School’s out for summer in Hudson, Ohio, but students haven’t left campus behind completely. They couldn’t if they tried: an unsettling source of gossip has agitated the student body, broadcasting classmates’ confessions about their crushes, enemies, and sexual escapades. It’s anonymous, unregulated, and occasionally veers into bullying. And it’s all happening on Twitter, powered by a controversial Q&A service called Ask.fm.
At Hudson High School, Facebook is yesterday’s news — "Most of Facebook is just people saying, 'Is anyone still on Facebook?'" one student says — and increasingly, students are interacting on Twitter. In the five months since it was created, an account named Hudson Confessions (@HudConfessions) has amassed more than a thousand followers, or about two-thirds of the size of Hudson’s current student body.
It has delighted and tormented the teens who follow it, confounded administrators, and raised questions about how schools should respond to social media sharing that remains almost totally outside their control. Sometimes, the tweets are untrue. Other times, the account tweets blind items that transfix the school. "Everyone’s self-conscious about it," says one incoming junior at Hudson. "It always becomes, ‘Who was that confession about? Who sent that in? I want to know.’ It kind of controls the social aspect of the school."
"It kind of controls the social aspect of the school."
Across the country, schools are adapting to an explosion in social media use among students. What happens online often has consequences on campus; by 2011, nearly half of US teens had been affected by cyberbullying, according to the National Crime Prevention Council. "Most kids these days are going to have some type of experience with cyberbullying," says Marcia Ellis, the council’s youth program manager.
To see how that’s playing out on campus, you need only to open Twitter.
'We’re all really sensitive'
An affluent suburb of 22,000 people, Hudson lies about 15 miles northeast of Akron. It is the kind of place where students whisper about the parents who bought their child a Lamborghini. "We’re all a bunch of snotty rich kids," says a half-joking Molly Millsaps, 18. The town had a median income of $117,361 in the most recent census, and on campus, smartphones are ubiquitous.
Students have a conflicted relationship with @HudConfessions. "At first it was a really good idea," Millsaps says. "And a really cool way to bring us together as a student body." The account tweeted knowing jokes about teachers, for example, or gave some students a self-esteem boost when a secret admirer relayed words of affection.
"At first it was a really good idea."
Lately, though, something has changed. "Everyone in Hudson is ugly," @HudConfessions announced on Thursday afternoon. It’s the sort of message that gets posted to the account 20 times a day or more.
Students submit their gossip anonymously using Ask.fm, a Latvia-based startup that mimics the features of the now-defunct Formspring (New York City mayoral candidate Anthony Weiner recently admitted using Formspring to exchange sex chats with a woman last summer.) Users can submit gossip into a text box without so much as registering for an account. The anonymous moderator or moderators of @HudConfessions, who did not respond to requests for comment, pick out several messages to post to Twitter each day. The account’s only request of students, which isn’t always followed: "stay classy."
Often, the tweets posted by @HudConfessions call out students for being good-natured or attractive. But not always. Recently, one post accused freshman class girls of being sluts; another rooted for a new girl not to fit in. "I could see something bad happening through it," said one junior. "Everyone in high school, we’re all really sensitive to what people say. I have a feeling that at some point, something will go out to hurt somebody."
In fact, it already has. When some students became frustrated that their submissions to @HudConfessions were not being posted this spring, someone set up an account called @HudUncensored that began broadcasting gossip about a star athlete’s life. The account shut down abruptly in under two weeks, but not before he got in big trouble with his parents. "That was disgusting," says Millsaps. "It was only absolutely outrageous things. ‘I was the first person to have sex on the new turf field.’ You’re like woah, I did not need to know that."
Confessionals migrate to Twitter
Online confessionals have been around almost since the beginning of the internet as we know it. They have followed wherever young people have gone, from Usenet to AOL chat rooms to Livejournal to Tumblr. Now the confessionals are migrating to Twitter, and they seem to be especially popular on campuses. In Ohio alone this spring, the Canton Repository found five confessional Twitter accounts for high schools in the Akron area — not including @HudConfessions, which was just getting started — plus accounts for Ohio University and Ohio State.
"I do believe it can be harmful for students, as well as much other social media."
Twitter takes confessions that may have once remained relatively obscure and broadcasts them on a service students are checking constantly throughout the day. Unlike a LiveJournal or Tumblr, Twitter can alert students every time @HudConfessions tweets. And when gossip meets push notifications, the drama on campus gets amplified accordingly. Jennifer Chadima, a counselor at Hudson, tells students to avoid reading @HudConfessions. "I understand that is not easy for them to do," she writes in an email to The Verge. " "I do believe it can be harmful for students, as well as much other social media."
Ask.fm, which has 200 million users and is signing up 300,000 more per day, has increasingly found itself at the center of bullying controversies worldwide. Multiple publications, including Britain’s The Daily Mail, have linked it to teen suicides. The company declined an interview request, but told The Verge that it shuts down accounts that are abusive. Indeed, yet another Hudson gossip account called HudsonSmack — which posted almost nothing but attacks on Hudson students — was shut down after The Verge inquired about it.
Managing Twitter addiction
Like many high schools, Hudson has implemented various measures to regulate students’ use of the internet on campus. The Wi-Fi at Hudson blocks access to many sites, and students are not supposed to use cellular connections while on campus. If a faculty member or administrator confiscates a student’s phone for any reason, policy permits them to search through every text and app on the phone.
Hudson principal Brian Wilch did not respond to requests for comment. By all accounts, though, the school’s efforts have done little to diminish students’ interest in discussing their classmates online. "Whether it’s Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, or any other online personality engine, kids find a way to connect with it," says Marc Zustin, a teacher at the school, in an email:
I think at first it's all curiosity... but then they become emotionally invested in it and sometimes it consumes them. This is where we as teachers start seeing students on their phones during class worrying about who is tweeting what and so on. That's when curiosity turns to addiction.
Zustin says administrators do a good job managing students’ social media activities, and even use it to the school district’s advantage. Teachers often remind students about their homework on Facebook and Twitter, for example. But students say that policies often lag far behind the latest technology fads; they giggled when an annual presentation about sexting included a video that featured a flip phone. "They’re trying to help, but they’re so out of touch," says Will Smidlein, 16, an incoming junior at Hudson. (Smidlein will be familiar to some Verge readers as the mad genius who Rickroll’d Vine.) "I guess the question is, is it possible for them to keep up?"
While administrators consider their options, students can only watch and wait — and hope they are not mentioned in any unflattering tweets. "People do say horrible, horrible things," another junior says. "You were very lucky to have not gone through this in high school. It’s way more complicated."
"Cyberbullying is not a rite of passage."
Ellis, of the Crime Prevention Council, says parents and students should be vigilant about monitoring teens’ online behavior and reporting anything that crosses the line. "Cyberbullying is not a rite of passage," she says. "It’s really about an imbalance of power, where somebody wants to intimidate, to harass, to cause harm to someone else. That kind of intimidation and harassment should never be acceptable."
At Hudson some students are fighting back, calling on the person or people behind @HudConfessions to come forward. "You are cowards, hiding behind an anonymous name," one of them wrote on Ask.fm. "You are cowards who glorify themselves by holding some fake superiority over others." Another student asked: "What ever happened to ‘stay classy’?"
But the unknown moderator was unperturbed. "These are the opinions of your fellow classmates," they wrote. "You may want to take it up with them."