By Eshna Sharma (UG23) and Rutuparna Deshpande (UG23)
Anything goes under the garb of anonymity on the internet. It unleashes some of our best and worst behaviours. The case of one anonymous Instagram account, @au.rants.23, managed by some industrious UG23s is another retelling of the story of toxic online spaces. In this first instalment in a two-part series, we speak to two of the ex-administrators of the page about their experiences and ask, what’s the way forward?
Started around the second half of last academic year, the page only grew in popularity over the summer break. The purpose of the page is made explicit in the bio: “Made for and by the A.U. batch of ’23 👨🎓👩🎓 No bullying/harassment allowed. 🚫”. However, it is up for debate whether it has delivered on the second half of its promise.
The admins of the page claim to provide an avenue where students of the batch can relay not only their hopes, anxieties and fears but also their opinions on various issues—opinions that are not filtered by those who run the page, in order to provide a democratic space for expression. The page regularly conducts polls in order to gauge the opinion of its followers, and also provides updates on admin changes, which are quite frequent.
One striking feature of the page is the sheer volume of submissions: at the time of this interview, one admin claimed that there were 1600 submissions to sort through. A process of screening is employed such that any personal mentions are only posted with consent. The kinds of posts can be broadly categorised as pertaining to mental health struggles, relationships, family, appreciation posts and the most contentious of the lot, cultural debates.
It is latter which has embroiled the page in considerable controversy and led to multiple admins ‘resigning’ within a matter of days since assuming charge. The account of one of the admins, in their own words, makes it clear that the page weighs down heavily on the mental health of those who manage it:
How was your experience of running the page?
“My short term as the admin was not pleasant… The workload along with the absolute toxic nature of the confessions we have to go through daily is just maddening…People get mad at the things posted. People get mad at the things not posted. People get mad when we give our opinions and people get mad when we don’t give our opinions”
What kind of trends did you notice in the kind of confessions that came in?
“…I would just be on Instagram looking at people’s stories and just realising that people are going to be talking about these in the confessions later…Right now you have the whole ‘men are trash’ thing going on… the confessions never stop because everyone has a problem with everything and an anonymous page gives them that shield to say whatever they want”
We noticed that the admins of the page kept changing quite frequently? What are your thoughts on this?
“…It’s incredibly taxing to stay on schedule and post 18 confessions a day…People attack you on everything going on with the page… we aren’t doing this for some sort of personal glory or anything…it genuinely proved to be helpful to some people…I don’t think anybody can or should stay in such an environment for long and so we have to keep changing admins for the sake of our own sanity”
In contrast, another admin—who, it is important to note, assumed charge only for a week before having to drop out due to controversy—maintains that they had a positive experience running the page. They believe it allowed them to interact with peers, and engage with people’s thoughts in an informal and relaxed setting, an essential part of the college experience that online teaching has been unable to replicate fully and satisfactorily. They contend that many followers themselves came forward in order to appreciate the space for friendly communication that the page provides.
While opinions about the page are mixed, one thing remains clear: the page functions as a microcosm imitation of the internet, and is quite unlike anything that would happen in real life. The crucial question here is whether the toxicity is a symptom of the mechanics of the page, i.e. the anonymity, or a larger reflection of Ashoka.
To the batches that have never been on campus, UG23 and UG24, the impression seems to be the latter. Will these expectations of Ashokan discourse be transformed by a campus experience and timely intervention or will it shape the nature and trajectory of the discourse itself?
In almost every corner of the internet, anonymity does bring out hope and toxicity in equal measure and discourse is always marred with miscommunication. While we cannot ‘fix’ the whole internet, we must deal with the local issue and the only workable solution here is to do away with the page entirely. We must consider establishing better channels to facilitate student interaction. However, then what is the utility of such a page at all?
If the answer is providing a space to vent then surely more informal ‘rant sessions’ or video calls—something that admins of the page organise albeit irregularly—will solve that problem to an extent. The cost of losing some anonymity is overridden by the benefit of potentially finding a truly empathetic space where interaction can take place more healthily and smoothly. If anything, more selective spaces that are built around a particular issue will at least limit the burden on anyone regulating the space as opposed to the open playground that is au.rants.23. We need not make admins the sacrificial animal at the altar when we don’t even have any data about its effectiveness. There is no need to make the admins overlook their own mental well-being when there are more efficient ways possible.
If another answer is that the page has allowed many unfiltered opinions to be expressed without facing social ostracization then we need to have a closer look at what ostracization means. Does mere disagreement count, is it mixed with ridicule or does it also include some moral judgment? Interestingly though, there seem to be many more posts about being ostracized than active examples of the ostracization in question—a lot of smoke with no gun in sight. Instagram comment sections and anonymous posts are not built for the ideal ‘open dialogue’, then why expect them to be just that?
In the next article in this two-part series, we focus on further developments with the page, as well as discuss the impact it has had on the incoming batch of 2024.