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

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The Independent Online

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.”