The long read: Oxfess – the good, the bad and the ugly

Niuniu Zhao investigates what Oxfess can tell us about Oxford's student culture

Image credit: Becky Clark

In the bewitching hours of the night, you feel a sudden rush of emotions: be it romantic attraction, academic stress, some witty inspiration, or overwhelming melancholia — you submit an Oxfess in the sanctuary of anonymity.

In the dreary hours of the day, you find the work at hand impossible to crack; you then start scrolling through Oxfess posts, perhaps finding a couple of jokes hilarious or relating to some heartfelt complaints. You feel human again, lament at the procrastination, and return to work.

In the lonely hours of dusk, you brood in boredom in front of your screen. Suddenly, a Facebook notification pops up — you’ve been tagged in an Oxfess. You are warmed, feeling somewhat significant in the world. In turn, you tag another friend, conveying at once humour, amity and attachment.

Oxfess is no trivial part of the Oxford experience. It is a dimension parallel to the courteous propriety, the quiet shyness, and the plastic smiles of ordinary exchanges. Perhaps the most vibrant Oxford platform on the internet, with its release of passions, challenge of boundaries and blend of creativity, Oxfess is an enchanting space where the real intertwines with the surreal.

I cannot help but wonder, what does it all mean? Why are we so hooked to Oxfess, what are the consequences, and what are the caveats? Here, I offer my speculations for these questions, with some laboriously mined semi-data and partially amateur psychology.

Although Oxfess posts are amazingly diverse, there are some common threads we can pull from the mix. To ground my informal investigation, let’s start with the semi-data: I flipped through
five days of Oxfess posts in mid-December and eyeballed them into loosely defined categories.

Whilst most posts simply could not be categorised, the runner-up category was ‘sex or love life related’ (with 62 posts in five days). Unsurprisingly, Oxfess is abundant with political opinions (60), and serious or not, political posts are the most likely to get an unusually high volume of reacts and comments. Political posts can be roughly split into three groups: private schools, Brexit and free speech (the popularity in descending order).

Real personal difficulties and mental health issues amounted to around 36 posts, most of which got few or no reacts at all. Then there were college-specific posts, which tend to provoke a lot of tagging, especially those in the format of ‘Oxford colleges as…’. Posts involving name initials pop up every once in a while (17), although they do not command much popularity. The enduring catch phrases include ’sex is good but’ (12) and ’not a substitution for personality’ (12), not so enduring catch phrases include ‘BTEC’, ‘yeet’, and the obviously seasonal ‘all I want for Christmas is’. Finally, only one post about rowing, since, it was vacation time after all.

So what does it all mean? Do Oxfess posts reveal something about Oxford culture?

The caveat first: Oxfess is not representative in any way of the entire student body, and there are many people who do not follow it. There is no guarantee that everyone who writes to Oxfess is related to Oxford at all, and even more unlikely that every post is a true story.

Yet still, even if there is no such thing as ‘the Oxford culture’ in the strict sense, we know vaguely what we are talking about when we talk about ‘an Oxford culture’. It is intimately linked to the traditions of the institution and the broader history of British society, and remains clearly distinct from other university cultures.

Clearly, the bulk of Oxfess is just for fun – more like procrastination popcorn than food for thought. Sex seems to be constantly at the forefront of the collective consciousness of Oxford students, whether they claim to like or dislike it. When the Oxfess admin was asked last year what the page can tell us about the University’s student culture, the reply was, “What it says about Oxford culture as a whole is that everyone is really fucked up and everyone really
wants to f*** everything that moves”.

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On the other hand, the revelation of psychological problems (especially pertaining to loneliness) on Oxfess ironically confirms how hidden such difficulties remain to be: people don’t tend to respond to such posts because, if they don’t relate to the post, they don’t know how to comfort the anon; if they do relate, they tend to only relate in secrecy in fear that a react or comment may expose their own inner turbulence to their Facebook friends.

Oxfess appears to be quite different from other university confession pages. Political opinions in Oxford are diverse and plenty, but the ‘private schools’ and ‘London’ fixation arguably reflects a class divide in Oxford and Britain which is hardly ever as pronounced or explicit elsewhere in the world. For example, the political posts on US universities UC Berkeley’s and UBC’s confession pages, whether jocular or serious, tend to be much more race-based than class-based; hardly any posts relate to discrimination based on one’s high school or place of origin within the country.

Why do we like, need or want Oxfess so much? High schools and universities are the main breeding ground of confession pages – but why? Does it have something to do with the operations of the young-adult mind?

In the New Yorker article ‘The Psychology of Online Comments’, the author cites a Pew poll in saying, “As the age of a user decreases, his reluctance to link a real name with an online remark increases; forty per cent of people in the eighteen-to-twenty-nine-year-old demographic have posted anonymously”. In addition, psychological studies have found that “conformity increased to adolescence and decreased after adolescence”. It appears that both anonymity and popularity have more appeal to and influence upon adolescents and young adults; and perhaps, we are attracted to anonymity precisely because we are scared of losing popularity.

The tender darkness of anonymity bestows a strange, illusory power upon people. Life is boring; anonymity allows adventure. It frees us from the cell of socially expedient and socially acceptable remarks; it permits the congestion of inner feelings to be safely and conveniently discharged.

Exposure is vulnerability; power is knowing without being known. For readers, it is a great relief to know that someone else shares the same troubles as themselves, without having to first reveal their own troubles to the world. For authors, who quietly await to track the ripples of a post in the lake of users, they may observe the audience as they themselves retreat behind the curtain.

Even better, one hides only as much as one would like to hide. It is entirely up to the confessant how invisible they want to be, and the delicate discretion is a thrilling art in its own right. This is likely why we don’t have college confession pages — at the college level, everything becomes too identifiable. By contrast, the uni-wide nature of Oxfess means that a ‘crush’ post hinting at ‘xy@z’ is directed at an audience of thousands rather than just a few hundred.

A further element of Oxfess’s attraction is that tagging and being tagged under posts are signals of friendship. For fostering new friendships and maintaining old ones, in such a hectic environment where it can be hard to catch up with a friend in person, tagging on Facebook is a quick and easy way to show someone that we are thinking of them.

Oxfess is an opportunity for, rather curiously, anonymous popularity. For the confessant, an Oxfess generally has two motivations: one is to vent, the other is to elicit some reaction from others. The platform fulfils the first need by virtue of its anonymity, and the second need by virtue of its popularity. For the audience, the platform’s anonymity and popularity provides consolation and thrill. That’s why both writing and reading ‘relatable’ posts are so satisfying: it reassures us that we are not alone, that whatever we feel, there are people out there who feel the same way. Relatable and witty posts create win-win solutions, benefitting both the authors and the readers by giving them exactly what they seek.

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When anonymity and popularity combine, Oxfess is the best intermediary. It is the artificial distance that excuses people from confronting one another fact to face. In a sense, it is a laboratory for social skills, a space for trial and error in our attempts to be likeable and interesting, where we test for reactions without the risk of leaving enduring impressions.

Yet, in the end, how much of all this — react baiting, tagging, relating — is what we truly want to do as opposed to what we feel like we ought to do? Perhaps, both in form (the huge audience, the
recurrent catch phrases) and content (the debate between going out and not going out, the jokes about sex and so on), Oxfess represents the tension between rejecting and succumbing to social pressure that is particular volatile, even torturous, at this time of our lives.

Finally, it’s time to explore the ugly side of Oxfess. Firstly, Oxfess feeds into procrastination. The eclectic nature of Oxfess posts certainly functions in a slot-machine like way, making us addicted whilst earning Facebook tons of money through traffic and advertisements.

Secondly, popular anonymity has its problems. We meet John Suler’s ‘online disinhibition effect’: “the moment you shed your identity the usual constraints on your behaviour go”. As Common Ground put in the description of its event ‘Oxfess: tracking colonial attitudes’ last term, “Anonymity is a well-known breeding ground for bigotry: it should be no surprise then to hear such voices coming through the Facebook page Oxfess”.

The event was prompted by the concern that Oxfess reveals “a lot of ignorant views on race and class” and “a basic lack of understanding” regarding colonialism and class structures. It was later aborted because the organisers believed it would be more fruitful to talk about de-platforming in general, especially in the wake of the Bannon’s talk at the Union.

The Oxfess admins certainly prioritise protecting their readers through their strict policy that “if someone wants a post deleted, and they have any interest in the matter of the post, we will delete it” – thanks to which, cyberbullying does not seem to be a problem with Oxfess. Yet Oxfess does indeed still contain traces of “ignorant views” and malicious content. However, perhaps exposing such views so that we have a realistic perception of how and what Oxford students think is not such a bad thing, so that comments from the community can potentially give the anonymous author more information and facilitate constructive discussion.

Thirdly, are we playing hide-and-seek with confessions because we are a lonelier generation, as so many researchers have claimed? The act of confession was at its roots religious, but modernity has seen religion wane. When the religious confessional has ever less authority, when confessional letters to trusted friends are out of fashion, and when hiding behind the blue shimmer of Facebook is often the easiest way out, does Oxfess take its place?

On the bright side, Oxfess certainly brings benefits. Aside from the aforementioned inevitable appeal of anonymous popularity, Oxfess provides stress release, more freedom and revelation via anonymity, and simply fun and creativity. The marvellous vitality with which Oxfess evolves with the tidings of student life and the world at large reflects its relevance amongst the Oxford student community.

In the end, it is certainly harmless to read a couple of Oxfesses to relax, enjoyable to interact with friends on the platform, and beneficial to engage in (occasional, perhaps) streaks of serious debate if one would like to. Yet that’s not to deny that Oxfess has a dark side too.

In good spirits, I will end with: sex is good but, Oxfess is not a substitute for personality.

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