By Ken White.
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Mar 19, 2008
You may have seen news about a web site called Juicy Campus, a platform for anonymous gossip about students at various colleges. It's been controversial and various schools have considered blocking it from campus networks. The site prominently markets itself as 100% anonymous and brags that it doesn't track posting. The result has been wildly unpredictable, unless you are a carbon-based lifeform capable of deeper thought than a radish — the site's college-specific forums are clogged not with lighthearted "I think Suzy may have a crush on Johnny" posts, but with the most vile crap you can imagine. Anonymous posts single out individuals for sexual, racial, and religious abuse (most vigorously when the target is a woman) and anonymous replies gleefully pile on. For an example, check out the UCLA posts.
Recently Matt Ivester, the founder of the site, issued a blog post addressing the nature of postings on his site, using the earnest but under the circumstances laughable title "Hate isn't juicy:"
Unfortunately, it hasn’t all been fun and games. Some of the things that have been posted have been mean-spirited, and we have received emails from people claiming to have been defamed on the site. Our hope for the site has always been that JuicyCampus would be a place for fun, lighthearted gossip, rather than a place to tear down people or groups.
We want you to be able to post about the topics that are most important, interesting and entertaining to you. We want you to share truthful stories about the hilarious things that you and your friends are doing on the weekends. We want you to post about the real-life scandals that are happening in Student Government, and in the Administration. We want you to give your opinions on the best and worst classes and professors. We want you to make JuicyCampus Juicy, not hateful.
So, we appeal to you to keep JuicyCampus the fun place that it was meant to be. Please consider whether your post is entertaining or just mean, and whether using a person’s full name really adds value, or if it would be just as juicy as a blind item. Remember that words can hurt, and the people you are talking about are real. Ultimately, JuicyCampus is created by our users, and we ask that you please take this responsibility seriously.
Keep it Juicy,
This is followed by a prominent disclaimer that the site is naturally not responsible for content.
Let me make this clear: Matt Ivester is either a disingenuous douchebag or a moron of epic proportions. My money is on the former.
Matt Ivester understood the internet and how internet forums work sufficiently to come up with an idea for a gossip website. But he wants us to believe that he did not anticipate — or even intend — that Juicy Campus would become precisely the sewer of bigoted, malicious vermin that it is. Sorry, but anyone with a room-temperature IQ and more than half an hour on internet forums becomes familiar with the Greater Internet Fuckwad Theory. That the site would sink to precisely this — a place for cruel anonymous sniping, sicko-loser misogyny, racism both sincere and trollish, and general frat vs. frat fuckwittery is perfectly obvious and predictable to anyone with the most nodding acquaintance with the internet. In fact, it's almost impossible for me to imagine that this isn't exactly the result that Matt Ivester intended and planned. If your aim is to build traffic, it's a fair business plan: create a site for college kids to act like assholes to each other anonymously, wait for the hateful garbage to build up and for the media to cover resulting outrage, and enjoy the resulting hits. To believe Matt Ivester when he says that he intended the site to be a "place for fun, lighthearted gossip, rather than a place to tear down people or groups", and that lots of posts would be about those student government scandals that are so terribly important to college kids, you would have to believe that he is profoundly stupid, historically stupid, stupid on a level that calls into question whether he can use utensils or speak in complete sentences reliably.
The vastly more credible explanation, in my opinion, is that Matt Ivester always planned to profit from anonymous misogyny, racism, and general crassness, and that the self-serving post above is not the work of a moron but of a savvy but fundamentally dishonest shitbird.
So what should be done, and what are the free speech implications?
■I don't think public schools should block it, though I'd have to do some serious thinking and research to decide whether it is a First Amendment violation to do so. (Is this parallel to cases about public libraries restricting sites based on content on computers made available to the public? I'd want to research it to address it intelligently.) Private schools committed to principles of free speech probably shouldn't block it either. In both cases, whether or not the blocking by the school network is permissible, it's bad policy to encourage schools to start blocking sites based on content.
■Ultimately I'm comfortable with the emerging legal consensus enforcing the plain language of the Communications Decency Act that forum providers like Juicy Campus are not liable for the posts of their users. That's the only sensible approach to the internet. So Juicy Campus is off the hook, even though it is foreseeable that assholes will use it to post libel — even if that is probably what its founders intended.
■I'm comfortable with the emerging barriers the law places in the way of people attempting to force sites like Juicy Campus to reveal the identity of anonymous posters. The hardships faced by people treated like shit on such sites is outweighed by the danger that people will use the legal system like thugs to intimidate contrary speech. My view on this might change if the process for piercing anonymity were combined with a anti-SLAPP type scheme — that is, if piercing anonymity of internet posts required the plaintiff to prove that his or her claim had legal merit, and required him or her to pay legal fees of the provider and anonymous poster if not.
■However, I don't think everyone is obligated to protect the anonymity of anonymous posters. For instance, through skillful Google investigative work (at which my co-blogger Patrick is a past master), it's frequently possible to identify people through their choice of username on an anonymous site. You see, such people frequently use the same username at multiple sites, and on the benign sites they spill more personal information, and sooner or later you can triangulate on their identity. Maybe they use the same handle on an Amazon wish list, or a restaurant review, or someplace where someone refers to them by name. I think one good response to the Juicy Campus phenomenon would be for clever people at the effected schools to engage in such research, identify the posters of vile stuff, and then reveal their identity to the college community. Hopefully such people would become pariahs, deterring such behavior.
■For that matter, depending on what guarantees of privacy the schools have made to students, I think it may be appropriate for the schools to use their IT wizardry to identify posters. They've already done so in the case of people who have posted threats on Juicy Campus. If schools have given students fair warning that their activities over the school network will be monitored, it strikes me as fair game for the schools to identify people, leading to pariahdom. Of course, if students have been given explicit or implicit guarantees of privacy, that would be problematical. But if they've been warned, then I have to say tough shit — if you want to be anonymous, don't use an institutional communication system. Once again, an article or two identifying the people by name, class, dorm, etc. and printing what they said might result in an effective social consequence. The First Amendment doesn't protect you from everyone treating you like a scumbag if you talk like a scumbag.
■Finaly, there are the return-speech consequences that could be imposed on Matt Ivester and the other people associated with Juicy Campus. I'd like to see some good Googlebombing of the sort that resulted in Sen. Santorum's name permanently associated with anal froth. Let's hear some ideas for Mr. Ivester. How about "douchebag bigotry ringmaster"? Plus, lots more posts like this one expressing our views of Matt Ivester, combined with good search engine optimization, will have consequences. One might want to make sure that his parents, classmates, siblings, grandparents, etc. know the sort of site he sponsors — with completely truthful and accurate quotes — not to mention their churches, workplaces, etc. Matt Ivester fancies himself a champion of free and anonymous speech. Why not test his commitment with legal methods, involving nothing more than effective and carefully-calculated statements of protected opinion and truthful quotes from the business he proudly runs? Everyone who deals with him — and everyone who deals with his extended family — ought to know the facts so that they can evaluate his character.
Edited to add:
I forgot one point, the one I saw today that led me to think about this whole thing. New Jersey prosecutors are taking a creative approach — investigating the site for consumer fraud on the grounds that it promises to keep out offensive material but, in fact, does not. I doubt New Jersey is investigating all web sites for not living up to such guarantees and I'm not comfortable with prosecutors using such approaches. I think they'd have a serious selective prosecution problem, since the investigation is almost certainly driven by content.