Thursday, February 23, 2012

Like a little, creep a lot

By Jack Sorensen, Focus Editor

Wednesday night — somewhere in the upper level of the University Center a brunette girl with blue eyes walked into the building, stopped at the market and went on with her night, unaware a secret admirer was in her midst. Had she checked the popular website LikeALittle, she would have known she was being watched from afar. Perhaps she would have stayed in the UC longer, turning a little like into a big crush.

Similar to the famed rise of Facebook, LikeALittle began as a college experiment at Stanford University and was quickly disseminated to universities nationwide. The site allows men and women to post anonymous messages, or “flirts,” about others. The website community then takes turns commenting, also anonymously, on the initial post.

Each participating university has its own LikeALittle page.

Pacific Lutheran University’s LikeALittle page appears to be heavily frequented, with new posts appearing in waves several hours apart. But some faculty and students said the anonymous social site where users share gossip and tips about subjects comes with its fair share of concerns.

Visiting Associate Professor of Communication Doreen Marchionni said the site is simply a technological manifestation of a much older trend in anonymous flirting.

“It appears to be a fairly innocent way for individuals to get to know each other on campus, not unlike personal ads,” Marchionni said.

Still, Marchionni said the secretive nature of talking about PLU community members could be risky.

“The main things they [site operators] need to look out for are comment trolls and imbeciles,” Marchionni said, describing online users who could abuse the site with gossip or slander.

Other professors thought the majority of LikeALittle content was negative, questioning the purpose of the site in general.

“I certainly don’t understand why this is an appealing use of my time,” Professor of Psychology Jon Grahe said. Grahe said he was surprised students would get on the site other than to see if someone had posted about them.

Grahe echoed the sentiment of many PLU students who said while they do not use the site to post their own flirts, they frequently peruse the anonymously amorous messages in hopes of catching a comment about themselves.

Sophomore Kameron Jacobs said the site is purely for entertainment and should not be considered to have a bearing on social exchange.

“I don’t think it should be taken seriously,” Jacobs said. “I think it is just for fun. It’s just fun to look at.”

“There’s been a couple posts about me,” he added.

Other students who visited the site in the past expressed similar opinions, though many critiqued site users as being negative and demeaning.

Senior Amanda Davis, who disclosed that she had posted on the site several times, said she thinks users’ posts can tend to “be kind of negative, which is upsetting at times, especially if you can tell who the person is.”

Regardless of user content, Davis said she wished people would “actually tell someone if they like them.”

Most concerns raised by students circulated around PLU LikeALittle users’ tendency to speculate on the sexuality of students they perceived to be the subject of a given “flirt.” This phenomenon seems to be isolated to the “flirts about a guy” category. As of Wednesday night, speculations on whether or not a male subject was homosexual appeared in approximately 1 in every 5 posts.

One anonymous January flirt, “brunette guy liked at Hinderlie,” quickly became a battleground over the subject’s sexuality. “He is gay,” one user posted. Another user soon responded, “No he isn’t. He is 100% straight.” The battle continued for five more comments, during which another user wrote, “definitely gay. I would know.”

Grahe said he was not surprised by the use — and possible abuse — of LikeALittle.

“We know that anonymity online does provide the opportunity for people to engage in behaviors that are normatively challenging otherwise,” Grahe said.

Agreeing with Grahe, Marchionni said anonymous websites lend themselves to greater abuse and negative user comments. As for speculating on sexuality, Marchionni said “it is absolutely possible that someone can be outed for their sexual preferences.”

The frequency of sexuality debates on LikeALittle appeared to catch the attention of site users, including one user who recently posted an entire “flirt” requesting commenters to amend their behavior from the perspective of someone who was bullied about his or her sexuality:

“Can this site please not be used so much to find the sexual orientations of guys? I know it isn’t your intention, but by inquiring so publicly about the private preferences of people, you’re doing a form of bullying. If you wonder, ask them to your face. Thanks, someone who has been bullied and questioned into coming out before he was ready.”

Prepared to deal with possible abuse, LikeALittle user policies provide methods of content filtering and censorship. In order to create a new LikeALittle page for a university, an interested student or group of interested students must apply for the service, agreeing to serve as “founding members” charged with removing comments or flirts flagged for inappropriate content.

“Vicious gossip” is defined as one of the abuses LikeALittle does not allow and will delete.

Junior Kelli Peterson said she was the leading founder of LikeALittle at PLU. Once the PLU site went up in Fall 2010, she and other founding members began receiving notification emails for flagged comments and flirts. For the first several months, Peterson and her colleagues actively removed posts and kept up with complaints and other concerns.

However, Peterson said she does not use the site anymore. While she said she cannot confirm the behavior of her fellow founders, she said she was “almost positive” none of the moderators respond to flagged comments anymore, leaving the website unregulated.

According to PLU’s LikeALittle page, the university’s founding members included Peterson, junior Andrea Riemer, junior Allison McDaniel, junior Megan Aarsvold, junior Daniel Olson, junior Kyle Yee, junior Evan Hoover and sophomore Melanie Schoepp.

Interviews and data compiled with the help of News Reporter Nick Neely and Photo Editor Emily Biggs.