Campus decries gossip Web site

On Sept. 30, a page for Williams College was added to the controversial online gossip forum JuicyCampus. Founded in August 2007, the Web site allows anyone to post campus-related gossip with complete anonymity. JuicyCampus has been met with general disapproval from students and administrators alike, and actions have been taken to curb its damaging potential.

Wendy Raymond, associate dean for institutional diversity, deemed the site a vehicle of “community destruction,” calling those who use it to post gossip anonymously yet publicly “irresponsible, immature and self-focused.”

“Nothing positive can come from it,” said Peter Nurnberg ’09, College Council (CC) co-president. In an all-campus e-mail sent yesterday afternoon, Dean Merrill condemned JuicyCampus, although not by name. “The site encourages students to indulge their basest instincts by anonymously posting provocative things about each other,” she said in the e-mail.

Starting last Tuesday, posts began to crop up on the Williams page at JuicyCampus. Thread topics ranged from “hottest girls” and “skeeziest guys” to discussions about sexual orientation and individual students. In many cases the posts included personal attacks, in which students at the College were mentioned by name, a majority of them sophomores.

Aspen Jordan ’11 found a post written about her late Tuesday night. “Obviously I was really upset,” she said. “Everyone is entitled to [his or her] own thoughts and feelings, but it’s so beyond common courtesy to write defamatory things about someone in such a public venue.” Jordan said that upon seeing the post, she e-mailed the moderators of JuicyCampus asking that it be taken down. “They e-mailed me back denying my request, on the grounds that they can’t violate the free speech of their users,” she said, adding that the response she received also claimed there was no way to determine whether or not the post was defamatory.

Thanks to IP address cloaking, JuicyCampus allows its posters to be externally untraceable, and despite the potentially libelous claims posted to the site, it is not legally responsible for any of the content. The only instances in which the site has had to deny anonymity have been in police investigations, including an incident at Colgate University last year in which a student was arrested after posting plans to get his classes cancelled by going on a shooting spree.

While posts on JuicyCampus do not turn up on Google or other Internet searches, having their names posted on the Internet in conjunction with anonymous gossip was troubling for many. “I was afraid of what people I didn’t know would think of me,” said Renzie Chipman ’12, who found a post about him last week.

Jordan said the first thing she did after seeing her name on the site was to Google her name, and was relieved that the post from JuicyCampus did not turn up.

Chief Technology Officer Dinny Taylor emphasized that “what goes on the Web is public and will be there for a long time.” Taylor said that JuicyCampus has been a major topic of discussion amongst peers in her profession as different campuses attempt to deal with the site. “I’m sad that Williams students have lowered themselves to posting things that may hurt others on an anonymous Web site,” she said.

“It’s a whole new level of danger when anything posted can be seen by parents and future employers,” Nurnberg said.

Campus Reaction

College Council (CC) and the administration considered several courses of action as awareness of JuicyCampus spread across the campus. “The options available [were] not so appealing and pretty limited,” said CC co-president Jeremy Goldstein ’09. According to Goldstein, CC has been in discussion with Dean Merrill over the past week about the situation. He outlined the four potential steps they have considered: blocking the site from the College network, trying to clog it, trying to discourage students from visiting the site through word-of-mouth and sending out an all-campus e-mail to “head off” students from visiting the site.

CC quickly ruled out the all-campus e-mail. “We didn’t want to give the site any publicity at all,” Nurnberg said. “We might as well have sent out the link.” However, discussion of the site spread throughout the week, culminating in the all-campus e-mail from Merrill yesterday, which Goldstein said he supported.

In the message, Merrill also explained her decision not to support blocking the site. Nurnberg said the option was still on the table as far as CC was concerned. However, he also noted that “CC and the administrators who have the power to block the site need to think about the broader implications of doing so,” and that the decision was ultimately beyond the jurisdiction of CC.

Merrill and Nurnberg outlined the same two concerns with banning the site from the College network: first, that blocking the site would not stop postings on similar anonymous forums that exist elsewhere on the Web, and second, that doing so could risk transforming the discussion surrounding the site from one of community standards to one of censorship and free speech.

According to Taylor, however, it is well within the Office of Information Technology’s (OIT) power to block traffic to any site from the campus networks, and she discussed the technological possibilities with Merrill. OIT frequently blocks sites that pose threats to the security of the network, but there is no precedent for blocking sites due to content. “But this is not a technical decision,” Taylor said. “We [left] any policy decision on whether to block a site because of content up to the Dean’s Office.”

Nurnberg said that one uniform action on the part of CC at the moment has been to try to discourage use of the site by publicly discussing “the serious implications” of posting on it. “Our biggest concern is that the site contains damaging and false claims about students on our campus,” he said. CC has also encouraged and supported clogging the site.

A small group of unidentified students has undertaken a major initiative to fill the Williams page on JuicyCampus with posts of Bible verses, scientific articles, poetry and selections from the Bill of Rights. As of yesterday, only three of the 20 most recent threads involved actual students at the College. The students have organized their efforts through a private Facebook group.

Raymond also expressed her support of the efforts to clog JuicyCampus with non-gossip-related posts. “I thank the many students who are working to make this Web site irrelevant to Williams,” Raymond said. “These leaders will show the small minority of gossip-site participants and victims that creating an accepting, understanding and productive community is well worth our combined efforts.”

Merrill offered similar sentiments in her e-mail. “I applaud the students who’ve done everything they can to neutralize the harm of the site and trust that the small number of students who have posted hurtful messages will soon grow out of such behavior,” she wrote.

Other campuses deal with Juicy

After JuicyCampus opened its page for Duke University, the student affairs office began to hear complaints from parents and staff alike. As the site’s founder, Matt Ivester, was a recent Duke alum, a staff member who had known him as an undergraduate called Ivester to express the University’s concerns with the site. As reported by The Chronicle of Higher Education, he responded that he was uninterested in moderating the content of the site and was even enjoying its newfound notoriety.

The student government at Pepperdine University passed a resolution last January requesting that campus technology officers block the site from their networks. Even though the request was denied, campus officials complained to Google, whose advertising network included JuicyCampus. Google decided to eject the site from its network, but the site found other means of publicity, including through advertisements on Facebook.

Students on several campuses have tried to clog or spam the site, with varying degrees of success. At Cornell, students posted complete Hemingway novels and books from the Bible using an automated program, which caused the site to slow down and discouraged students from visiting. A Colgate student posted numerous requests to remove her school from JuicyCampus, which the site moderators consistently deleted.