As both a Yale student and an Internet entrepreneur, I had very mixed feelings when I read that the University contacted a lawyer about JuicyCampus.com, a social networking Web site that allows students to post anonymous gossip about other students. On one hand, people I know have been badly hurt by posts on JuicyCampus. On the other, there are strong arguments against a ban. The precedent a block would set, the strategy of attacking the medium rather than the participants, and the questionable success of a ban are all valid objections.
But I am not going to attempt to convince officials to keep their hands off JuicyCampus. Instead, I want to discuss the business of the Internet. If Yale has any hope to turn the web into a forum for productive dialogue — or at least stop Yale students from posting hateful things on it — the University has to understand Internet trends and behavior. Ultimately, the only way to create responsible Internet citizens is to educate them about the Internet, its power and its flaws. Without the right kind of action, this situation will get far worse.
Matt Ivester — the founder of JuicyCampus — is an amateur. The site is poorly formatted, extremely slow, and there is nothing intuitive about navigating it. That alone has limited its adoption at Yale and other campuses. But many people with large amounts of money and Web expertise are watching JuicyCampus closely, keenly aware of its popularity among students. To the Internet business community, JuicyCampus has proven one thing: you can make huge amounts of money by giving young people a medium to say awful things about each other. Advertisers, after all, will pay top dollar to get their ads in front of 18- to 24-year-olds. And while the vast majority of entrepreneurs (myself included) are ethically opposed to making money from others’ emotional trauma, our sentiments are not shared by everyone.
I imagine that Ivester will be seeing a lot more lawyers than profits in the near future. But somewhere, someone is creating a better, faster JuicyCampus. Someone else is creating a great aggregator that crawls the internet for gossip about you. Someone else is creating a service that matches that information with questionable pictures of you on Facebook in an open, searchable database. Someone else is creating a service that collects the same information, but markets it to employers, insurers and parents (SEE WHAT PEOPLE SAY ABOUT YOUR CHILD FOR $19.95!). Entire teams of brilliant people at Google are figuring out how to archive this information for millennia. And thousands of venture capitalists are bidding to give these entrepreneurs millions of dollars to ensure that those sites make us repeat this whole debate over again.
Of course, I don’t condone this kind of progress. But I do feel that students and administrators must understand the implications of our digital culture. The problem is not the technology, nor is it the entrepreneurs who see the opportunities. Rather, real change must be driven by the individuals who use these sites. Every time someone posts a picture of his wild party on Facebook or spreads a lie about an acquaintance on JuicyCampus, he makes the Internet a little less friendly. Ultimately, Yale should focus on educating students about their role as Internet citizens and the implications of personal information displayed in public online forums.
To the attorney generals in New Jersey and Connecticut, go ahead and bring down JuicyCampus by legal means. But realize that in doing so, you are not tearing down the lone vile outlier among social networking sites, but rather a slow, crude harbinger of things to come. Go ahead and shoot the messenger, but make sure to write down instructions for doing so — you will be turning to them a lot from now on.
Brad Hargreaves is a senior in Trumbull College. He is the co-founder of GoCrossCampus.com.