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Juice Runs Dry

February 5, 2009

The time has come to mourn the short and trashy life of JuicyCampus.

For some, the now defunct Web site was a forum for exacting sweet, anonymous revenge – a sort of cyber boxing arena where jilted lovers could settle scores, and the Goth set could take the Greeks down a peg. There was also a downside. JuicyCampus was a nightmare for higher education officials and some students, who saw the site as a potentially dangerous provocateur, encouraging students to spread hurtful gossip, lies, threats and racial epithets.

Citing a failed business model, the site’s founder announced Wednesday that Juicy Campus had, well, run out of juice.

“JuicyCampus has raised issues that have passionate advocates on both sides, and I hope that dialogue would continue,” Matt Ivester, the site’s founder and a 2005 Duke University graduate, said in a statement. “While there are parts of JuicyCampus that none of us will miss — the mean spirited posts and personal attacks – it has also been a place for the fun, lighthearted gossip of college life. I hope that is how it is remembered.”

And then, in a spirit undaunted, Ivester signed off: “Keep it Juicy.”

From its 2007 inception, JuicyCampus has been the subject of controversy. Several universities blocked access to the site on their networks, and the New Jersey Attorney General’s office launched an investigation of consumer fraud.

Gwendolyn Dungy, executive director of NASPA: Student Affairs Administrators in Higher Education, said the site presented real challenges for college officials. Administrators were torn between a desire to protect students from cyber bullying, and concerns about censoring free speech, Dungy said.

“It has been a meddlesome problem,” she said. “You can’t do anything about it, but parents expect something to be done. A lot of the student affairs people have felt backed in the corner.”

If there’s a silver lining in the story of JuicyCampus, it’s the fact that advertisers failed to support it, Dungy said. That outcome isn’t all too surprising, she added. “I would think that … [advertisers] would not want to be associated with this when they know that parents and administrators and faculty think this site should not exist,” she said. “I would think as a marketer it would be very detrimental.”

In an e-mail Wednesday, the site’s founder acknowledged that some advertisers were wary of JuicyCampus.

“It is no surprise that JuicyCampus' content limited our advertiser base,” Ivester wrote. “Disney was never going to put an ad on JuicyCampus. However, there were plenty of brands that loved our demographic, our traffic, and even some that embraced the controversy. Unfortunately, everyone has been hit by this economic downturn and advertising budgets are often amongst the first things cut."

Law May Have Been on Site’s Side

While JuicyCampus was upsetting to many people, its critics failed to successfully mount a legal challenge against the creators. That may be in large part due to the protections afforded in the Section 230 of the 1996 Communications Decency Act. The act immunizes Web sites from responsibility for content provided by users, which would pretty well cover the salacious content on JuicyCampus.

Daniel J. Solove, a professor at George Washington University Law School, said JuicyCampus exposed weaknesses in the law. It’s appropriate for the law to protect companies from the musings of users, he said. On the other hand, Solove suggests JuicyCampus and other existing sites similar to it are doing something quite different.

“I think it’s great to protect a site where you kind of get an unexpected [or even inappropriate] comment that comes through,” said Solove, author of The Future of Reputation: Gossip, Rumor, and Privacy on the Internet. “I think it’s quite another when you actually solicit and facilitate that very practice happening; you’re kind of encouraging it and inducing it.”

Several Challenged Juicy

Students and administrators alike took on JuicyCampus with mixed results. Michael Freeman, vice president for student affairs at Tennessee State University, successfully blocked access to the site on the university’s network. He said he first learned about the site from a concerned parent, and he was particularly worried about it sparking violence on campus.

“Students were being targeted in a way that could have potentially put them in harm's way,” he said.

Concerns about the site prompted the New Jersey Attorney General’s Office to launch an investigation about a year ago, issuing subpoenas to JuicyCampus and one of its advertisers to determine whether the state’s Consumer Fraud Act had been violated. In a statement Wednesday, Attorney General Anne Milgram celebrated the site’s demise.

“New Jersey's college students won't have to worry about their names and character being damaged anymore by the malicious anonymous gossip that was the backbone of JuicyCampus.com,” the statement said.

The statement does not suggest the investigation will continue in the wake of JuicyCampus’ closure.

Students challenged the site as well. Austin Maness, a recent graduate of Pepperdine University, led a charge on his campus to block the site on the university’s network. The Student Government Association voted in favor a resolution he introduced to block the site, but the university never moved forward on the proposal. Maness said he was motivated by concern for his classmates.

“It was brought to my attention that a lot of people had been really maliciously libeled on there,” he said. “People were talking about dropping out of school. Resident advisors were saying girls were really upset, wanted to go home.”

Asked for his reaction to the site shutting down Wednesday, Maness called it a “victory” for those who’d opposed it.

“I think it’s good thing, man, I really do,” he said. “I think it’s a terrible, malicious Web site which really doesn’t serve any positive function in society, especially in college. I’m happy about it [shutting down].”

In the waning hours of the Web site’s existence, however, reaction was mixed. One poster wrote “goodbye and good riddance” to the cruel invention. There were plenty taking final shots, though, including a student who hurled a final insult at his “dirty” “whoree” ex-girlfriend.

 

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