By Marc Fisher
Sunday, March 2, 2008
T.J. Bateman had never heard of JuicyCampus.com until a friend told him he had been discussed on the Web site, which urges college students nationwide to "give us the juice." Someone wrote, anonymously, that Bateman, a senior at the University of Virginia, is a "pretty cool dude, but I hear he is part robot."
Could be worse, Bateman figures. "I thought it was pretty funny, but then I saw a post on the same page with a couple of racial epithets, and that rubbed me the wrong way. The anonymity lends itself to much more vindictive attacks."
Such as one that names another U-Va. student and says she "will sleep with any guy." This sort of post has given JuicyCampus -- which features message boards for 50 colleges, including the recent additions of U-Va. and the Naval Academy in this area -- instant notoriety and the sadly resulting success.
The subject of that posting, a junior at the Charlottesville campus, didn't know that a thousand people had read the slur against her until I told her about it.
"Initially, I wasn't too concerned about it, although I did get angrier the more I thought about it," she says. "Everyone I know feels that the Web site merely serves as an outlet for petty and immature people who have nothing better to do with their time."
Not wishing to be associated with sexual sleaziness for the rest of her life, she contacted JuicyCampus asking that her name be removed.
Nothing doing. JuicyCampus guarantees anonymity to those who slime others, but disavows any obligation to those who are maligned on its pages.
From the site's FAQ:
" Is the site really anonymous?"
"There is no way for someone using the site to find out who you are. And we at JuicyCampus . . . prefer not to know who you are."
" How do I remove a comment I posted?"
"You can't. Once it's out there, it's out there."
If the offending post is about you, too bad. "JuicyCampus does not remove content," the site says. "We encourage you to shift your point of view. . . ."
Legally, JuicyCampus is protected by a 1996 law that shields Web site operators from responsibility for nasty, defamatory or false material their readers might post.
And morally? The founder, Matt Ivester, a 2005 Duke University graduate who launched the site in August, delights in telling interviewers that his business is just "a fun place to hang out" and bears no responsibility for any slanders.
But you'd expect that of the creator of such a business. What's more interesting is this:
Not one of the students I spoke to who has been named on the site as sexually promiscuous saw any purpose in trying to silence the site.
"I have no idea who wrote that about me, and I'm not entirely sure I would want to know," says a U-Va. senior named on JuicyCampus as someone who is sexually available. She worries that having her name on the site could jeopardize the job she just landed with a government agency. She wishes the site didn't exist but says nothing can be done.
"I haven't heard any cry for action," says Daniel Colbert, executive editor of the campus Cavalier Daily and author of an editorial urging students not to post schoolmates' names on the site. "I'm in the journalism industry, so we tend to believe you should be responsible for what you say, but a lot of people in our generation don't have that idea. They don't expect that something that's published should be true."
"Students are more used to this kind of information being out there than the parent generation," says Lauren Tilton, president of U-Va.'s student council. "It's the nature of the Internet."
The student government at Pepperdine University asked administrators to block the site from school computers, and students at Texas Christian University appealed to advertisers not to buy space on the site. But at most colleges where the site has exploded in popularity, deans recommend combating bad speech with good speech, or just ignoring the site and hoping it will go away.
"We don't want to and we can't inhibit speech," says Pat Lampkin, U-Va.'s vice president for student affairs. "Do we condone what's on the site? Absolutely not. We see the harm things like this cause. We'd rather see a discussion about owning your own words."
Herself named on the site, Lampkin decided not to respond. "It's what I tell students: You have to stand by who you are and hope that's what comes through."
The content on JuicyCampus is identical to the banter heard in dorm rooms for centuries. But now the whole planet can listen in, including those being maligned, even as the speakers' identities are better protected than ever.
"People who intend to be mean will find a place to do that," Tilton says. "This is just the current forum for that."
But why are so many students so eager to slime their classmates? How does this square with the recent emphasis on teaching tolerance and multiculturalism at every level of education? Do some students crave an anonymous forum to vent in ways that have become socially unacceptable in person?
"We spend so much time worrying about how to treat other communities that we're maybe forgetting about how we treat the whole community," Tilton says. "In high school and middle school, we learn about being culturally sensitive to all different groups, and that's great. But are we also going to be nice to our friends?"
The dean says students aren't rebelling against what they've been taught, just missing the difference between private and public communication. "This generation uses language differently," Lampkin says. "They think they're communicating to an individual, and they put up an intimate conversation and they don't stop to think that the whole world may be reading this differently. The words may be lewd and cruel, but to them, it is internal joking. When I tell them how their words are being received, they are mortified."
Maybe, but will they act on their shame?