"My boyfriend has no clue this is coming, but it's time to break up with him."
That was a recent Facebook post by a New York University student. Most people wouldn't choose to post that type of personal information for all of their friends (and their boyfriend) to see online. However, that post wasn't a status update. It was an anonymous post on the New York University Secrets page, a Facebook page devoted to publishing students' most well-kept secrets for others to read and comment on. That particular update was the 1,106th post on the page. Overall, NYU Secrets has almost 10,000 likes.
Why are these secret sharing pages so popular? For a generation addicted to social media outlets like Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram, they provide an even more personal way to gain self-validation and express anxieties without actually having to deal with real relationships. The social media addiction is growing, and it has tangible costs, both in time and emotional investment. Studies have shown that frequent Facebook use makes some users more lonely and socially anxious.
Other colleges have also recently started "Secrets" pages, although NYU's page remains the most popular in terms of likes. The University of California at Irvine Secrets page has about 6,600 likes, and the University of Minnesota Confessions page has about 5,800 likes. School administrators see the pages as reflecting badly on the universities, but students think the pages build community and show potential applicants a real view into the school's culture. The creator of NYU Secrets, who has so far been successful in keeping his identity anonymous, started the page to bring NYU students together, and now gets 70 to 100 submissions each day. However, many of those submissions center around depressed thoughts about not belonging at NYU or failing a class.
Can posting an anonymous secret to a web page really provide the same cathartic release and support as confiding in a close friend or relative? That's hard to believe. Even though commentators on the posts are generally supportive, and often refer posters who seem depressed to university student health resources, they don't know the poster in person.
Of course, corporations were quick to pick up on the trend and find a way to profit. The Whisper iPhone app lets people make the same types of anonymous confessions that they make on Facebook pages. You can tag whispers with a location, and comment on the whispers of others. The anonymous secrets sharing phenomenon is spreading beyond campuses and Facebook to become a social networking tool on its own. There have already been a few controversies surrounding anonymous secret sharing, and more will come if the trend continues to grow.
For example, one post on NYU Secrets gained national attention when it accused a professor of disrespecting Christianity:
“ConWest teacher freshman year for ‘antiquity and the 19th century’ referred to the Bible as a ‘Book of Spells’ and ‘The original Harry Potter’ regularly when he would use it as a piece of the lecture. I am not even that religious, but found it so disgusting and disrespectful that I had no choice but to file a complaint. He no longer teaches classes at NYU.”
While the claim that the teacher was fired was proven false, the post resulted in multiple comments for and against the student's actions, and was covered by Christian news organizations, who used the story to argue that liberal universities are pushing students to become atheists.
However, the saddest secrets are those like number 1136:
"I was diagnosed with cancer last year. I told some of my friends here but not my family. I paid a lot of the costs of short-term treatment out of pocket. Now treatment has pretty much proved ineffective and it looks like I'm not going to be around much longer. I'm too scared to tell my family at this point. Don't feel like worrying/saddening my friends anymore than they have been. My only regret is that I gave up the one person I really cared about here because my own stupid pride. That said ... Wouldn't trade all my years at NYU for a damn thing. Appreciate this place, you'll miss it more than you can imagine."
Perhaps before the age of Facebook friendships and anonymous secret sharing, that person would have reached out to real friends and family for help.