Fighting Gossip With Graphics

In light of JuicyCampus and other phenomena, Princeton students take a novel approach to combating what they see as a harmful climate of anonymous innuendo.
April 15, 2008

It's like responding to an insult with a group hug.

Call it the latest, most innovative tactic in a growing movement against the controversial Web site JuicyCampus, where students can call out others by name and make potentially libelous, hateful or damaging statements without apparent consequence. Already, the New Jersey attorney general opened an investigation last month under the state's Consumer Fraud Act, arguing that the site misleads it users. Some campuses have considered banning the site entirely from their networks.

Even if the legal machinations originated just a few miles away, students at Princeton University have been preparing a response on their own terms. In an attempt to elevate campus discourse above conversations with titles like "Vanderbilt Girls > Princeton Girls," a group of students, with the support of the administration, set up a "Love Wall" on Saturday that projected positive statements about people on campus, signed with the names of those who wrote them.

Each message lasted precisely six seconds on the screen, which was placed at a location near the campus's vaunted eating clubs. In one photograph printed in The Daily Princetonian on Monday, the screen displayed a text offering of (presumably platonic) "man-kisses" to a list of lucky recipients. The projection, which is scheduled to be repeated this Friday, was part of the "Own What You Think" campaign, which began as an online petition a week and a half ago and now, with almost 1,000 signatures, is part of a growing multimedia presence on campus that also encompasses posters, T-shirts and a message: If you truly believe something, attach your name to it.

The issues raised by anonymity -- online, in bathroom graffiti and in more mundane contexts such as defaced or removed posters -- aren't unique to Princeton, whose section on JuicyCampus is relatively tame compared to those of other campuses. But the collective impact of expression that lacks accountability and even contributes to the decay of a campus culture, they believe, led some students to try a more constructive response than calling for banning the site or denouncing those who use it.

The petition declares a "stand against anonymous character assassination, a culture of gossip, and all other acts of ethical and intellectual cowardice." It continues: "Anonymity may have its place in certain kinds of political speech, journalistic endeavors, and other arenas, but its overuse and abuse is not consistent with the standard of behavior we, as members of an academic community, wish to maintain."

The sophomore class president, Connor Diemand-Yauman, said he first decided to take action after a friend was attacked by name on JuicyCampus. But the campaign he spearheaded, which is independent from the student government, goes beyond the impact of the Web site.

"Our culture really thrives on gossip, and if you look at half of our magazines, what sells papers, what draws viewers, it’s about celebrity gossip and who’s doing what," he said. "The minute that we’re given the opportunity or the chance to say whatever we want about people without repercussions ... we choose to use that power to say some of the most hurtful and disgusting things that we can."

About 250 students arrived on campus both last Tuesday and Friday with T-shirts bearing the equation "anonymity = cowardice," said Thomas Dunne, the associate dean of undergraduate students who worked with Diemand-Yauman on the campaign. The campaign has also produced posters with the message "You Can't Take Me Down": "Tearing down posters on campus because you don't support the viewpoints expressed by the organizations involved or the content of the program is a type of vandalism and an act of censorship."

Judging by the quick growth of online signatures to the petition (which is open to students from any college) and a growing awareness on campus, the campaign has surely made an impact, even if not everyone agrees with its message or even its methods. The student government and other groups worried that it would draw even more attention to JuicyCampus, an objection that prevented a more coordinated plan. Others have criticized the administration's financial support of the campaign.

The split of opinion over JuicyCampus (not least including those who still read and post to the site) has led individuals to pursue more "guerrilla"-style tactics on their own, like posting the entire Constitution to the message board so that readers have to scroll down for the next comment. And while the Constitution was a signed document, other critics have pointed out that the Federalist Papers were originally published in anonymous segments (under the moniker "Publius").

"By insisting that nobody ever be anonymous and that you always 'own what you think' presupposes that everyone always knows exactly what they themselves think and have strong reasons for it," said a commenter on the Princetonian's article. "If we insist on this, we are naively shutting off many opportunities for exploring new ideas and considering opinions and positions that may not make sense completely (and that one may not be sure enough about to put their name behind) but are worth considering nonetheless. To condemn anonymity unequivocally is propagandistic, academically naive, and ultimately dangerous to intellectual curiosity."

Andy Chen, who produced the images and designed the graphics for the campaign, watched reactions to the Love Wall on Saturday while he monitored the presentation. "Some people walked by and laughed at it, some people scoffed … but everybody’s entitled to their opinion," he said, adding that he heard a number of students talk about the display and the issues it was designed to confront. "Just to hear that, just to hear them having that conversation ... just to know that that’s in their mind ... it’s just inspiring enough for me and Connor to work on."

The wall was "a creative way to encourage a level of positivity and collegiality on campus, and I think people really responded to that,” Dunne said.

And if it has engendered a multitude of reactions, perhaps that was part of the plan, too. Isn't that what starting a dialogue on campus is supposed to be about? Chen said he specifically chose the minimalist Helvetica font so that people could meet the designs with their own preconceptions and bring meaning to the images. It's "about judging, about what kind of meaning you ascribe to the design, what you can personally take away from it," he said. "I like to see design as an agent of social change, so it’s a vehicle for presenting this idea that anonymous speech does break apart a community."

Students from other colleges have already expressed interest in replicating the campaign on their own campuses, Diemand-Yauman said, and he was considering creating a Web site with templates and graphics that could be adapted elsewhere.


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