de Wolff: So Long, Librex

The app connected students in more ways than it divided them.

by Thomas de Wolff | 2/25/22 3:00am

Feb. 17 marked the end of an era: The anonymous online discussion forum Librex was permanently shut down. All posts were deleted and all user data wiped as the team behind the app decided to move on to new endeavors. Curiously, Librex’s tenure at Dartmouth mirrored that of the pandemic. A week after the app’s launch in March 2020, the effects of COVID-19 hit Dartmouth as the administration decided to move classes online for the upcoming spring term. Now, COVID-19 cases are on the decline and Librex has met its demise. Dartmouth students are currently looking forward to a spring term that resembles life before COVID-19 — perhaps the absence of Librex will help with that. During the pandemic, however, as students sought some semblance of community, Librex quietly became a fixture of Dartmouth’s culture. While Librex was not without its flaws and ugly moments, we should remember the app for its ability to connect students during challenging times. 

In a time when a growing majority of college students report censoring their own opinions to avoid criticism, an outlet such as Librex is vital for preserving students’ freedom of expression. Librex’s name combined “Libre-,” meaning “free,” and “-Ex,” short for “exchange,” as its goal was the free and open exchange of ideas. Librex enabled true openness by removing all personal information from posts on its platform. This emphasis on ideas rather than people was a departure from the highly personal nature of other social media platforms. 

Librex accomplished this goal by successfully building on the foundation laid by other similar apps. Previously, students used apps such as the nationwide YikYak and Dartmouth-specific Bored at Baker, which pioneered the concept of an anonymous platform. Unlike YikYak, Librex put its own spin on this concept by restricting access to users with Dartmouth emails, rather than just anyone in the general vicinity. Librex also ensured that posts crossing certain personal and legal boundaries were removed by a staff of moderators, which prevented much — though, admittedly, not all — of the targeted harassment that derailed Bored at Baker, which included reprehensible threats of sexual violence.

In addition to spirited arguments, Librex’s feed was also full of complaints, regrets, heartbreaks, and disappointments, which students rarely post on other popular platforms such as Snapchat or Instagram. With no risk of social judgment, people could air their inner thoughts free of consequence.

Sometimes, people abused this freedom. Banter would occasionally become uncomfortably personal. Derisive jokes at the expense of students or Greek organizations were not uncommon. Despite the best efforts of moderators, bouts of discrimination would often surface. Infamous examples of the darker side of the app include racially offensive comments directed at Student Assembly candidates, as well as a threat to burn down Epsilon Kappa Theta sorority following the cancellation of Masters, a pong tournament, this past summer. However, posts like these were the exception rather than the rule. Nor were they the outbursts of some silent majority — for example, racist posts would be heavily downvoted and reported when they appeared. While anonymity brought out the worst in some people, most users behaved civilly. 

Dartmouth students didn’t let incidents such as these dissuade them from Librex. Indeed, while the possibility for vitriol on anonymous online forums is well-known to our generation,  Librex promised something different. After launching at Dartmouth on March 5, the app saw over 2,000 students sign up just in its first month. Even one of my professors admitted that they had joined the app (but insisted they were only there to observe). The chance to speak one’s mind — and catch a glimpse of the unadulterated thoughts of others — was just too tempting.

Besides, a great deal of content on Librex was positive. These bright spots were sorely needed during a period in Dartmouth’s history that included a pandemic, economic recession and a divisive presidential election. Librex provided a casual space for students to share jokes and memes, comment on campus life (for instance, complaints about the line for Foco abounded during this past fall term) or even try to find love through cryptic acronyms (“M4F,” anyone?). The most upvoted posts on the platform were often jokes — one post from last spring declaring that the author would wear a revealing onesie to class received over 1,200 upvotes — or even just feel-good personal anecdotes about doing well on an exam or gaining the courage to ask someone out. 

Yet over time, the very concept of the app became controversial. After a while, it seemed as though every Dartmouth student had downloaded Librex at some point and had an opinion about it. Was Librex a means of staying connected to Dartmouth during isolating times? Or did the app’s anonymity just enable trolls to spout hateful nonsense to the whole school? Regardless of the controversy it engendered, Librex provided Dartmouth students with a rare opportunity in the internet age: the chance to see what truly free speech looks like. It played a unique role in Dartmouth’s culture, and while it may have been an anonymous platform, nearly every student came to know this app’s name.

Thanks to its great connecting power, Librex became a staple of many Dartmouth student’s phones. At first, isolated students seeking human interaction flocked to the app. Then came fresh-faced ’24s, followed by students who’d heard their friends mention it and wanted to see what all the fuss was about. Whether it was former Dean of the College Kathryn Lively’s metaphor-laden emails, Safety and Security crackdowns on student socializing or the tragedies that fell upon the student body last year, many events prompted intense debate and discussion among the app’s users. Hundreds of students, if not thousands, would come together to upvote tributes to classmates and post messages of encouragement and remembrance. Rather than an occasional offensive post, these outpourings of communal support are what should define Librex’s legacy at Dartmouth. 

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