In early March, Harvard released the Pulse Survey, a 10-question, anonymous questionnaire on inclusion and belonging. The survey seeks to provide a platform for every member of the University community to voice their opinions on campus culture and how to improve it. The last item requests, “Please suggest one or two concrete actions that you believe would improve the climate for all members of the Harvard community.”
The Pulse Survey is not the first Harvard-centric site to use anonymity to its advantage. In the past year, three anonymous online platforms have taken up this imperative to create digital communities: the Facebook groups “Overheard at Harvard” and “Harvard Confessions,” and the Yik Yak doppelganger Yard.chat.
“Most of the reason why I created Overhead was because there was not really a sense of overall Harvard community,” says Elynna Y. Chang ’21, founder, administrator, and co-moderator of “Overheard at Harvard.” Since the group’s creation in September 2018, its 3,807 members have posted hundreds of quotes heard around campus.
The most visible online social spaces for Harvard students are class year Facebook groups and the group “Harvard Memes for Elitist 1% Tweens” according to Chang. Even though the barriers to admission into the meme group are low, Chang explains its persistent exclusivity: “You must think of something funny and relatable to everyone, and then you must put it into meme format so that everyone understands.” In contrast, Overheard’s anonymous quote-sharing format facilitates the relatively quick and painless transcription of funny quips or bizarre remarks. The person posting also isn’t assumed to have submitted their own words, which relieves some pressure to produce likeable content.
The most popular posts generate floods of reactions and comments, most of which tag friends who could find the content relatable. One of Overheard’s most popular posts has over 260 reactions and 75 comments, and reads, “‘They found out that international students are twice as likely to be put in the quad.’ ‘Well, they’re already used to being overseas.’” Other content reflects the campus zeitgeist, whether it be midterms or housing assignments, as well as timeless themes like the difficulties of dating and the perils of problem sets.
Last semester, Chang started up a new Facebook page, “Harvard Confessions.” People message the page with their confessions, and moderators then number and post the nameless confessions publicly. While Chang says Overheard attracts more widely accepted “relatable” content, Harvard Confessions’ complete anonymity encourages people to post “things that everyone's feeling [but] that they're just afraid to say,” says Chang. Posts on the page contain everything from gushing compliments to searing complaints to sexual innuendos. Many confessions mention specific individuals. Other posts are more comedic. “I better be confession 100,” reads confession #101.
While the page’s anonymity allows Harvard students to more freely express their thoughts, moderators have to draw ethical lines and intervene when posts cross them. Initially, members could post directly to all other members of the group without any sort of vetting process. However, one day Chang checked her phone and found a post about overhearing a student describe “in very graphic detail how they would like kill their TF.”
She immediately deleted the post and wrote a long post in the group. “I was just like, please do not post anything that's related to violence or anything like that,” she says.
Since then, all posts to Overheard have required moderator approval. Chang and a team of seven administrators and moderators eliminate vulgar or targeted content, which they classify at their discretion. They filter out posts that mention anyone by name or include violence, sexual content, homophobia, and sexism.
Moderation doesn’t prevent controversial content and debate. Beyond garnering solidarity around shared secrets, Harvard Confessions once hosted an impassioned anonymous debate about “selling out.” Confession #108 admits to taking a job at Goldman Sachs, saying that they were “shunned from orgs, public service programs, and called a snake.” The student claimed that their job allowed their family to afford medical care for their father. Confession #131 responded to #108, blaming Goldman Sachs and similar companies for contributing to the situations of “families like yours [who] have to endure financial instability for lifesaving drugs.”
Later, Confession #135 comes to #108’s defense, condemning #131’s comment as “bizarrely inconsiderate.”
This sort of debate is aligned with Yard.chat’s stated purpose to “air opinions.” As stated in the website’s FAQ, it aims to address a problem with the University’s climate: “Harvard is a place where it is difficult to be vulnerable or controversial.” The site embraces anonymity as a useful tool, suggesting that “people are more willing to post their opinions when their reputations will remain intact, even if a majority disagree.” However, Yard.chat community members maintain the power not only to express opinions but also to censor posts: 10 downvotes on a post equals an automatic deletion.
Yard.chat’s moderator anticipates the “unsavory effects of anonymity” in the website’s FAQ, maintaining the final say over the platform's content. One frequently asked question reads: “Is this a free speech platform? Nope. Ultimately, I will determine what is good and what is bad.”
The moderator of Yard.chat declined to speak on the record for this story.
While Yard.chat intends primarily to spark silenced dialogue on campus, the site’s most popular post reads “Upvote for John from Annenberg” — a relatable, community-oriented celebration of a well-known freshmen dining hall staff member.
A different post critiquing Harvard’s Primal Scream ritual sparked reactions. It reads, “Primal scream be like: 🧑🏼👩🏼🧑🏼👩🏼🧑🏼👩🏼🧑🏼🧑🏼🧑🏾🧑🏼👩,” claiming a lack of racial diversity among the event’s participants. While it received 44 upvotes, there were only 4 replies and no dissenting opinions.
More explicit opinions also also appear in the feed. For instance, one user writes, “Harvard undoubtedly discriminates against Asian Americans in admissions. Affirmative action is bullshit.” The post received 9 upvotes but failed to generate a single reply.
Moderators’ and users’ perception of the freeing effects of anonymity reveals the perceived constricting quality of in-person dialogue, perhaps specifically at Harvard, or more broadly. The cloak of anonymity has a clear appeal. With 158 Harvard confessions, over 140 Yard.chat posts, and hundreds of Overheard at Harvard quotes, Harvard’s anonymous online platforms continue to humor procrastinating campus dwellers, whether or not they effectively build the community or foster the dialogue that students seek.