Crime

09.13.13

Matthew Cordle & the Online Confession Obsession

‘I killed a man,’ a 22-year-old admitted in a stunning YouTube video. Now he faces eight years in prison. Anna Brand on the next frontier of people who spill their guts on the Internet.

There are few things more relieving than unloading the weight of a secret.

It’s why Felicity shared her unfiltered anxieties with Sally on so many cassette tapes. It’s why Usher wasn’t satisfied with just one “Confession” but had to record a “Part II.” It’s why Walter White videotaped a declaration of guilt (sort of) for his brother-in-law, Hank, on an episode of Breaking Bad—which, funnily enough, is entitled “Confessions.” It’s why hundreds of thousands of people furiously type their secrets and worries on confession-labeled Facebook pages and community sites.

But when a man takes to YouTube to publicly confess to killing another man, like Matthew Cordle did on September 3, it takes our national obsession with confessions to a whole new level. Ever since the days when New Yorkers would dial the number in the back of the Village Voice to leave a deep, dark secret on the paper’s answering machine, there has always been a market for anonymous confessions. But as Internet users grow more comfortable posting their full names and photos on social media networks, will their secrets step out of the shadows as well?

Cordle’s video is chilling. Unlike the Reddit user Narratto—who confessed via meme earlier this year to allegedly murdering his sister’s abusive boyfriend—Cordle showed his face and stated his name where he knew millions could see.

At first, his face is blurred out and his voice is distorted. Still, he looks at the camera and without hesitation says: “I killed a man.” He admits to getting into a car after a night of drinking with friends and crashing into another car, resulting in the death of another man. Midway through the video, Cordle’s face is unblurred, his voice becomes his, and he reveals his name, turning his confession entirely public. The 22-year-old could face up to eight and a half years in prison if convicted. (Surprisingly, he pleaded not guilty at a court hearing on September 11.)

Cordle appeared to use this outlet as a sort of PSA, urging others to learn from his mistake and to discourage drunk driving, though some are suggesting that his intentions might be manipulative—a way to try and get leniency on his sentencing. But aside from his intentions, the way in which he came clean is what’s getting the most attention. Because it portends an end to the era of the anonymous, private confessional—think churches, journals—and the beginning of something else.

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Matthew Cordell (YouTube)
Are you a traveler with tons of shady stories? Here you go.

It seems no matter who you are, there’s an anonymous confessions page for you. Are you a traveler with tons of shady stories? Here you go. A mom who sometimes hates her kids? You’re covered. Or do you interact with ghosts? Because, naturally, there’s a place to spill those stories, too. Want to stick to an 18+ crowd? Check out this page.. Are you a New Yorker with burdens? My Tumblr page will hear you out.

And then there’s the college sector. Madison Confessions a website specifically for University of Wisconsin-Madison students to submit their own confessions, has roughly 27,000 likes and a Twitter following of about 11,600. The page receives about 500,000 views a week during the peak of the school year. The list goes on: U of A Confessions; Trinity College Confessions; Stanford Confessions; Rhodes College Confessions. Each has thousands of likes.

David Hookstead, the creator and site administrator of Madison Confessions—he’s recognized on Campus as “The Creator”—said he gets on average 100 to 200 anonymous submissions a day. And not all of them revolve around white sins or a dishonorable moment.

“The page has done lots of good,” Hookstead said. “For example, today we had a post about somebody finding an old suicide letter they wrote and being happy that they never went through with it and things will always get better.”

Submissions on a majority of these Facebook pages are vetted by administrators before they’re posted, ensuring that all guidelines—mostly being no names, foul language, or defamatory posts—are met. Most of what’s posted is the same type of angst people have been feeling since the days of Dear Abby. It’s free therapy, but the receiving end isn’t just nodding an indifferent head—it’s a world of perfect strangers commenting under each post and giving feedback.

An August 21 post from the Boston College Confessions page, which has roughly 4,000 likes, reads: “Sophomore here, and still a virgin. Desperate to change that. Feels like being one is holding me back from developing as a person, but I’ve been too afraid to tell anyone, let alone make progress with the opposite breed. Any help with solving this crisis is appreciated (and will be handled pleasurably).”

One response: You shouldn’t care about sex. It probably is overrated anyway.

And of course, as schools open up again across the country, many high schoolers are itching with misgivings of their own. Shared on the Freemont High School Confessions page on September 9: “It’s really hard for me to try and stay happy. School has started and I feel like I won’t be able to graduate with my class this year. I don’t want to be with my friends any more and want the relationship between my parents and I to be better. I feel like I can’t talk to any one. I stopped trying to talk to my friends because they didn’t really understand my situation. Any advice?”

One response: You can do it. I did just work your ass off. Ive been told my whole life im just a fuck up n that i wasnt gonna graduate. I proved em wrong its a experience like no other.

Who needs friends to give you advice when you can ask strangers? And if Matthew Cordle can confess to killing a man, why bother being a stranger yourself?

Have something to confess? Send us your secret in the box below—and we dare to you to include your name!