Confession Time: An Interview with Durfess

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In the two and a half years since it came into being, Durfess has become a force to be reckoned with. An authentic student platform, a form of alternative journalism, an uncensored version of the real Durham experience through anonymous confessions: it seems to be a publication that eludes easy definition. We interviewed the creator of the page to see if we could take a peek under the Durfess cloak of inscrutable mystery.

‘Durfess encompasses a real undoctored image of what the student experience is like,’ the organisation says.

‘I think it gives a platform for the important bits of Durham culture and community to foster and grow into meaningful connections between Durham students.’ 

We were surprised to learn how recently the page was founded: on the 29th of October, 2017. While talking with some friends about the drunken stories they had heard throughout freshers week, the organisation’s founder wondered why there wasn’t a platform for funny stories like this. The same day, a Facebook page was made, which they christened with a few drunken posts. ‘It sort of snowballed from there. A master plan, really well-executed, with lots of foresight, clearly.’ 

The avalanche of popularity began when, after seeing a few complaints on Overheard at Durham Uni about a student who, as Durfess delicately puts it, had been ‘frequently defecating on people’s doorstep’, they felt compelled to hear more thoughts about the story and perhaps solve the mystery of it. 

From its humble beginnings, Durfess has since expanded into an organisation now run by about ten individuals who work on filtering posts. ‘I didn’t see Durfess coming to this stage,’ its creator admits. They thought it might stagnate after the first week, but it only became progressively more popular, closing off 2018 with 5,000 followers, and 2019 with 14,000, almost boasting 20,000 followers to date. The organisation claims that Durfess sees about 305,000 interactions per week.

‘There is some statistic that a Durfess post has appeared on somebody’s feed over the course of 3 months just over a billion times, which is insane.’

They believe that Durfess’ most meaningful contribution to Durham has been how it has plugged a gap that needed to be filled, supplying the role of a conversation-starter within the university community. When somebody does something strange, fun, or relatable, and it ends up on Durfess it becomes an interesting discussion among hundreds of students around campus; a sort of ongoing, ever-expanding conversation.

We were also given insight into moments when Durfess has also taken on a more humanitarian role. ‘I think it’s also done a lot for connecting people with services and other individuals that they’re needing to be in touch with. A lot of people who’ve needed help and have reached out have been met with help.’ The organisation tells us about a famous incident from 2019 when they published a student’s submission worrying that they were going to run out of money and wouldn’t be able to afford food. There was an outpouring of support, with about 412 offers from individual students and staff members offering to help this student in need, all in response to their Durfess post. 

‘It really is that sense of community spirit that transcends even just the undergraduate and postgrad population: we have college masters, lecturers, professors commenting on these posts, too.’ 

That said, as a completely anonymous platform, the ethics of Durfess can be complicated. ‘Once you accept that as a sort of premise, everything that comes afterwards is difficult,’ they tell us. When people turn to Durfess for help, the organisation says that it does the best that it can to help within its limited authority. ‘We’ve developed systems and processes to try and connect them as best as we can with people who can help. If people are talking about self-harm or sensitive topics like that, we will publish a bog-standard set of resources on Durfess just as a post with links and resources about how to find the Nightline number, counselling, Samaritans, and just urging people to reach out if they’re in dire straits.’ 

Durfess claims that there are no official rules about what they do or do not deem appropriate for publication. The page has guidelines to say they are unlikely to post things targeted at individuals and what they see as being ‘patently untrue’; they also avoid attacking companies and lecturers in order not to cultivate a hostile environment. During house-hunting season, for example, Durfess avoids publishing submissions they get attacking landlords, of which, we are told, there are many with hugely unsubstantiated claims. ‘Ultimately, there’s nothing we say to outright “Durfess won’t post this” unless it’s against the Facebook community guidelines,’ their spokesperson has said.

In terms of external censorship imposed on Durfess, we are told that while ‘there is nothing explicitly stated by external organisations’ that they are not allowed to publish, ‘there have been strong requests from various independent bodies, societies, and trusts’. 

In their notorious confrontation with the Durham Union society and their elections, for example, Durfess was told that they would rather not have their candidates talked about or their manifestos scrutinised, which led to a formal discussion between the two organisations about this. Their approach for dealing with confrontation is always the same, we are told: they have email addresses to get into contact with, and if someone writes in with a personal request about people trying to perpetuate a narrative, they sit down and have a talk about it. ‘There is no one we won’t sit down and have a conversation with,’ the organisation tells us. ‘It seems to have worked so far in de-escalating pretty polarising situations with lawyers threatening things, and whatnot.’ 

‘It fosters a sense of community. I think that’s the most meaningful impact it’s had.’ 

Controversies aside, Durfess emphasises its aim to get a good balance of posts, to be able to engage all members of the community. ‘It’s really interesting looking at the submissions queuing and figuring out what Durham really cares about over the period of maybe a day, what the big issues are to individuals,’ they tell us. ‘There’s really a huge amount of data we tap into, and try an understand Durham a little bit more and engage with it on a more meaningful level.’ 

Meaningful as it might be, the Durfess most familiar and beloved by Durham students is perhaps the platform for funny, relatable stories about fellow students. When asked what some of the most enjoyable posts they’ve received have been, Durfess responded with ‘the brilliant drunk stories’, citing one in particular, where a bench on Observatory Hill was stolen, with a submission dedicated to the thief, spotted carrying what looked like a tree back to college. ‘Things like that are just funny, they make me giggle if I’m reading them,’ the Durfess creator says.  

In terms of their recruitment process, Durfess has modified things ever so slightly since 2017. ‘In the early days, it was me being slightly inebriated and someone saying, Can I moderate Durfess? and I’d say, Yeah’. Now, there is a lengthy application process, with a series of interviews and practical assessments. Of the 250 applicants last December, Durfess hired a grand total of three new people. ‘We want to make sure that the people who moderate Durfess are passionate about it, and represent a diverse range of opinions.’ 

Diversity seems to be one of the organisation’s chief priorities. ‘One thing Facebook does publish about anonymous pages is their diversity statistics,’ they tell us, and Durfess makes a concerted effort to ensure that they broadly represent the socio-political landscape of Durham University. ‘Again, it’s the aspect of engaging the community.’ 

The founder of Durfess, along with a high number of its current moderators, will be graduating this summer, but they don’t seem worried about the page functioning business as usual without them, perhaps because of the enforced stringency of their application process. ‘We’ve got a good team to continue,’ they say.

‘The idea is to get Durfess to be a long-term, standing institution of Durham, so ensuring that is part of the job.’

When we asked the founder and president if he aims to maintain his anonymity after stepping down, he says he hasn’t made up his mind about it yet. ‘I don’t think it’s going to be popping up on my CV any time soon,’ he tells us. This is not because he isn’t proud of his achievements, but because he feels that Durfess is no longer his to claim credit for. ‘It’s definitely not the same thing it was in 2017, and every year it evolves into something different and new, and I don’t think I can take credit for all of those evolutions.’ 

Moral anxieties and limitations aside, Durfess has created a social network which as students we can all be grateful for. After all, what’s Durham without Durfess?

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One thought on “Confession Time: An Interview with Durfess

  • Leftist’s echo-chamber thriving on advertising local venues and avoiding paying taxes. Fast to attack those who treating them with defamation and crying about them being all about transparency, yet for public good do not make their income transparent. Typical bullies and racketeers

    Reply

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