The strange case of Octavia Sheepshanks

After one Cambridge student's ruse to escape harsh online criticism backfired, Chloe Hamilton wonders where the line for cruel commentary should be drawn

A cunning columnist came up with a unique way to get the better of her online critics last week.

In her eighth and final column in the Cambridge Tab, 19-year-old philosophy student Octavia Sheepshanks attempted to tell readers ‘Octavia’ was merely a pseudonym, a character she had been hiding behind throughout her tenure.

Confused? I was. Bear with me while I explain.

Upon arriving at Cambridge University, aspiring journalist Octavia Sheepshanks was granted an eight-week column in the Tab, a student publication which started life at the historic university in 2009.

The column, which featured the undergraduate’s musings on dreams, dating and diaries, came under fire, as readers raged against Octavia’s ‘manic pixie dream girl’ persona.

“Shut up and get a personality that isn’t so painfully put-on and aware of its own appeal to idiots who can’t see through it,” wrote one commenter.

“You are a bit of an attention whore...” wrote another.

Only a month ago a fellow journalist and I were discussing online criticism. My instinct is to ignore harsh commenters, no matter how loudly they shout. My peer, however, said one would do better to face criticism head on, in the hope of learning something valuable from it.

As anyone who’s ever dared scroll to the bottom on an article with know, the comments Octavia received are all too common. The security of a computer screen, combined with the power of a keyboard, gives courage to those who might otherwise stay silent. 

A (not so) cunning plan

Fed up with the catty remarks, in her final column Octavia decided to ‘confess’ to her readers.

“It’s time to come clean,” she wrote, before explaining how she’d asked write the column under the alias of Octavia Sheepshanks, an extrovert who sought attention from her peers.

She claimed, as the character of Octavia, she was safely shielded from the venom of her critics.

The confession was, of course, a daft double bluff. Octavia Sheepshanks merely wanted to draw her readers’ attention to the construction of the online self. Not only did Octavia confuse her critics (Is it a double, double bluff? Who is the real Octavia Sheepshanks?) She also encouraged readers to consider the ease with which one can construct an entirely new identity online, simply by choosing what information to share.

“The idea for the final column was triggered by all the comments suggesting that my 'kookiness' was put on,” says Octavia, owning up. 

“Obviously, while it isn't remotely put on, I do have the power to select what goes into the columns, so in a way it is all just a creation.”

Octavia even pretended her Facebook profile was part of the scam.

“All I had to do was upload a couple of arty-looking cover photos, and one of a random girl I found on the internet posing on a cliff top,” she writes in the column, a damning indictment on anyone who’s ever deliberated over a Facebook cover photo.

Octavia’s revelation was no more than a philosophical hoax. However, she does make a valid point about safety in anonymity.

The shield of the computer screen is the reason online commentators feel brave enough spout such vitriol. A comment box should be platform for discussion but instead it’s become an opportunity for the cowardly to vent their anger and prejudice.

‘But is this the fault of online journalism?’ I asked another colleague, who had been a columnist for the University of Leeds newspaper.

“Fortunately it was the pre-internet world back then at Leeds. No nasty comments in sight,” he said. 

“I suppose loads of people thought I was an idiot, but that can happen even if you don’t have a column.”

Arts and Entertainment
The first film introduced Daniel Radcliffe to our screens, pictured here as he prepares to board the train to Hogwarts for the first time.
booksHow reading Harry Potter helps children grow up to be gay-friendly
Sport
Frank Lampard will pass Billy Wright and equal Bobby Charton’s caps tally of 106 caps against
sportFormer Chelsea midfielder in Etihad stopgap before New York contract
Arts and Entertainment
A scene from Aladdin is performed at the Tony Awards in New York in June
theatreBrit producer Lythgoe makes kids' musical comedy a Los Angeles hit
Sport
Usain Bolt of Jamaica smiles and shakes hands with a competitor after Jamaica won their first heat in the men's 4x100m relay
sport
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
Chancellor George Osborne, along with the Prime Minister, have been 'complacently claiming the economy is now fixed', according to shadow Chancellor Ed Balls
i100... which is awkward, because he is their boss, after all
News
i100
Arts and Entertainment
Adèle Exarchopoulos and Léa Seydoux play teeneage lovers in the French erotic drama 'Blue Is The Warmest Colour' - The survey found four times as many women admitting to same-sex experiences than 20 years ago
filmBlue Is The Warmest Colour, Bojack Horseman and Hobbit on the way
News
Kenny Ireland, pictured in 2010.
peopleBenidorm actor was just 68
Arts and Entertainment
Preparations begin for Edinburgh Festival 2014
Edinburgh festivalAll the best shows to see at Edinburgh this year
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs Student

Primary Teacher

£90 - £150 per day + travel expenses: Randstad Education Newcastle: Upper Key ...

Primary Teacher

£90 - £115 per day + travel expenses: Randstad Education Newcastle: Primary NQ...

Primary Teacher

£90 - £115 per day + travel expenses: Randstad Education Newcastle: Primary NQ...

PE Teacher

£90 - £160 per day: Randstad Education Birmingham: We are currently recruiting...

Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

Day In a Page

Dress the Gaza situation up all you like, but the truth hurts

Robert Fisk on Gaza conflict

Dress the situation up all you like, but the truth hurts
Save the tiger: Tiger, tiger burning less brightly as numbers plummet

Tiger, tiger burning less brightly

When William Blake wrote his famous poem there were probably more than 100,000 tigers in the wild. These days they probably number around 3,200
5 News's Andy Bell retraces his grandfather's steps on the First World War battlefields

In grandfather's footsteps

5 News's political editor Andy Bell only knows his grandfather from the compelling diary he kept during WWI. But when he returned to the killing fields where Edwin Vaughan suffered so much, his ancestor came to life
Lifestyle guru Martha Stewart reveals she has flying robot ... to take photos of her farm

Martha Stewart has flying robot

The lifestyle guru used the drone to get a bird's eye view her 153-acre farm in Bedford, New York
Former Labour minister Meg Hillier has demanded 'pootling lanes' for women cyclists

Do women cyclists need 'pootling lanes'?

Simon Usborne (who's more of a hurtler) explains why winning the space race is key to happy riding
A tale of two presidents: George W Bush downs his paintbrush to pen father’s life story

A tale of two presidents

George W Bush downs his paintbrush to pen father’s life story
Restaurateur Mitch Tonks has given the Great Western Pullman dining car a makeover

The dining car makes a comeback

Restaurateur Mitch Tonks has given the Great Western Pullman dining car a makeover
Gallery rage: How are institutions tackling the discomfort of overcrowding this summer?

Gallery rage

How are institutions tackling the discomfort of overcrowding this summer?
Louis van Gaal has £500,000 video surveillance system installed to monitor Manchester United players

Eye on the prize

Louis van Gaal has £500,000 video surveillance system installed to monitor Manchester United players
Women's rugby: Tamara Taylor adds fuel to the ire in quest to land World Cup

Women's rugby

Tamara Taylor adds fuel to the ire in quest to land World Cup
Save the tiger: The day America’s love of backyard tigers led to a horrific bloodbath

The day America’s love of backyard tigers led to a horrific bloodbath

With only six per cent of the US population of these amazing big cats held in zoos, the Zanesville incident in 2011 was inevitable
Samuel Beckett's biographer reveals secrets of the writer's time as a French Resistance spy

How Samuel Beckett became a French Resistance spy

As this year's Samuel Beckett festival opens in Enniskillen, James Knowlson, recalls how the Irish writer risked his life for liberty and narrowly escaped capture by the Gestapo
We will remember them: relatives still honour those who fought in the Great War

We will remember them

Relatives still honour those who fought in the Great War
Star Wars Episode VII is being shot on film - and now Kodak is launching a last-ditch bid to keep celluloid alive

Kodak's last-ditch bid to keep celluloid alive

Director J J Abrams and a few digital refuseniks shoot movies on film. Simon Usborne wonders what the fuss is about
Once stilted and melodramatic, Hollywood is giving acting in video games a makeover

Acting in video games gets a makeover

David Crookes meets two of the genre's most popular voices