A Crash Course in Online Gossip
[New York Times, 16 March 2008]
BONUS: Two days later, the New Jersey attorney general gets involved
By RICHARD MORGAN
The post that appeared on a Juicy Campus message board on Feb. 25 was blunt and decidedly extracurricular.
It identified a Yale sophomore, by name, as having appeared in a pornographic movie, and linked to a Web site that showed him engaging in explicit acts with three other men. The post had about 900 views in its first few days (about 5,300 undergraduates attend Yale).
After learning about the post from a roommate, the student spent most of that evening panicked and dispirited. In the days that followed, he pored over study materials for his midterm exams and did his best to focus on his coming spring vacation. “I’m trying to zone it out,” he said in a telephone interview. “What else could I really do?”
Such dramas pervade Juicy Campus, an eight-month-old Web site (JuicyCampus.com) that cultivates and distributes gossip across a network of 59 college campuses. Promising that all posts will be anonymous, it allows students to participate in a collegiate version of celebrity gossip sites like TMZ.com and PerezHilton.com; it is a dorm bathroom wall writ large, one that anyone with Internet access can read from and post to.
For students who have been identified by name on Juicy Campus, the results can be devastating. In a tearful phone conversation, a 21-year-old junior at Baylor who majors in public relations recounted her experience when her name surfaced on the site in a discussion about the “biggest slut” on campus.
“I’m trying to get a job in business,” she said. “The last thing I need or want is this kind of maliciousness and lies about me out there on the Internet.”
Without registering, anyone can post to the site, where messages are tagged with keywords — Harvard, spring break, overheard on campus — for easier in-site searching.
Messages skew toward discussions of Greek societies and students’ sex lives: hottest fraternities, “sluttiest” sororities, and who gave herpes to whom. The site’s most-viewed forums usually trade in gossip at small colleges with strong fraternity and sorority systems.
Juicy Campus’s single most popular post seeks to identify the most promiscuous sorority sister at the University of California’s Irvine campus.
Ashley Rose, a junior, was more annoyed than upset to discover that she was named in the post. “It’s amusing, really,” she said. “It’s all so exaggerated and extreme that you kind of know it’s a lie. It’s a site for cowards and melodramatic people.”
Under Juicy Campus’s terms and conditions, users agree not to post anything “unlawful, threatening, abusive, tortious, defamatory, obscene, libelous, or invasive of another’s privacy.”
To reiterate that point, Matt Ivester, the site’s founder, recently declared on his site’s official blog that “hate isn’t juicy,” and attached an exculpatory note from his legal team.
Mr. Ivester, a 2005 graduate of Duke, declined requests for interviews and did not respond to e-mailed questions. In February he told The Daily Bruin, a student newspaper at the University of California, Los Angeles, that Juicy Campus was part of a trend toward “gossip 2.0” and that he found it “pretty entertaining.”
The Sigma Phi Epsilon fraternity has been crucial to the success of the site and of Mr. Ivester (whose Facebook profile photo shows him wearing a fraternity T-shirt and cap). When he founded Juicy Campus in August 2007, he asked his fraternity brothers across the country to provide feedback on how the site was organized and to offer material for some of its earliest posts.
But now many of these same fraternity brothers are part of the backlash against the site. “I don’t see any value in it,” said Aulden Burcher, a senior at Duke, a member of Sigma Phi Epsilon and a friend of Mr. Ivester’s. “Look at what it does to the Greek system: rankings, sex, drugs, what happened at parties. Nobody is made better by it.”
Some student bodies are trying to ban Juicy Campus from their campus. Last month the student government at Pepperdine, in Malibu, Calif., passed a resolution urging the administration to prohibit access to the site.
“Looking back, it was a mistake,” said Austin Maness, a senior who wrote the resolution but now feels that it only increased students’ awareness of Juicy Campus. “Curiosity killed the cat,” he said, “and everyone started going to the site.”
Similar bans are being discussed at Columbia and Yale, and by the Greek systems at the University of California’s 10 campuses.
In situations where Juicy Campus posts have crossed the boundary from nuisance or harassment to outright threat, the site has cooperated with authorities. In December, Carlos Huerta, a senior at Loyola Marymount University, in Los Angeles, posted a message on Juicy Campus alleging that he would start a shooting spree on campus. At the request of the police, Mr. Ivester traced the threat to Mr. Huerta, who was arrested and released without charges.
Authorities can also intercede without Mr. Ivester’s cooperation, as occurred last week when a similar message appeared, written by somebody wondering if he could get his classes canceled by starting a shooting spree. The police traced the post to George So, a junior at Colgate University, who was arrested and charged with second-degree aggravated harassment and released on $1,000 bail.
For many students who have been written up on Juicy Campus, even those who are accustomed to posting provocative pictures on Facebook photo albums and drunken videos on YouTube, the experience has been a formative lesson that an online reputation is as much a part of one’s permanent record as a grade-point average or a credit score.
“Juicy Campus is really just an exclamation point following everything that’s already been going on,” said Daniel J. Solove, an associate professor of law at George Washington University who specializes in online privacy.
College students, he said, aren’t “thinking about the consequences because they haven’t experienced them yet and because they weren’t warned by their parents, who didn’t experience them, either.”
Despite their distaste for the site, some legal experts believed Juicy Campus could not be sued for gossip posted by its users.
“Legally, Juicy Campus is fully, absolutely immune, no matter what it runs on its site from users, just like AOL is not responsible for nasty comments in its AOL chat rooms,” said Michael Fertik, a graduate of Harvard Law School and the founder of reputationdefender.com, a service that helps clients remove defamatory material about themselves from the Internet.
But he added that the Communications Decency Act of 1996, which provides the site legal protections, was “functionally Mesozoic” in the blogging age. Juicy Campus, he said, “is not encouraging people to be themselves, it’s encouraging people to be the worst version of themselves.”
Even if such options were open to him, the Yale student whose pornographic past was exposed on Juicy Campus said he would probably not take action against the site. “Revenge means focusing on someone else, when what I need to do is take care of myself,” he said. “I’m not a gossip person, which means I’m not a counter-gossip person, either.”
The day after his history was revealed, he changed the photograph on his Facebook profile to one of himself giving viewers a halfhearted thumbs up.
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