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Can A College Gossip Site Be Forced To Turn Off The Juice?

Mar 29, 2008
When I became a writer, I started and then I stopped working a story on bullying. I felt that readers would not be sympathetic with a male main character who was the butt of abuse, practical jokes and malicious innuendos. After reading about a college site called JuicyCampus and taking a look at comments on the site, I felt glad that I never wrote the story, yet I felt bad that students now take the time to bully others -- and not necessarily classmates - on the Internet.

JuicyCampus is very much like a celebrity gossip site except there are no paparazzi; no editors to protect the reporters and publisher from libel suits, because there are no reporters at all; and, the "celebrities" are unsuspecting college students. But unlike real celebrities who have armies of lawyers to protect them from possible libel, unsuspecting college students have no resources or recourse when they have been humiliated on the site.

I don't know what's worse: the people who would post malicious comments under a cloud of anonymity with little or nothing to gain, or the site owners who are trying to profit from them. This site has posted extraordinarily high traffic ranks since late February -- it ranks among the top 4,600 sites visited by U.S. viewers - because of the posts and negative publicity. Alexa, which tracks traffic and site rankings, showed huge spikes in traffic during this period. The site is brutally slow and not especially user-friendly, no doubt because the servers are struggling to handle the traffic, which has partly spiked as a result of student anxiousness and fear.

The site owners have written an interesting privacy statement; they claim that it won't be possible for others to learn a poster's identity and volunteer that cloaking devices are available if a poster is concerned that their IP address will be tracked. They do not require students to register, or attempt to collect registration information, so no one, including the site owners themselves, knows who posted what. While that makes for "juicy" content, it's also encouraging cowardly and destructive behavior that divides a college community.

But I agree with the college technology managers who have commented on JuicyCampus: there is little a school can do to prevent access to the site. Even if a college technology team could flag it and block access from the school's computers, students could not be prevented from visiting it on their own desktops and laptops. It may take legal or economic action instead.

The New Jersey Division of Consumer Affairs and the state's Attorney General are investigating whether JuicyCampus violates consumer fraud laws: investigators want to know how the site owners select featured colleges -- there are only 61 listed and posters do not need to be a student at any particular school, verifies that users are over 18 and responds to complaints. Among the 61 schools are two of the military service academies and three institutions: Bob Jones, Brigham Young and Notre Dame that are known for their religiosity; at all five schools, such malicious posts would be heavily frowned upon.

It will be interesting to learn the outcome of this investigation, as well as any possible judicial verdict that may arise from it. I doubt that a site like JuicyCampus would display the current content if it were forced to collect registrations, or change its privacy policy to work in cooperation with federal, state and local law enforcement and legal counsels hired by colleges, students and parents.

In the meantime, student groups have asked their classmates to boycott JuicyCampus. Such boycotts will make more students aware of the problems of the site and pressure JuicyCampus not to add their school to their list.

But they will also draw more traffic to the site, and that may give its owners what they want: traffic that leads to high advertising revenues. As I previously mentioned, the site follows the business model of a celebrity gossip magazine.

The best solution might be to hit the site's owners in the wallet. Two online advertising services: Google's and AdBright have already canceled their relationships with JuicyCampus. It may be a good idea for the colleges and their student governments to take their case to the rest of the online advertising community.

If two advertising services have gone thumbs-down, others are likely to follow.

(Originally published at Educated Quest blog and reprinted with the author's permission).
About the Author
Stuart Nachbar has been involved with education politics, policy and technology as a student, urban planner, government affairs manager, software executive, and now as author of The Sex Ed Chronicles. Visit his blog, Educated Quest.
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