Oxfess’s distorted representation of life at Oxford is part of its charm

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Image Credit: Facebook

Since its creation in 2017, Oxfess has become something of an institutional treasure, if not quite a national one. Just as the reassuring lilt of David Attenborough’s voice has captured the hearts of the country, so the ability to submit and/or scroll through page upon page of anonymous confessions has won over much of Oxford University’s student body. 

The impressive statistics of Oxfess make this difficult to deny. The Facebook page, which typically receives anywhere between 150 and 200 submissions a day, has amassed a following of over 12,600 people in the space of only a year. And with the eclectic mixture of topics that Oxfesses cover – ranging from what mental health services are available at Oxford to whether Hassan’s is all that it’s cracked up to be – the platform’s widespread appeal is easy to understand. 

The role Oxfess plays in shaping students’ experiences at Oxford seems to extend beyond simply forming an entertaining backdrop to often-stressful lives, or shining a much-needed light on the serious challenges that can be encountered here. The victory for Re-Open Nominations in the Law Society election, after the only presidential candidate was accused of misogyny in a series of Oxfesses which culminated in readers being asked directly to vote RON on the day of the election, points towards the potential power of Oxfess to meaningfully impact what goes on at the University – even if the extent to which such posts swayed the outcome is inevitably difficult to measure. 

Yet Oxfess’ power to influence events is perhaps less prominent than its ability to shape perceptions and expectations of what it means to be an Oxford student. A number of recent submissions have expressed worries about whether life at the University is really like what many Oxfesses suggest, particularly those written by distressed or disillusioned students, whilst another, clearly assuming that this is the case, comes to the conclusion that Oxford is full of “a bunch of tossers […] inhabited by the weirdest, most cringeworthy and most entitled undergrad body imaginable” (Oxfess #22639). While such a presumption isn’t all that difficult to get one’s head around, it does highlight the extent to which many might look to Oxfess to gauge what life is like here, and make judgements – and possibly even decisions regarding whether or not to apply – accordingly. 

If Oxfess truly does have such leverage, and if such leverage is only growing, the question as to whether a greater effort should be made, particularly on the behalf of the admins, to ensure the platform offers a more accurate representation of the lives of Oxford students emerges. What an accurate representation would actually look like, however, is where problems with this approach begin. 

Publishing more posts regarding the difficulties faced by many students, such as loneliness, stress and depression, at the expense of more light-hearted and trivial content, such as declarations that Quavers are “legit the best crisp” (Oxfess #22588), will inevitably only capture what some would think of as the reality or essence of life at Oxford, and vice versa. Beyond this, if transparency is imperative in “discuss[ing] problems with the institution” effectively (one of the admins’ key hopes for the page, as reported by Cherwell), then it would seem contradictory to place any kind of restrictions on the page’s less positive content, particularly personal accounts of struggle and despair – even though such content may be exactly what prompts worried questions about whether life at Oxford is really how Oxfess paints it to be. 

Perhaps more intriguingly, however, it would seem that much of the success and fun of the platform stems directly from the fact that its portrayal of the student experience is not accurate. Speaking to The Oxford Student about what the page says about Oxford’s culture, the admin determines that “everyone is really fucked up and everyone really wants to fuck everything that moves”. We all know a few people like that, but I suspect (perhaps naively) that such a claim reflects, more than anything else, a desire to believe that life at Oxford is more gossip-worthy and more exciting than it actually is. Oxfess may be a vague form of therapy for some, but it certainly seems to be a romantic form of escapism for others. And if scrolling through seemingly never-ending posts about sharking isn’t a welcome escape for you, it’s probably more of an unfortunate reminder of the kind of people you’re studying with.

“Perhaps more intriguingly, however, it would seem that much of the success and fun of the platform stems directly from the fact that its portrayal of the student experience is not accurate.”

Whilst the admins should bear some responsibility for how truthfully life at Oxford is depicted, particularly with regards to any form of hate speech, the platform would undoubtedly lose much of its authenticity and idiosyncrasy if too much were to be censored. Although the posts that are doing the most good to either open up the discussion about Oxford’s problems or provide the most amusement unfortunately tend to be the ones that also do the most damage to the opinions of nervous prospective students, Oxfess is not an alternative prospectus. At most it should come with a warning sign to take every post with a pinch of salt, which most probably do instinctively. After all, it’s not many that would think of Oxfess #22904, which likens “completely bullshit[ting] your way through your first interview question but […] pretend[ing] nothing happened” to the Salisbury poisoning suspects claiming to have been tourists visiting the cathedral, as a perfectly accurate comparison to make – but that the post has been so engaged with reveals how exaggeration is at the heart of Oxfess, and what makes it so popular.