Ethnography of ‘The Voice’ Online

By Cassidy

The Scripps Voice online publication provides a small but uniquely safe platform for a discussion of race and feminist issues than is typically experienced in the vast and unruly World Wide Web. The broad range of liberal topics and the passionate social critiques that fill the pages and archives are indicative of the sense of safety felt by the staff and guest writers who share these opinions. However, the thoughts and opinions of the readers, of the Scripps student who clicks a link and reads an article with an appealing title for the first time, are not found online. After my experience within the Voice community, both online and off (as well as being a one-time contributor), I discovered that the Voice functions to augment the reality of our campus and experience as a member of the 5-C’s—but does not replace it.  Through my own experience and an informal surveying of my peers, it is apparent that while many Scripps students actively read and engage with The Voice’s online publication, they tend to keep their discussion offline in face-to-face conversations with friends. 

In order to get a better understanding of the thoughts and opinions of the Scripps community, I sent out a quick questionnaire to 15 of my peers from a range of different close-knit friend groups other than my own. I asked questions about their thoughts on engaging in discussions off rather than online, articles that were particularly important to them or their friends, and if they considered it to be a color and feminist safe space.  I was shocked to find that the answers, or lack there of, completely reflected the same environment that is visible on the Voice website. Of the 15 people asked, only three people responded with complete answers—two of which being the Voice’s Editor in Chief and Feminist Columnist.  While many of the rest said they would get to it during the week, most never did, and one opted out saying that she didn’t engage with The Scripps Voice at all. I speculate that Scripps women are likely to be interested and engaged in the issues and discourse stimulated by the Voice articles (as I’ve witnessed) but are perhaps too busy with our studies or engaging in real life conversations with friends to spend additional time online arguing or agreeing with strangers.

            I was able to learn a great deal about the Voice community through the three responses I was able to collect. The Editor in Chief revealed that she receives commentary and feedback after every issue that is published, which she estimates to be roughly 70% positive and 30% negative on average. She pointed to the article titled “Stop saying ‘Walk of Shame’” as one where she received feedback from both students and faculty sharing their appreciation for the article, and in some cases even bringing up their own accounts of sexual assult on campus. Interestingly, she notes that a member of the Pomona Pitzer baseball team contacted her to deny the incident and “accused us of tarnishing their reputation”.  Furthermore, when someone approaches her about a controversial article she has urged them to write a Letter to the Editor to be consider for publishing, but has yet to receive a response. I found this example to be telling of the online environment, as I would expect some of these spirited comments to be posted anonymously for all to see but were instead relayed privately.

            Despite having made one of her goals as Editor in Chief to improve reader activity on their website, she has since changed her mind over the past semester after the online commentary on The Student Life was deemed ‘a mixed blessing’ by their own Editor in Chief. She explains how this led her “to think a lot about what a ‘safe space’ really means. YouTube is not a safe space. Facebook is not a safe space. A lot of people don’t even consider Jezebel a safe space. As such, promoting online activity has become less of a priority.”

The Feminists Columnist reflected a similar sentiment when she responded to one of my questions with this quote, “while I wish for more commentary, I’m also a little relieved at the lack of commentors online. I’m always really self-conscious about my place as a white woman writing the feminist column. I try to be as inclusive as possible, but what if I’m not? What if I’m alienating people without even knowing it? What if my white privilege is showing?” This quote is extremely relevant to my research within the Voice because it explicitly addresses the fear associated of being attacked, judged, or bullied for openly expressing their opinion online—despite how ‘safe’ the space may be.  I am not sure if this fear comes from the highly intelligent, diverse, and opinionated Scripps community or from as learned fear of being attacked from previous experiences online.  She addresses this question by elaborating that, “Sometimes I feel like I’m walking on eggshells at Scripps–there are so many different groups here that have points of view different from mine, and sometimes it’s difficult for me to see all possible ways that what I’m saying could be interpreted. That’s why I was initially a little apprehensive about writing the column at all; I thought a bunch of angry people (of all races, sexual orientations, and gender identities–I was that anxious) would jump onto the comments section to tell me how unenlightened I am.” I think that she puts her finger on the issue by pointing out how the Scripps community is intimidating and how the fear of offending someone is very real both on and offline as she is not an anonymous columnist and these colleges are quite small.

            The one respondent who was not directly involved in the voice discussed how she used the voice as a platform to express her own thoughts on an issue that was important to her during her freshman year. Disappointed with the lack of community at Scripps, she wrote about how she “felt that the fraternal nature of CMC and open party culture allowed students to socialize while Scripps’ crack down on alcohol consumption in dorms encouraged students to engage in unhealthy habits and took away from a feeling of camaraderie and sisterhood. This has also lead to the formation of cliques and a lack of maneuverability among social groups.” Her approach reflects an approach to The Voice that I think is quite common amongst the general Scripps community as a venue to be heard when you when you have an important issue and point to get across. In cases like these, students are often disappointed by the lack of response or attention their article gains among students and faculty. These three personal accounts from the Scripps community hint at the impossibly complex relationship between students, safety, discourse, and activism within both our on-and-offline worlds mediated by engagement with The Voice online. 

4 Comments on “Ethnography of ‘The Voice’ Online”

  1. I think what’s interesting about the Voice is that, although you say it is likely that “Scripps students are too busy with our studies or engaging in real life conversations with friends to spend additional time” on the Voice site, I don’t think I’d be reaching too far to assume that most of these girls spend a lot of time on Facebook every day. So, your question then becomes, why aren’t they willing to spend time on a forum like the Voice, posting questions and engaging in conversation? This could be because of how the site is set up, the lack of general social activity on the site, etc. But it’s interesting to note that we all spend a lot of time online, it’s just a matter of in what space our time is spent, which in your case does not seem to be the Voice’s website.

  2. Wow, what a reminder of how our society is definitely NOT post-racial. Your post reminds me of the Myspace/Facebook exercise the class did that sort of exposed the privilege of Facebook users facilitated by the predominantly white private schools they attended. Although many of us discusses our universal privilege attending some of the best schools in the country, there is obviously still tensions and insecurities rooted in ‘white privilege.’

  3. Cassidy,
    Great job, this really brings in a lot of the ideas we’ve been talking about in class. I can see how the Scripps Voice is an augmentation of the reality students have around them. Scripps and the rest of the Colleges are such a closed off entity from the rest of the world that we often don’t feel a need to carry it over to the virtual world, other than Facebook. Like you mentioned, I think students are often afraid of vocalizing their real thoughts and politics on an online platform that a whole community (peers and faculty) can see, not just who they friend on Facebook.

  4. I am most interested in two of the ideas expressed by your respondents: not having comments might be a good thing because writers are afraid of possibly offending people. There is a sensitivity and self-awareness in the feminist columnist’s response that I find instructive but the idea that such sensitivity leads to fear of debate or difficult conversation is also worthy of attention. How could feminists disagree without attack?

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