January 28, 2020 | LIFE | By Emily McKinley, Matt Silverman, and Leigh Walden
Imagine opening your phone to your favorite social media app to see you were tagged by your friend under a post about you. But it’s not a picture of you, it is an anonymous post talking about your appearance in objectifying ways.
This is becoming all too common for some Colorado College students since the founding of CC Missed Connections last October. This 2021 revamp of the classic missed connections services allows students to fill out a Google Form with their thoughts or opinions on someone they have seen around campus – and it is all completely anonymous.
The CC Missed Connections account mentions a sophomore we’ll call Sarah a handful of times in suggestive ways, and even once mentioned her physical address. While the student in question knows it might be fun and games, the content of the posts have at times made her a bit uncomfortable.
“It freaks me out that I don’t know who posted it,” she said. “It’s kind of weird to see someone posting your name, and just something associated with your name on a social media platform.”
Reactions like hers are not rare, especially as missed connections pages become more common on social media sites. These pages give students the opportunity to anonymously compliment their peers, though these pages could have ramifications that far exceed the digital realm.
Despite their current prevalence on the internet, missed connections pages are not an invention of the digital age. For centuries, written columns helping strangers connect after meaningful but too short interactions were part of media.
One early example of missed connections pages stretches back to a British publication called The Tatler in 1709. Since The Tatler, publications across the world have adopted the practice, printing segments documenting the interest of one stranger for another. Like most ads in print newspapers, missed connections pages eventually migrated online, finding their home on sites like Craigslist and I Saw You. Today, they’ve shifted onto Instagram pages and TikTok accounts, allowing for missed connections to gain a resurgence with young people in a new media era.
There’s now a missed connections Instagram page for more than 20 universities across the nation. Multiple renditions and versions of missed connections pages surfaced at CC in recent years, but none of them quite took off like the latest iteration.
By mid December 2021, CC Missed Connections had 609 followers, an amount that could account for more than a quarter of the student body. It launched earlier this school year. With more than 240 posts documenting the hopeful connections of CC students, its engagement continues to grow.
In an hour-long interview over Zoom, a person who said they created the CC Missed Connections account, but declined to reveal their identity for unspecified reasons, said they started the page with the intention of creating a positive space.
Though they didn’t anticipate the level of attention the page would garner, the creator said they are looking for ways to use their page to connect people. The main goal of it, they said, is creating another level of connection that was missing during COVID when many social interactions were limited.
As an anonymous page without any public faces behind it, at least one college administrator said there is a level of potential injury concealed within what is intended to be a positive, and in some ways, playful space. Research shows that when posts make students uncomfortable or encroach on the privacy of an individual, they can cause distinct harm.
On CC Missed Connections, one post from December read “Slim girl with the huge tits in the library, you single?” Roughly an hour after asking the alleged creator about this specific post, it disappeared from the account.
Other objectifying posts still appear on the account, such as one from Dec. 3 reading “Blonde Basketball girl with big boobs? Saw you coming out of Armstrong Today?”
In response to an informal survey publicized this December via posters within buildings around the CC campus, reactions to the account varied.
“I enjoy seeing people around campus getting gassed up!” said one student. Other students interviewed around campus said they found the account funny. In contrast, the majority of responses to the informal survey expressed doubt.
“I don’t really like it or think it’s a good idea,” one respondent said. “It has a great potential to harm people emotionally and physically.”
“I don’t agree with the sexist undertones that exist through the posts,” said another, echoing a sentiment shared in several responses.
“I know someone who feels insecure because it emphasizes how many other people are hot enough to have admirers on campus and he feels like no one admires him,” said a different respondent.
Anonymous social media pages can be detrimental to the mental health of young adults, says Heather Horton, CC’s Senior Director of Health and Wellbeing.
“I think there’s a lot of potential danger to anonymous stuff,” Horton said in an interview. “And with the proliferation of social media it has empowered people to do a lot of things that they would not do in their normal existence.”
For all their drawbacks, pages like CC Missed Connections still have the capacity to be constructive and wholesome, Horton said. “At one level I might be excited that a quarter of the student body is connecting with one another. There’s some potential for some beauty there.”
Like Horton, Student Body President Deksyos Damtew `22 sees the potential for positive impact of the page among students. In an interview, he acknowledged the tricky nature of anonymous sites, emphasizing respect and the maintenance of a space where students feel comfortable.
Damtew said he sees the account as what he called a “fun thing,” and said he knows students on campus engage with it. As long as there’s some level of understanding about what kind of content is acceptable, he said, “it kind of makes sense. To me at least.”
He continued, saying he feels there is definitely a line the account dances on of respecting individuals and not wanting to objectify them.
For missed connections profiles on other campuses, some creators make guidelines and regulations for pages abundantly clear. At the University of Connecticut, a missed connections page includes rules posted on its page’s highlights which are re-shared every week on its story. The rules allow for anyone to message the creator and have a post taken down, no questions asked. The guidelines ask that posts be respectful and appropriate, and encourage students to be as detailed as they want without being creepy.
For the owner of the University of Connecticut page, who also wished to remain anonymous, these rules are fundamental to the page.
“I made the rules before anyone had even submitted anything,” she said in an interview. They’re important to her because she knows “how anonymous pages can get out of hand.”.
The self-identified creator of University of Connecticut Missed Connections also uses her page as a space for positive mental health affirmations.
“I personally am passionate about mental health,” she said, “bringing positivity into people’s lives through the stories [I share] is something that I really enjoy doing.”
CC has dealt with a problematic intersection of anonymous social media and wellbeing on campus before.
In 2015, two CC students were suspended and expelled, respectively, over racist comments made on Yik Yak, an anonymous social media app.
The app, which was inactive for over four years, recently made a comeback on campus, adding to the myriad of ways CC students can express their thoughts anonymously.
From a legal standpoint, however, both the CC Missed Connections creator and those who submit connections to the account have some legal protection from potential exposure. To an extent.
Dawn Reveley, an attorney and adjunct professor at the University of Texas School of Law who taught two blocks at CC this year, said the owner of the page likely has minimal liability for what appears on the site. In the case of a free-for-all Instagram account, “that cloak of anonymity is the thing that is the greatest protection,” Reveley said. “It’s kind of difficult to pursue those individuals who have done something to harm somebody else on the internet.”
To sue against an anonymous account, an individual must identify the person behind the account on their own, says Reveley. To do so would require them to subpoena Instagram for this information.
The company lists a relevant policy on its website. If subpoenaed, they might provide “reasonable available basic subscriber information (not content), if any, only where the requested information is indispensable to a case and not within a party’s possession upon personal service of a valid subpoena or court order and after notice to affected account holders.”
In other words, Instagram will reveal the identity of an account owner when necessary in a legal proceeding and if the information is not already accessed by the requester. They will not, however, turn this information over easily, and they require legal documents compelling them to do so.
As for CC, Chad Schonewill, the assistant director of solutions services for CC’s Informations and Technology Services (ITS), indicates there is not much his office can do when it comes to finding out who is anonymously interacting with this account.
Schonewill said tracking down a student browsing a website in South Hall on Friday would be possible for them, and they could even identify a student who was on Instagram at a specific time. But figuring out who posted a specific Instagram picture, even if the student was on the campus’ internal wifi network, is not something ITS could do. “Being anonymous on the internet is pretty easy,” Shonewill said.
Schonewill thinks allegations of misconduct online would be more likely to go through traditional disciplinary channels, much like those that would investigate in person misconduct. ITS has occasionally been asked to investigate internet misuse, but he said the investigations never turned up much.
CC conduct responses are never a cut and dry process, but the path becomes exponentially more distorted when the perpetrator is shielded by the internet’s cloak of anonymity. In cases where the offender’s identity is known, their actions are evaluated in the context in which they were made, as well as the intention behind them and the impact they have on the groups they were aimed at.
Joshua Isringhausen, CC’s community standards and conduct manager, says that this response can take on many different forms, ranging from one-on-one meetings between him and the student to a disciplinary panel with different members of the campus community. In cases that are not explicitly discriminatory or prejudiced to a protected group, there becomes a gray area in how much the college can intervene.
“One of the challenges that we often have is we have to walk a fine line between First Amendment protection,” Isringhausen said, “(And) creating a community that is inclusive and welcoming and where people feel comfortable and safe.”
When shown several examples of certain posts shared earlier in this article, Isringhausen said he could not speculate whether they would be specific violations of campus policy, but that some posts would likely warrant a closer look if someone were to file a complaint.
In recent conversations with CC students, it’s clear some would like to see some level of regulation for the account.
One respondent who completed the informal survey for this story said they wished the page did a better job of moderating “so women are not constantly sexualized.”
Such policies might be coming.
The self-identified CC Missed Connections creator is working on implementing some of the feedback they have received from students. In a Dec. 11 direct message shortly after their interview for this story, the creator said they were “planning on putting up guidelines.”