A few weeks ago, news broke about a plagiarism scandal in which two students admitted to Penn's seven–year bio–dental program were accused of plagiarizing multiple published research papers. Word spread like wildfire amongst students, and a simple petition to bring punitive action quickly gained over 5,000 signatures.
Along with the petition, chatter rose virtually on Penn–specific sites. Sidechat and the Penn subreddit (r/UPenn), both hot spots for Penn–related ongoings, saw an increase in posts related to the scandal.
Sidechat tries its best to censor posts that call out individual Penn students, but it struggled to do so during the scandal as users began using initials to reference those involved. It took a couple of days before app admins realized and quickly removed the posts. Similarly, Reddit moderators struggled with the posts being left up for hours. Censorship–wise, the two seemingly aren’t all that different.
Though much of campus social life occurs in person, since COVID-19, social media and online personalities have taken the University by storm, giving students another way to build community. With the ability to choose ambiguous usernames, and in some cases, be entirely anonymous, students have an unprecedented ability to say what they please without it being connected back to them.
r/UPenn and Penn Sidechat are prime examples of the potential for online anonymity for Penn students. The subreddit can easily be found online and is available to anyone on the platform. In contrast, Sidechat requires users to sign up using their Penn email. Once you’re on, anyone can post. However, each site has its own rules about what’s allowed and what might get your post taken down.
On Reddit, the rules for Penn's subreddit are clearly laid out on the right–hand side of the page, listing things like “No political posts/comments,” “No Buy/Sell posts,” and “Do not ask questions about general application help.” On Sidechat, the rules are a bit harder to find, but generally, moderators remove posts that list specific names or even just reference a person.
Though both apps offer anonymity and have some form of user guidelines, the degree of privacy they offer differs in a few key ways.
On Sidechat, users are completely anonymous—they don’t even have usernames. Consequently, users can’t see any other user’s post history, which would potentially reveal information about that anonymous person. On the other hand, Reddit requires you to pick a username. As a result, your username ties you to your past posts and questions which could potentially reveal your identity. According to rising sophomore Carey Salvin (C '25), "Sidechat is a lot more anonymous. [And] I feel like, in a way, [that] encourages people to use it more.”
Furthermore, the actual content produced on each site varies.
On Penn's subreddit, posts tend to be longer and more school–related. Often, high school students post questions asking what the school offers or current students ask about specific classes and their difficulty levels.
On Sidechat, the content tends to be shorter, with more funny and relatable comments on the Penn community or what it’s like to be a Penn student. As Carey says, “It kind of makes you feel like you’re in the same boat as a lot of other people.” Since Sidechat is limited to current Penn students, the content is more related to the current Penn experience, and sometimes even gossip. Proper grammar isn’t a big deal, and each post comes off more like a quick text to a group chat than a long email inquiry. One recent post reads, “can we abolish references? like i don’t wanna email my boss from two years ago to ask if i can put them down.”
The platforms themselves emulate a different feeling of exclusivity and privacy. The subreddit is a part of the larger Reddit platform that was initially designed for computer use, given its launch in the early 2000s. In contrast, Sidechat, which originated as a smartphone app, was made to be easily accessible through your phone at any point. The design of Reddit is a bit more complex, as it houses many other subreddits on the site, and anyone can view the Penn subreddit page. Penn's Sidechat forum is more of a bubble, and only accessible to Penn affiliates.
Ultimately, both sites allow students to build an online community while simultaneously maintaining their real–life friendships. It creates a way for students to really feel understood and to speak up about things that they may not feel comfortable talking about in person. Even now, during the summer, both sites are active, allowing Penn students to still feel as though they are a part of Penn's undergraduate community despite being scattered all across the globe.
Both sites allow users to discuss experiences and opinions, effectively revealing a new layer of connectivity. Only time will tell how their impact will continue to shape and impact the Penn community, face–to–face or behind a screen.