On the limestone walls of Pompeii’s ruins, you can find graffiti. Words from thousands of years ago, etched by scribes who will never be known, and never wanted to be. What do they say? Found next to a bar: “Would that you pay for all your tricks, innkeeper. You sell us water and keep the good wine for yourself”; “Epaphra, you are bald!”; and, poetically, “Theophilus, don’t perform oral sex on girls against the city wall like a dog”. Ever since humankind have been able to write, we have used that power to anonymously complain, insult, and gossip. I, for one, think that’s beautiful.
Oscar Wilde once said, “Man is least himself when he talks in his own person. Give him a mask, and he will tell you the truth.” There is something uniquely freeing about anonymity. When you can voice opinions without them being tied to you, you’re free of the consequences they incur; no one can track you down and punish you, nor can they judge you for having an opinion no one else does. That’s why we have written on city walls for millennia, why we publish books under pseudonyms, why we ask journalists to hide the names of whistleblowers. It’s why over 22 million people a month use anonymous online forum 4Chan. And it’s why almost 14,000 Facebook users follow the page ‘USYD Rants 2.0’.
I am one of these Facebook users. I have never posted a rant, never commented on one, and have liked maybe 10 in my whole time following the page. And yet, when I scroll through my feed and see one of the many posts the page uploads per day, I can’t help but stop and read. The rants range from petty gripes about USyd admin or classes, requests for dating or friend-making advice, campus coffee recommendations, and dense paragraphs about Zionism. Many posts refer back to each other, forming a sort of mediated dialogue about a given hot topic between anonymous individuals. I wanted to explore what it is about USYD Rants that draws people to it, why it gets as heated as it does, and how it actually works.
USYD Rants: A quick history
USYD Rants started in November 2014. The original page still has 46,000 followers, despite having been inactive since March, 2020, when the admins lost access to it and created USYD Rants 2.0. Some of the earliest rants on the original page include “Shut up about Frozen”, “Dat feel when you support (regulated) capitalism because you look at facts and figures, not dreams and delusions. 😉”, “I hate Redfoo”, and “When you know there is no food in the refrigerator but you keep opening it for no reason…”.
There are also rants from 2014 which would be much less out of place in 2022; gripes about people walking slowly on the Redfern walk, back-and-forths between “Northshore/Eastern suburbs haters” and private school proponents, and complaints about the state of bathrooms on campus (see page 20). The admins at the time would comment on these posts somewhat frequently, either by adding a comment underneath or adding commentary in the body of the rant demarcated with an asterisk. Like today, they would post multiple times daily. Despite the eight years’ difference, the machinations of moderating the page seem largely unchanged.
To find out what those machinations are, I interviewed two Rants admins. Like the people who write submissions, the admins are anonymous. I don’t know how many there actually are, let alone any details which could lead me to their identities. As such, I contacted them by messaging the page. For the purposes of clarity, I’ll call them A and B.
To submit a rant, you fill out a Google form. This, too, is anonymous — the admins don’t know who the posts are from. “Our policy is all of [the rants submitted] get posted unless they go against specific guidelines,” Admin A tells me. Those guidelines include: being too long (“an essay”), too short (the rant won’t be posted if it’s “4 words long”), clearly offensive to a certain group of people, or one of several similar rants submitted that day about a single issue.
B explains their process of discerning the latter criterion: “I personally just post the [rant about a common topic] that I see first, because the exact same sentiment is being communicated [in each rant] anyway. We aren’t going to post 5 rants in a row about students saying they’re stressed, we’ll post maybe 2.” Once posted, some admins choose to comment on the posts — as I mentioned, this was something that happened in 2014, but hadn’t happened for a while until the recent handover of admins earlier this year.
At present, there are two new admins who began at the start of this semester. Prior to this, the previous admin had overseen the page for roughly two years, with much less of a personal presence on the page than at present. The ‘personality’ of USYD Rants as an entity is linked to the individuals who run it; editorial comments left by admins which agree or disagree with the posted rant in personal pronouns, and engagement with their own posts such as sad reacting.
The rise of [redacted] rants
The latest editorial change in this vein is the recent ‘[redaction]’ of rants that go against the page’s guidelines — replacing entire rants about the colleges or racist sentiments with fun animal facts. This level of personal intervention from the admins is unprecedented – where previously, admins would generally not post rants of this nature, the new admins outline what the post was about prior, their thoughts on it, and then animal-posting. Whether this is a result of jaded admins or a new approach, its reception by students has been mixed.
One post reads: “A response pro-college rant essay. Wow. USYD literacy rates are so low no one can follow simple instructions. WE DON’T POST ESSAYS. Also, this is a Gouldian Finch. They rely on fire to burn the undergrowth so they can eat the seeds underneath.” Another: “There was a long multi-paragraph rant about liberals or something. I’m not proofreading it. Have a picture of a pygmy possum instead, they’re cute and endangered, unlike your political opinion.” There have been six posts like this in the last four days. Arguably, the choice to make posts like these only further muddies the waters of what the admins do or don’t post, redact or don’t redact.
According to the admins, they use these posts as opportunities to communicate things they find important. “We realised that as admins, we have our own personalities that we don’t have to check at the door,” A says. “We’re not just the guardians of copy and paste. If there are issues/ jokes that we want to raise, this is the best platform to do so… [Endangered animals are] something I feel passionate about (and share frequently from my own page) but would never dream of getting the platform for without USYD rants.”
Is USYD Rants too political?
This leads to the first complaint I’ve heard when speaking to students about USYD Rants: a concern that the admins have too much curatorial power. I have spoken to students who have submitted rants that weren’t posted, with one telling me that, during the flurry of rants posted about the NTEU strikes in early October, she had submitted pro-strike rants which never made the page.
A and B tell me there were hundreds of rants about strikes submitted each day, and that they made an effort to post rants supporting a range of perspectives. A says, “I personally attempted to post as close to 50/50 as possible,” but notes that the proportion of pro- or anti-strike rants is informed by what gets submitted: “I can’t post pro strike if no one is submitting [pro-strike] rants and vice versa.” They also both insist that they post rants which don’t align with their personal politics. B tells me, “if it’s an opinion I personally disagree with but it’s a valid point, I would still post it, to just represent a spectrum of opinions”. They note, however, that some admins “are more political than others”.
Despite this, many students I’ve spoken to have expressed dismay at a perceived right-wing bias reflected in the rants chosen to be published. “The admins clearly have a political perspective that’s not helping,” one student suggests, while conceding that the increased right-wing presence may be due to the page receiving “a lot of reactionary rants as of late.”
Regardless of the actual extent of admin intervention, the perception of the page as highly political seeps into how students use it. Many students told me they disliked how “political” the page had become, with the admins themselves even expressing frustration over it.
“People… often read too much into our posting patterns and make assumptions about our political standings etc.,” B says. “I put a mental health disclaimer in the page description because there were recent posts re mental health and suicide, and some political person tried to twist it against us by making it seem like this was related to the strike content we were posting.”
Many of the rants cover hotly debated issues, such as whether the NTEU strikes are helpful or harmful, whether there should be period products in male bathrooms, and many, many takes about the colleges. To address the newspaper-print elephant in the room: yes, there have been an abundance of rants about Honi Soit, including its coverage of the Queen’s death, its editors’ political stances, and mistakes it has made. These strongly opinionated rants, as well as the comments which accompany them, can put people off the page.
What keeps us coming back?
I can think of five reasons. First: people love gossip. Anonymity encourages ranters to talk about shocking or taboo things, like flirtations with tutors and StuPol scandals. Second, even when they’re not scandalous, the rants are often just entertaining. Furthermore, the rants act as canaries in the coal mine of public opinion; submitting a rant to be anonymously posted gives you a chance to see what others think of it without the risk of reputation damage. Fourth, the rants can be helpful. Often, when ranters ask for advice, people reply with recommendations in the comments. Other times, A tells me, the rants about particular units have catalysed change in how they are taught: “rants have done MUCH more in recent semesters to change things than the [Unit of Study] surveys because of putting pressure on unit coordinators”. To illustrate this, A cited alleged changes to BUSS1020, BUSS2000, and “some OLEs”, although they couldn’t point to specifics as they hadn’t taken those courses. Lastly, USYD Rants forms a sense of community.
“The BUSS2000 rant #justiceforjames was probably popular because it spoke to a common experience of frustration against compulsory core units,” suggests A.
I know a student who submitted a rant about the Interdisciplinary unit while we were both doing it, and the next class we had, people in my group made reference to how funny they had thought it was. The student, too, found validation in the positive responses, telling me it was “nice to see other people agreeing.” Another student I talked to submitted a post asking why Eastern Avenue smelt like toast. After some discussion in the comments, he learnt why. Despite the vitriol that gets bandied around divisive rants, there’s something kind of beautiful about the way the posts bring people together.
In thousands of years, when Facebook is as ancient as Pompeii’s limestone walls, I’ve no doubt that humankind will still be gossiping and complaining. The masks we construct for ourselves to speak behind may have changed, but we will not. USYD Rants is a testament to this; no matter how partisan it may be seen, how divisive the rants can be, people will keep coming back.