Posted by: rcieri | December 1, 2008

Spilling the Juice: JuicyCampus leaves online reputations in question

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Dec. 1

By Rachel Cieri

“Sticks and stones can break your bones, but words can never hurt you?” The subjects of conversation on JuicyCampus might beg to differ.

When Duke alum Matt Ivester created JuicyCampus.com, he started a phenomenon. While it has only been in existence since August 2007, it sports more than 1.6 million posts to date on 500 campuses, enabling anonymous gossips from across the country to post any information they want.

Elon University is one of the newest campuses to “join” the site, meaning that an interface was created especially for the school’s students. Since September, when it first went online, students have posted more than 40 pages of gossip threads, but how much is the campus really participating?

Talk of the campus

picture-3In an anonymous survey of 100 Elon students, 95 said that they had visited the website before, and most said that they visited the site once or twice each week for updates. It is clear that this Web site has permeated the social consciousness of the campus.

The active participants here, though, are few. Only about 6 percent of those who have visited the site admit to posting a thread, and only about 24 percent admit to replying to a thread. This could mean that there are not many people who care to start these rumors and even fewer who take the time to respond.

Ninety-nine percent of respondents have been personally affected by what they saw on JuicyCampus, saying that they have seen a post about a group with whom they identify. These include a person’s ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation, fraternity or sorority, sports team or campus organization. Eight percent of respondents have experienced every college student’s worst nightmare – their full names were posted on the site.

Spilled juice – worth crying over?

The JuicyCampus is a virtual rumor mill, but the people who are talked about are real.

Anyone who has visited Elon University’s page on JuicyCampus would recognize the name “Adam Lawson.” The freshman communications major became a frequent topic of conversation shortly after he arrived at Elon, and the online community has yet to tire of talking about him.

Lawson says that the jibes at him started when he signed his name at the bottom of a thread he posted. Soon after, he found that he was the subject of multiple posts calling him names. At first, Lawson thought that the posts would be compliments to him, but he found it to be the opposite.

“They called me a ‘creeper,’” he said. “I don’t creep on people.”

The harsh criticisms hit Lawson hard. He said that he sometimes went days without talking to people because he was so upset about the rumors. Because he is a freshman, JuicyCampus has become part of his identity to other students.

“I’ve been approached so many times by drunk people who say, ‘Aren’t you the kid from Juicy Campus?’ I’ll talk to them or I’ll walk away. I might change the subject if I feel like talking to them. One time a drunk dude wanted to fight me,” Lawson said.

His bitterness toward the site’s visitors is apparent.

“There are people who read it and believe it for the gospel. It makes me wonder how they got into this school. Clearly, their parents have done a poor job. If you’re going to post something about others, take a look at yourself,” he said.

As for the reason why people have reacted so negatively to him, Lawson chalks it up to jealousy. “If you’re going to take the time to put me down, there’s obviously something you’re envious of.”

Whether or not this is the case, Lawson’s name still appears regularly, drawing hundreds of views to each thread.

When junior Emily Silva saw what was written about her, she had a reaction that was a bit out of the ordinary.

“I laughed,” she said. “I actually laughed. I thought it was funny at first because it was so ridiculous.”

The journalism student had visited the site on many occasions before she learned that she was the subject of conversation. She quickly investigated JuicyCampus when she first heard about it in September while talking to friends. Her sorority had been mentioned, and she wanted to see what was being said.

“I was disgusted,” Silva said, explaining her first impression of JuicyCampus. “It’s such a cowardly mechanism for [gossip]. It’s just very juvenile. People are writing on it so they can’t be identified.”

The way she discovered the nasty remarks about her has become common practice among college students; she typed her own name into the site’s search bar. What she found was that she had been named in reply to one of the threads asking students to name the campus’s “biggest,” “best” or “most” something. The attack was to her personality.

“It’s not a ‘burst into tears, my life’s ruined’ kind of thing. There were definitely people defending me,” she said.

Even so, the contents of the thread have resonated with her.

“It made me think about how I’m talking to people. It was almost beneficial in a way. It made me evaluate how I portray myself to people,” Silva said.

In her everyday conversations, Silva now wonders if the person with whom she is talking is one of the people who wrote something about her. She now notices everything from a person’s body language to the way he or she speaks. Silva has suspicions about the identities of these individuals, but she can never be sure.

“I just want to know who these people are so I can stay away from them. They don’t need to be in my life if they’re that unhappy with me,” Silva said.

Still, as much as she dislikes JuicyCampus and the type of conversation it encourages, she concedes that there is some value in it.

“I think there is some truth about what everyone has said. Rumors have to start from some tiny bit of reality.

Junior Craig Filazzola would agree. As a student discussed in a similar way to Silva, he can understand why he was the target of some unflattering conversation.

“I’ll talk to anyone, and I’ll approach anyone. It’s who I am. I’m not scared to talk to people. This could be taken as awkward, but no one’s perfect either. I’m not going to stop based on the opinions of a few people,” Filazzola said.

Unlike Silva, Filazzola had never visited JuicyCampus.com before he found out that he was a topic of conversation. He’d never even heard of the site until Dean of Student Life Smith Jackson e-mailed students a statement about the university’s position on the site. He says that gossip simply doesn’t interest him.

Filazzola said that he has not been very affected by the comments made about him. He does not see the people who wrote the comments as being of much value to him.

“I probably forgot these people. They mean nothing to me. If you gave me the three names [of the posters], I probably wouldn’t remember them,” he said.

Filazzola does not have much respect for people who would take these comments seriously, either.

“I’ve found false comments and some friends, and it’s like, ‘Are you kidding me?’ I’m sure there are a few people I don’t like, but I’m not going to go on JuicyCampus and waste my time writing about them,” he said.

Cleaning up the spill

<!–[if gte vml 1]> <![endif]–>picture-4In a letter to JuicyCampus users on the site’s official blog, CEO Matt Ivester asked posters to refrain from hateful dialogue on the site, saying that hate is not “juicy.” Whether or not some users took this to heart, libel still runs rampant.

For students who have been defamed, there are few options to pursue to right their reputations.

Legal Options

JuicyCampus’s terms of use, which were clearly crafted by some clever lawyers, state that “JuicyCampus is immune from liability from content posted by users.” As Dr. George Padgett explained, JuicyCampus is classified as a service provider rather than a publisher. Because service providers do not edit the content before it is published, courts have maintained that they cannot be held responsible for defamation.

In 1998, Kenneth Zeran attempted to sue AOL for failure to remove a defamatory post on an online “bulletin board,” but he was unsuccessful. Sound familiar?

A landmark court case on this issue, Zeran v. America Online influenced this law in Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act, which states that “No provider or user of an interactive computer service shall be treated as the publisher or speaker of any information provided by another information content provider.”

According to Padgett, this may not always hold true, but it would take extensive time and effort to overturn the law.

“Courts may look at precedent, but that doesn’t mean they’ll follow it,” he said.

Flag burning laws, for instance, have been reversed multiple times in the Supreme Court, and an area as new as Internet law is certainly subject to change.

Students who believe they have been defamed will probably have more success suing the author of the post or posts. JuicyCampus has been cooperative with subpoenaed IP addresses that can trace the computer from which the post was published. If the post is ruled defamatory, meaning that it is a false accusation of a fact, if there is sufficient evidence to prove that an individual is responsible for it and if the post is ruled damaging, then the author can be successfully sued.

The downside is that this process can get expensive, and there is no guarantee that the individual will be able to pay the damages.

“You could spend a lot of money suing someone with no money,” Padgett said.

Furthermore, there is always a libel-proof defense: a defendant may be able to prove that the plaintiff already had a bad reputation that could not be damaged any more.

Do-it-yourself dealing

<!–[if gte vml 1]> <![endif]–>

picture-7Sometimes, it may be best to leave the situation alone and let people forget. Kiersten Schmidt, a junior at the University of Miami, became familiar with JuicyCampus last spring, and since then, she said, her interested has simply fizzled out. She checked the site daily for the first few weeks after she learned about it, but the initial shock wore off quickly.

It was new and exciting, and I wanted to read all the gossip,” Schmidt said. “But it got old really fast once people stopped talking about interesting stuff and started posting things like ‘OMG BILLY SMITH IS GAYYYY!!!!’ It was just dumb, and I got over it.”

With this sort of attitude becoming widespread, it is likely that many will simply forget about any particular piece of gossip. Those who become topics of interest can take heart in knowing that the site is search-engine resistant, meaning that incriminating threads are not likely to appear in a Google search. JuicyCampus has its own search bar to allow users to access the topics they most want to hear about.

Even so, AnneMarie Meyer, a senior at Oklahoma State University, did not sit by the wayside when she found out someone had written less-than-flattering statements about her.

“I did post threads because I was on the first page and wanted to get my name off it,” Meyer said.

The main page of the website holds about 20 threads per campus, and the user must click links to other pages to see older posts. Knowing this, Meyer posted threads until her name had been pushed back to another page.

A student who is not satisfied to merely divert attention away from him or herself, however, can attempt to rid the site of information entirely through services such as ReputationDefender.com, which offers to help eradicate incriminating information for fees starting at $14.95 per month.

A matter of free speech? <!–[if gte vml 1]> <![endif]–>

blockingjuicygraphicIt is no secret that JuicyCampus has taken some harsh criticism for allowing an almost unlimited number of controversial statements and rumors to exist in cyberspace, and the site has always defended itself by claiming that it defends first amendment freedoms.

Reading the fine print on the site, however, might tell a different story. It states in its “Frequently Asked Questions” section that it reserves the right to remove content at any time for any reason, but can this still be called free speech? Will the law with which JuicyCampus shields itself ultimately be its downfall, or will precedent prevail?

The answers lie with its users.

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Responses

  1. You did a good job on this from start to finish. You presented the concept well, had an excellent initial report on progress, completed a thorough first draft and adjusted to make the final piece a professional-level article. Textbook example of getting things done the right way!


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