James McPherson's Media & Politics Blog

Observations of a patriotic progressive historian, media critic & former journalist


  • By the author of The Conservative Resurgence and the Press: The Media’s Role in the Rise of the Right and of Journalism at the End of the American Century, 1965-Present. A former journalist with a Ph.D. in journalism, history and political science, McPherson is a past president of the American Journalism Historians Association, a board member for the Northwest Alliance for Responsible Media, and a professor of communication studies at Whitworth University.

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Inane confessions of the anonymous kind

Posted by James McPherson on February 23, 2013

When I was a kid, a friend’s mother always seemed to have copies of “confessional” magazines such as True Confessions or True Romance lying around. They seemed pretty silly and I didn’t understand their appeal, though of course I wasn’t among the target audience.

Such publications do have a long history (the issue pictured here is as old as I am). As a media scholar, I now have a better understanding of why those magazines became popular — why people choose the media they do – though at a personal level I still have trouble understanding the attraction of those particular publications.

And like some other forms of other print media, those magazines have largely disappeared. But of course the inane “true confession” style of media has only spread, from Oprah and Jerry Springer to reality television to the “anonymous” Facebook sites that have now become popular with the college crowd — including, sadly, among the generally more sensible students where I teach. Though I guess I shouldn’t be surprised or too disappointed by that; such sites can also be found for the likes of Harvard, Yale, Stanford and Princeton.

In fact, if you want to depress yourself, the next time you’re on Facebook do a search for “university confessions.” Or put in the name of your own university — there’s probably at least one “confessions” page there (some have two or more), with dozens or hundreds of undergrads sharing their supposed insecurities, misdeeds, fantasies, sexual escapades, etc., so that other students can then provide a running commentary.

I wonder: Does the “confessor” who gets the mosts comments feel as if s/he has “won” something?

The Facebook confessions craze is relatively new, but seemingly nearly as ubiquitous as renditions of the “Harlem Shake.” “Confessions” pages have caused problems at a few schools, including the National University of Singapore, the University of Wisconsin-Lacrosse and Sam Houston State University. Mostly they just reflect poorly on the students involved and their universities.[Update: At the high school level, perhaps cause more problems have come from both confessions pages and the “Harlem Shake.”]

As a writer and former college student who now spends most of his time around students, I suspect that many of the supposed “confessions” are fiction. Most seem to be trivial. A fair number are simply stupid. A few of the most troubling, whether true or not, seem to reflect a need for their writers to take advantage of the counseling services available (probably for free) at their institutions.

In part because media around the world have chosen to treat them as news, I decided to contribute my small bit here. Still, as far as making a meaningful contribution to the media world at large, the “confessions” might as well have been scribbled in crayon on notebook paper, folded into paper airplanes, and then launched into the wind.

I also suspect that the trend and the sites themselves will be fleeting, disappearing even before their student moderators graduate and go on to other things. In the meantime, the sites will worry some university administrators, titillate some juvenile readers, offend some people, and be ignored by most — pretty much like every other form of student media throughout history.

One thing I do somewhat appreciate about these Facebook sites, particulary compared to blogs: While the original posts may be anonymous, the commenters are not. That undoubtedly reduces some of the vitriol so often found among bloggers and among those who can comment anonymously on blogs — people who obviously should have no more credibility or popularity than the anonymous “true confessions” on Facebook and in once-popular magazines.

Oh, and if you’ve somehow managed to miss the whole “Harlem Shake” phenomenon (which may have absolutely nothing to do with the original “Harlem Shake”), here is a compilation of examples:

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6 Responses to “Inane confessions of the anonymous kind”

  1. Reuel said

    So true and most relevant in this world of anonymous comment’s as I to have done from time to time. Not confessions but sometimes in deception as I did with Ellen at one site in the past. The simpler times of the past are not lost, just drowned out by what seems to be popular today. One can only wonder what future generations will think of the Non-Reality world of today. Hind sight is to the 70′s and 80′s as today will be decades ahead of us. Oh the bell bottoms are yes my contribution to the regrets of my educational years. But they seem harmless on today level of Un-Reality and careful wordsmiths that make lies believable.

  2. James McPherson said

    Ah, bell bottoms. I tell my students that at least we didn’t know how ugly 1970s fashion was at the time, because it was new–having seen it before, they should know better. :-) I’m also frequently reminded of how glad I am that Facebook and YouTube did not exist when I was the age of my students. The odds of me teaching at a Christian university today would probably be much lower, if social media and cell phone cameras had been around.

  3. jm said

    “the vitriol so often found among bloggers”

    And, it was thick, course and, like confessionals, quite revealing in response to the First Lady’s video appearance at the Oscars!

    I wonder what commentaries would have revealed in 1981 when President Reagan addressed the audience at the Oscars by tape, and in 1941 when President Roosevelt did the same by radio had digital and social media existed?

    Link: http://www.nytimes.com/1981/03/12/nyregion/notes-on-people-reagan-on-tape-will-greet-oscars-audience.html?smid=tw-share

    So much for politics.

    Great piece, and a good read.

    I enjoyed it!

  4. James McPherson said

    “And, it was thick, course and, like confessionals, quite revealing in response to the First Lady’s video appearance at the Oscars!”

    Fortunately I haven’t had time to read the blogs or watch the Academy Awards, but I’m not surprised. Thanks.

  5. Reuel said

    The money spent to pat themselves on the back at the Academy Awards is enough to cure hunger in some third world countries. Yet the tax breaks they get are no better than the ones the other side allot their followers. Bet we could resolve dead line this Friday (That is being exaggerated) by just cutting the special interest of both political parties. 85 billion cut on projected increases is about a week worth in Washington spending. The cut is no cut, they still are on track to spend more this year than last. “Cuts”? Ah back to the wordsmiths and their silver tongues of twisted truths.

    The Harlem shake should be replaced by a new “Meme” The Washington Hustle, Speaking of 70′s regrets? The Hustle and disco is yet another proof humans do stupid things they regret in the later days of life. :-)

  6. Would you believe that i just started doing the FB?! (A while back ago, Mr. Kells set up an account for me so that I may post at our local paper, but I had never played over there.) I must say that I feel like a bit of a voyeur over there. I spy on my sons and others! I got to see a pic of B. in striped pants! That was priceless!

    I’m an honest person so I can understand if I offend on the FB or other sites. Two words: I care. (Did you hear that Indiana Joens whip crack?)

    SBJ, surely you see that Confessions has only been updated? I’m quite sure that Cosmopolitan could give me a “21 Ways to Prolong His Orgasm” article. Then again, I suppose I would find that in the O magazine…..

    Don’t understand this Harlem Shake. I prefer the General Lee Shake: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BLjbKDAlrKU

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