Our Worst Idea Ever

Warning: this post contains adult language, as does the Penny Arcade comic to which I link.

Executive Summary

In a community that values and strives to uphold the principles of integrity, respect for others, and patience and understanding, the existence of an e-mail list dedicated to anonymous, angry ranting seems absurd. And yet it exists, in all its insidious, toxic glory.


Well-versed internet users may be familiar with the Penny Arcade comic on the internet and anonymity (http://www.penny-arcade.com/comic/2004/03/19). The general idea is that any normal person, when allowed to write things anonymously for an audience to read, will easily become a complete and utter, ah, jerkface. Olin students are in no way immune to this phenomenon, as evidenced by the conduct I have observed--frequently--on our two anonymous e-mail lists.

The Olin College Honor Code: A Brief Overview

Olin's community naturally differs from the greater internet community, however, in that all students sign and agree to live by the Honor Code, promising to respect our peers and treat one another with patience and understanding (among other things).

The Purpose of the Honor Code (found in the Olin College Student Handbook) states the following:

A fundamental element of Olin's culture is trust, made possible by the Honor Code's requirement that all community members strive to conduct themselves with honor and integrity. ... At Olin, we ask our students to engage in the hard work of figuring out how to translate values into action. (http://www.olin.edu/student_life/pdfs/student_handbook.pdf)

Translating values into action does not mean abandoning the Honor Code whenever an opportunity to be an anonymous jerkface arises. E-mails one writes are just as real as words that one says--they are actions.

The Olin College Honor Code itself states the following:

As a member of the Olin College community, I will strive to embody the spirit of honor and integrity... and will take action to address any breach of that spirit. Each member of the college community will accept responsibility for and represent accurately and completely oneself, one's work, and one's actions... Each member of the college community will express a personal commitment to the welfare of the community through a spirit of cooperation [and] concern for others... Each member of the college community will strive to foster harmonious relationships through empathy and mindfulness of others. (http://www.olin.edu/student_life/pdfs/student_handbook.pdf)

Distinct from many other "Honor Code" colleges, the majority of Olin's students assert that the Honor Code "actually works." If this claim is true, why are we largely unperturbed by the existence of the Therapy mailing list? Therapy allows and even encourages behavior that obviously counters the Honor Code and its principles. Explain to me how anonymously calling another list member a "fuckwad" is striving to foster harmonious relationships. If you want another, less obscene option, show me how the post sent in May that simply read, "Women be crazy" (no punctuation) embodies empathy and mindfulness of others. If you can do it, I will be more than impressed.

Anonymous E-mail Lists at Olin College: An Overview

Olin has a number of e-mail lists--288 at last count, though many are obsolete or used very infrequently--that students can join; two of these are anonymous. Both anonymous e-mail lists (Sexuality and Therapy, both completely opt-in, and encompassing--probably--less than a third or a fourth of the student population) were created during my time at Olin. Sexuality was the first, created by the president of the newly-formed Taboo Club. Sexuality's list info page says the following under the "About" section:

This list serves as a discussion and club-coordination forum for the Taboo Club. Taboo was born out of a desire to promote frank and open discussion of sexual topics in a safe, non-judgmental environment. This interest in discussion led to an interest in promoting sexual education in the Olin community, and to the celebration and expression of the intricacies of sex in the modern world. Discussion of sexuality is not simply limited to sex itself, but also includes analysis of cultural stereotypes, the modern sex-negative status quo and how it developed, conditioned views of sex, and modern reformative movements and literature. The founders of this club would like to remove the taboos surrounding sexual discussion, and this is their first step.

New Taboo Club members will be contacted by a club officer before their membership status is confirmed so that they understand the club mission, appropriate e-mail etiquette, and the sensitivity of the topics being discussed.

There are 4 basic ground rules:

1) This list may contain members that are under 18 years of age. Therefore, do not embed pornographic images in e-mails. You may link to pornographic material, but indicate the content of the link beforehand.

2) Please try to make subject lines "safe for work", so you don't unnecessarily offend someone who may glance at your Outlook e-mail pop-ups.

3) Please try to summarize the content of your e-mail in the first line of your e-mail. This will help keep people comfortable, as they get to opt-in to a discussion instead of having to read something they may not be interested in.

4) Please clearly label joke e-mails that might be construed as offensive or alarming.

This list is completely opt-in. The list is anonymous, in that when a member sends an e-mail to the list, the sender's name is replaced with [e-mail list address]. However, in cases of emergency, there are provisions for identifying the sender of an e-mail (see Anonymity Policy below). You may choose to include a "signature" to identify your e-mails and allow people to contact you directly, but that is entirely optional. The list is also unmoderated, so please use your discretion when posting. If you cannot abide by these rules, you can unsubscribe. If the list gets out of hand, it can and will be shut down.

Note that this description has been substantially expanded from its original form, but its spirit and intentions have not changed.

Initially, the list worked wonderfully, and was used for its exact purpose: inquisitive, respectful, and thoughtful discussion, as well as some general club planning. As time went on, however, and a new class of students entered Olin, the list's purpose began to fade to the background behind purposely disrespectful, inane, inflammatory, hostile, or otherwise counterproductive posts. "Flame wars" became a common occurrence, frustrating many students to the point of abandoning the list in droves, but also amusing at least a few, causing two such students to spontaneously start a second e-mail list dedicated to--basically--thoughtless ranting: Therapy.

Therapy was created more as a joke than anything else. It quickly became far worse--more inflammatory, hostile, and counterproductive--than the sexuality list had been. One of Therapy's creators has since referred to it as a "cesspit," which I feel is rather apt (though the same creator also asserts that Therapy has had some "very good discussion" in the past, which I cannot deny). Therapy's list info page states the following under the "About" section:

It was once pointed out that Oliners sometimes crave anonymity. That's what this list is for - complain, scream and whine all you like.


1) You're anonymous. This comes with two caveats: don't say who you are when you're bitching, and don't try to guess who everyone else is. If you want a rule of thumb: if YOUR post is anonymous, then everyone you talk about should be too. If you want to give away your name and be open to the proverbial sticks and stones, that's your problem.

2) You're welcome to be a huge jerk here. That's the point. But this rule comes with a clarification. When I say "jerk," I mean you can scream, cuss and be as impolite as you like. This isn't meant to contradict the respect clause of the honor code - be a jerk about opinions and ideas, not about people. And don't name names, or pseudonyms, or whatever clever thing you might think of.

3) What goes on in Therapy stays in Therapy.

4) Refer to Penny-Arcade's Greater Internet Fuckwad Theory with any questions.


The general spirit of this description, especially when compared to that of the sexuality list, clearly induces a different sort of behavior. Thoughtful discussion is never mentioned or even hinted at--there is no purpose in mind other than simply blowing off steam. What happened to punching bags, jogging, and ranting to one's friends? And then there are the rules, which seem intended to prevent disaster rather than to encourage responsible, respectful, and thoughtful behavior. Note that rule number 2 was amended (the third through fifth sentences are new) after Therapy members used its original phrasing taken to the logical extreme--that is, that it was permissible to be a huge jerk to other Olin students when posting to the list. Other list members pointed out that the Honor Code applies to e-mail as well as other conduct, and the list's creators expanded and clarified the rule.

Rule number 3 is absurd. In fact, I have knowingly violated it in this very post. I am prepared to face the consequences of my actions (and words). I justify such rule-breaking in the following way (as, indeed, I am a member of the list, and therefore ought to abide by its rules): I am not, as you may have guessed, fond of Therapy. I therefore feel no qualms in publicly disparaging it. (I joined it out of curiosity. I wish I hadn't. Thanks to reading its frequent and life-wasting threads, I have developed a vendetta against it.) The list of Therapy members is only available to the list administrators, and thus I can reveal the identity of nobody other than myself; to do otherwise would be profoundly uncool. We should all be answerable to our own actions; anonymity and rules such as rule number 3 remove this accountability. Rule number 3 counters my sense of rightness, and I cannot abide by it. Thus I continue my moral crusade against Olin's anonymous e-mail lists unhindered by ethical qualms about rule-breaking. As the old adage goes, all is fair in war and internets.

Although these two lists presented themselves in dramatically different manners--one serious, one laughable--the resultant discussions all tended toward the same place, and away from the Honor Code. (To be fair, however, the reforms that the Taboo club enacted seem to have helped significantly; Therapy's very slight reforms have helped, well, very slightly.)

Am I innocent of sending such counterproductive e-mails? No. I've sent some e-mails that I am completely embarrassed to have written. How did it happen to me? I'm still not entirely sure. I refer myself to the Penny Arcade comic in order to answer that question (though, as you may have noticed, contrary to the assertion of Therapy rule number 4, the comic is not overly helpful). About a year ago, I started signing all e-mails that I sent to either list in order to make myself accountable for my words. A few others take such action, and the smarter ones unsubscribe from the list. Once I overcome my own morbid fascination with it, I too will unsubscribe.

Honor and Anonymity

Honor and anonymity simply do not mesh. The cowardly and disrespectful behavior that anonymity allows, encourages, and perhaps even causes violates our core values. Such e-mails truly undermine the sense of trust in our small community. The Honor Code and the sense of trust it promotes are things that Olin students certainly claim to value--many even say that such trust is their favorite aspect of Olin's student life.

So why does Therapy still exist? I will attempt to answer this question, but the true answer is that I do not know, and I often ask myself that same question.

My attempted answer is this: many Olin students do not care. The students who wrote the Honor Code have long since graduated, and each entering class seems to find it less and less important and relevant--it has become something that should only be used in extreme and otherwise unresolvable circumstances. The Honor Board and the act of reporting a student for a suspected Honor Code violation are tossed around fairly frequently on Therapy, as though they are some sort of joke--as though ridiculing a document that Olin students have written for the betterment of other Olin students is really going to stick it to "The Man." I think, dear Therapy, that the joke is on us.

Do Something

So, few Olin students who may be reading this, here is your call to action: Olin is our own school. To a certain degree, we can do what we want with it. What do you want to do with it?

We don't have to abolish Therapy, clearly; it's existed this long without having been destroyed. However, the fact that we still tolerate it is insufficient justification for its continued existence. Therapy's defenders need to create a compelling argument for why we should preserve it, as well as a plan for how it can endure without consistently encouraging students to violate the Honor Code.

My vote? Abolish it.

To my classmates: regardless of Therapy's existence status, I challenge you to always hold yourself accountable for your own words and actions, and to encourage others to do the same. Only we can create a community of trust--and only we can destroy it.

I will close with an e-mail that is about to happen on Therapy. Clearly it is not staying on Therapy. Consider rule number 3 officially broken--for roughly the fourth time so far today.

Dear Therapy:

I wrote a blog post that you aren't going to like.


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