted a popular confession except the original poster, or OP, themselves.
There are prolific commenters on university confession pages as well, and no person has a commentary with quite a distinctive flair as Andrew Lai’s.
Lai, a fourth year UBC student, is known for his eccentric yet hilarious pieces of advice on confession pages. “By no means was a comedic or eccentric element my intention,” he says. “I always believed in the ‘live, laugh and learn’ #deep philosophy, and some people may find this to be amusing. Perhaps they have not found the path in understanding the beauty of these confession pages, but it is my self-guided journey to show them the way.”
“When people send in depressing posts, it does take an emotional toll on me.”
SFU Confessions Page Administrator
More and more people are discovering the “beauty” that Lai speaks of, as even the page’s administrator keeps tabs on how many likes or followers the page is getting. For many, the confessions page is an outlet where they can post something in order to gain brief online fame, even if they themselves are the only person who knows they posted something.
Lai sums this up well when he says, “These pages bring procrastinators, social media addicts, and attention whores together into one glorious union to waste time together.”
The confessions page has also become a setting for people to debate current events and social issues perspectives which, if voiced in real life, would like receive immediate backlash for going against the status quo.
For instance, Confession #6872 reads, “Looking at all those student political activities makes me sick. [. . .] Why do so many people care about stuff like “SFU living wage” or decreasing tuition for international students when obviously none of those changes are economically viable to implement[?]”
Other issues discussed on the page include the values of feminism, the terrorist attacks in Paris, and the Build SFU Special General Meeting.
The administrator of the page says she holds true to what the original posters have written, even if said post contains derogatory or discriminatory content, in order to remain neutral. However, many controversial posts have been challenged and criticized by commenters.
A Shared Community
So, what do people who frequent SFU Confessions have in common? Obviously, almost all of them go to SFU — except for a small percentage of non-student confessors, who are routinely met with a “She doesn’t even go here!” Mean Girls reference in the comments section.
Students often send in confessions having to do with the woes and grievances of going to SFU, whether it’s about somebody doing a bad parking job, the architectural capacities (or lack thereof) of certain buildings, a professor whose lectures are incomprehensible, or the panicked stresses of procrastination during finals.
The main point of these posts is to not only complain about personal peeves, but to hopefully find others who can relate to one’s experience and point of view, and most confessions gain plenty of comments from those who can relate. Some even implement a comedic element in their confession, such as the poster who wrote: “‘SFU custom edition’, ‘Canadian edition’, [sic] translation: please stop pirating we want more money.”
“Storytelling is an essential function of building a community, and these confessions provide stories of university life from a local perspective,” says Peter Chow-White, an associate professor of Communication at SFU. “You’re not going to find stories that help you understand university life from a newspaper. If you want to hear stories from everyday people on university life, you go to pages like this.”
Andrew Lai echoes this sentiment, saying, “these confession pages have grown in popularity because people realize they have been missing something their whole lives. They have been missing a community.”
“You’re not going to find stories that help you understand university life from a newspaper.”
Peter Chow-White, Associate Professor ‧ SFU Communications
In fact, the university confession page trend is on the rise. Schools from UBC to the University of Victoria and the University of Alberta now have online pages set up for students to send in their confessions anonymously.
Many can relate to the struggles of student life, but having a page where people can come together and share their difficulties of making it to a certain place on campus, or even to remark on the peculiarities of certain campus structures, has become a valuable experience for SFU students.
“Social media is a part of our lives, and these pages are evidence of people wanting to share and connect with one another,” Chow-White explains. “These pages also give us a window to what students are doing on their phones or their laptops.”
As it turns out, the administrators of these pages themselves have formed their own little community. “Some of the other administrators of other confession pages across Canada have come in contact with each other over Facebook pages,” says the SFU Confessions admin. “We have all made different accounts and we have had a good share of anonymous conversations on there. They have definitely become my friends.”
SFU Confessions now has over 10,000 likes on Facebook, and is viewed by a huge variety of people on a regular basis. And it doesn’t show signs of slowing down anytime soon.
Whether you follow the page for its hilarious memes, witty criticisms, political debate, insightful advice, or heartbreaking stories, perhaps the best part of it all is knowing that these stories are sent in by real students that we pass by in the halls everyday. Everybody has a secret, and with pages like these, those secrets can finally be shared.