Off-therecord.com, a new website billing itself as an anonymous online forum to debate controversial political and social issues, launched exclusively for Bowdoin community members on August 29.
Brian Kim ’13, Helen White ’13 and Josh Zalinger ’13 are the architects of the website. They post topics for discussion, and anyone with a Bowdoin email address can register to comment on the threads.
Anonymous websites have a troubled history at Bowdoin, and have not attracted high-minded—or even cordial—discourse in the past. Kim said he and his co-creators want to see “if anonymity could ever go right.”
Off-therecord.com has various safeguards to prevent and delete defamatory or libelous comments. When anyone reports a post, Kim said that he receives an email notification immediately.
Although the website has protections against abuse, Allen Delong, director of student activities, said he was concerned about the issue of anonymity.
“There is a long list of anonymous websites in which our students have really been indicted, slandered and hurt,” said Delong.
JuicyCampus.com and Collegeacb.com are anonymous websites that have attracted harmful comments in the past. JuicyCampus.com, a forum for college gossip, was shut down in 2009, only to have CollegeACB, or “College Anonymous Confession Board,” spring up in its place.
In a November 2010 Orient article, students expressed their outrage with this type of anonymous website.
“It’s all gossip,” said Thomas Keefe ’14. “I don’t think anyone would use it for anything but gossip.”
Because of the College’s rocky history with anonymous websites, Delong was initially opposed to off-therecord.com.
“When off-therecord came to my attention, my first thought was I don’t want that to happen again,” he said.
After a conversation with Kim, Delong said that though he still doesn’t like the idea of an anonymous site, he recognizes the differences between off-therecord and past gossip sites.
“I would still prefer students were required to put their names on their perspectives,” he said, “but they [the creators of the site] really seem to have a focus on what kind of discourse they want to introduce to the community. I think that’s really admirable.”
White said that they have not yet had to remove any comments from the site.
Kim, White, and Zalinger are the only ones who are able to initiate threads on the website. Rather than feature debates about Bowdoin or college-centric issues, the topics on the website range from “Should the United States continue its support of Israel?” to “Do gay celebrities have an obligation to come out?”
White and Kim said they are still trying to figure out what types of topics will generate the most conversation.
“Topics that are about education or fairness are popular,” she said, “because you don’t have to know a lot in order to participate.”
White said that she wants the site to expose Bowdoin students to a wide range of ideas, particularly those that diverge from the liberal mainstream.
“Most of us grew up in liberal communities, went to liberal high schools, and now go to a very liberal college,” she said. “It would be good for Bowdoin students to have their beliefs challenged.”
Kim said that he wanted the website to remain anonymous so that those with minority views could freely share their ideas.
Kim said that part of the inspiration for the site came from conversations with a friend who has some very controversial views.
“He said that if he expressed his opinions to other people at Bowdoin, he would get stoned out of the school,” said Kim. “This is a person who very much believes in what he believes in but really can’t come forward and say what he thinks.”
Kim also said that the anonymity allows the discussions to remain objective.
“When you start talking about important issues face to face, it’s hard for people to take their egos out of it and be willing to be wrong,” he said.