Anonymous discussion app Librex provides platform for controversial comments

by Amber Bhutta | 3/31/20 2:30am

by Elizabeth Janowski / The Dartmouth Senior Staff

Librex — an anonymous discussion app founded by Yale University junior Ryan Schiller — has provided the Dartmouth community a platform for both conversation and controversy. The app, which launched at Dartmouth on March 5, currently has over 2,000 Dartmouth users, according to Schiller.

Students can download the app on their iOS or Android devices and anonymously create posts, comment on other posts and upvote or downvote particular posts or comments. Upon the app’s arrival at Dartmouth, some students have expressed fears that the app’s anonymous nature might make it conducive to hateful or threatening content. Schiller, however, said that the main purpose of Librex is to foster more open communication.

Guhui Zhang ’21 said that she initially downloaded Librex because she was “curious” after hearing about it from a friend. After using Librex, she said she was surprised by some of the content on the app, which she said she found to be sexist and racist. 

“When you look at people on campus, you’ll be thinking that they must be educated and gentle,” she said. “[The comments on Librex are] something you wouldn’t normally see on campus.”

Schiller said that he intends for the app to serve  as a space for students to ask questions, express opinions or get others’ thoughts on developing ideas in a “low-risk” forum.

“I felt like I had a lot of things to say, but it wasn’t so easy to say them because you felt like your reputation might be at risk,” Schiller said.

Schiller originally launched Librex at Yale last fall. After developing the platform with fellow Yale junior Arthur Azvolinsky and receiving thousands of sign-ups at Yale, he began offering Librex at Dartmouth.

Schiller said that common topics that he has noticed throughout the app include politics, social issues, Greek life and the COVID-19 pandemic.

Zhang said she encountered a post on the app reading “thank you, China, for ruining my spring break,” implying that China or Chinese people were at fault for the COVID-19 outbreak. This implication, she said, prompted her to respond in the comments.

“I replied basically defending China for a little bit and just asking people to think twice before posting these emotionally charged comments,” Zhang said. She noted she went “back and forth” with some other users in the comment section.

A later post on the app notes, “the [Chinese] threat is bat soup epidemics.” Other posts include notes addressed “to China” that say, “stop eating everything that moves,” and “we don’t need a Kung flu part 2.”

After hearing about the experiences of users like Zhang, Peiyao Xu ’21 said she chose not to download Librex. She said that she understood that the app’s creators and moderators might be hesitant to censor Librex, and thus she decided to ignore it rather than engage.

“I think it’s really challenging to strike a balance between regulating hate speech and protecting freedom of speech because at the end of the day, what is hate speech?” Xu said. “It depends on who is the audience.”

To address these issues, Schiller explained that users can both downvote and report content they do not consider to be “constructive to the community.” Reported content is then flagged for review by a team of moderators composed of students.

“If you have a problem with the moderation, it’s not a faceless, bodiless entity,” Schiller said. “It’s a group of people who are your peers, peers who keep themselves accountable to the community.” Schiller added that moderators follow three main criteria: “be legal,” “be nice,” and “be specific.” 

In recent years, anonymous platforms have proven problematic within the Dartmouth community. In 2014 and 2015, hateful content arose on the anonymous messaging forums Yik Yak and Bored@Baker. On Bored@Baker, a website that was shut down in December 2015, posts included lynching threats and rape guides.

Schiller, however, maintained that there are a number of differences between Librex and other platforms.

“The main difference between us and Yik Yak is that we’re community-based,” Schiller said. He noted that Yik Yak allowed users to interact with anyone within fifty miles of their location, while Librex ensures that discussions are kept between students of the same college by requiring users to register with their school email addresses.

Schiller said that unlike Bored@Baker, which also required users to have a Dartmouth email address, Librex allows for community-based moderation.

“We can have students that are from Dartmouth moderating Dartmouth posts and creating norms within our community that are Dartmouth norms,” Schiller said.

Schiller said he is currently in the process of bringing Librex to Princeton University, and added that he hopes to eventually expand to the rest of the Ivy League.