Students create booming Mason cyber culture

Over the past year, George Mason University has gained national recognition  and developed a more engaged student body. Now, Mason’s cyber community is taking the internet by storm.

On Feb. 12, the GMU sub-reddit hit over 1,000 subscribers. As of this article’s writing, the subscription sits at 1,001. A more recent creation, the GMU Confessions page, has attracted over 2,339 likes and nearly 700

The GMU sub-reddit is one Mason's online communities that has grown over the past year (photo courtesy of the GMU sub-reddit).

“confessions” about life and people on the Mason campuses almost overnight. Together they represent two growing, and very different, images of Mason’s new cyber culture.

Reddit is a social media site focused around content sharing, consisting of usually humorous or interesting pictures and discussions. This site breaks down into sub-reddits devoted to specific interests, for example r/gaming or r/batman, where content is focused around a particular topic. The Mason sub-reddit was formed 3 years ago, though the forum remained relatively inactive until Craig Haseler, a senior computer science major at Mason, became one of the forum’s moderators in 2011.

“A few years ago there was a college sub-reddit challenge to get more people to subscribe and post on your college pages,” Haseler said. “I’d worked with sub-reddits before so I offered my help. We made a new logo and used Google+ to spam people with the posts. We made a few hundred business cards and left them around. We got a few hundred [subscribers] and started having meetings. As it got bigger, Amar came on.”

Amar Sahai, who is also a senior studying computer science, was Haseler’s roommate at the time.

“When we spread to Facebook, Kara got involved,” Haseler said. “She became a mod (moderator) because she was doing more for it than any of us.”

Kara Mahoney is a junior studying computer science at Mason. Haseler, Sahai and Mahoney are the sub-reddit’s main moderators, overseeing and promoting the site’s content. Lately, some of that content has been question-and-answer sessions with various faculty members, including the director of parking services.

Haseler explained how the AMAs (Ask-Me-Anything) were set up:

“Dining and Networking came to us, I invited parking. We’re trying to get Mason’s admissions to come on. Scarily enough, we are one of Mason’s public faces.”

On the other side of the internet, Facebook’s GMU Confessions page is still cloaked in mystery. The college confessions pages have sprung up recently for several schools across the US, but the two behind Mason’s page spoke via email on the condition of anonymity.

“I saw a lot of people on my newsfeed paying attention to a university confessions page from my home state,” wrote one moderator. “I wanted to know more about my own peers and when I realized Mason didn’t have one, I started it myself!”

Both the GMU Confessions page and the GMU sub-reddit hold anonymity as a key pillar of their communities. It is part of their success: these sites are places where people can post statements from the safety of obscurity. However, as these sites are built around a relatively small community, there is natural speculation as to the identity of the parties involved.

 “I encourage people commenting about them (the Confessions),” said the GMU Confessions page’s founder, “and if they want to speculate they’re free to! The fact that these posts are creating new dialogues is what’s important.”

Not everyone agrees with them, and a rift has emerged in Mason’s cyber community. A post advertising GMU Confessions appeared on the Mason sub-reddit, but was taken down by the moderators.

“I made an executive decision to remove the post. It doesn’t seem healthy or moral, so we took it down,” Haseler said.

Even among the Reddit group there was some disagreement about whether GMU Confessions was immoral or violated people’s privacy.

“I don’t see that much personal information,” Sahai said. “And it mostly seems to be positive things.”

Haseler disagreed and said “the thing is, if I saw a post about me, would I feel good about this? And generally the answer is no. Even though a lot of it is positive, it’s usually stuff like, ‘Hey, this person has a great (butt)’.”

“We have professors and people like that on r/gmu,” Mahoney said. “So we don’t really want to be associated with a lot of that.”

There is also the concern that some of the confessions have been negative and very personal, despite anonymity.

For example, one confessor wrote:

 “I automatically think you are a [expletive] and that you don’t deserve to live.”

One post wrote out someone’s name with only three letters removed, claiming that everyone hates them and talks behind their back.

“There are many, many submissions that would qualify as cyber-bullying, but the other mod and I do not like to post those. The two you’re talking about are definitely mean-spirited, but they also reflect life’s realities in that people aren’t always going to have nice things to say to each other,” the GMU Confessions page creator wrote in the email on the condition of anonymity. “Also, anyone who messages the page asking for confessions to be taken down (it has happened a few times) will have their request granted.”

Regarding potential cyber-bullying, Haseler referenced a site that was popular his freshman year, College ACB. The site allowed students at Mason to post gossip and information about each other online. Students eventually petitioned the administration to have it blocked from internet accessibility. However, the site is accessible today. Stephanie Werhane, the Content Management System manager from Mason’s ITU/Technology Systems Division, said that a site would first be contacted with a cease and desist order from Mason’s legal department for violating Mason internet policy before any other action would be taken.

This is not to say that the GMU sub-reddit has not had its share of controversy. The highest rated post, submitted October of 2011, involves a disrobed girl performing a sexual act on the Mason statue. But between the moderators of the GMU sub-reddit, there’s a general sense that with they hold responsibility for what content gets posted.

“We would have shut it down were there any attempt to identify her,” Haseler said. “If we saw that top post now, we’d have a serious discussion about whether to allow that or not.”

One creator of the GMU Confessions says they share no such obligation to the school.

“While I’d be more likely to post a pro-GMU confession than a negative one, I don’t think about the school’s reputation when I post confessions and therefore haven’t really thought about any responsibility. Even when high-schoolers are on your [page], they are likely to hear a student say/do something that would make the school look bad, right? Again, its reality, and I don’t believe in censorship for the sake of an institution’s reputation. I enjoy being a Mason student, and I also enjoy my freedoms.”

The moderators of the GMU sub-reddit believe their group can be a force for good. They claim the sub-reddit has had a positive impact on their lives, especially through the meet-ups they arrange online.

“Someone makes a post and we meet up somewhere. We sometimes go to the upper floors on the JC and talk. It’s a good way to meet people,” Sahai said.

“At the very least,” Haseler laughed, “We all have Reddit in common.”

In the wake of the popularity of GMU Confessions, an offshoot called “GMU Crushes” has emerged where users can anonymously post the comments about other Mason students they find attractive. GMU Crushes does not share the GMU Confessions creators’ stipulation regarding anonymity, and many students are individually named.

“That sprung up separately!” said a moderator of GMU Confessions. “We are not the same people.”

Mason’s cyber culture extends to Twitter as well. Popular pages include “GMU problems”, where students complain about and lampoon illogical actions taken by the university. Another is “GMU [expletive] no one says”, which tends to focus more on aspects of student life.

There will be a town hall in the Johnson Center Cinema on Feb. 26, 12-1:30, devoted to the internet at Mason, focusing on connectivity at the school and the spread of social networking. Many representatives of the IT staff will be in attendance and available to answer questions.

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