The “Boredat” Web sites, where ennui-stricken Ivy League students could post random thoughts anonymously, were closed down this week after one of the sites came under attack from interlopers posting “racist” material.
BoredAtButler.com, a site dedicated to the open-ended musings of Columbia University students in the university’s Butler Library, had become flooded with “racist” and otherwise offensive posts, said Jonathan Pappas, who founded the site in 2006 while a student there.
Pappas on Tuesday shut down that site along with duplicates he had set up for students at Harvard, Dartmouth, and Princeton. “I do not condone hate speech or racist comments,” Pappas wrote in a message displayed on each of the sites, adding that he would not allow Boredat to exist if it “does not accurately represent the general opinion of its community” or “does not have the ability to self-moderate.”
The Columbia site was the only one that had been attacked, Pappas told Inside Higher Ed, but he wanted to preempt similar problems at the other sites while he figured out how to safeguard against “trolls” — online graffiti artists who assail message boards with inflammatory posts designed to provoke visitors. He said he believes the BoredAtButler.com campaign was the work of only two or three trolls “who were basically hell-bent on destroying the reputation and destroying the site with racist and vulgar content.”
Facebook and other social networking sites have given the latest generation of college students the opportunity to replicate their identities in cyberspace. But in recent years, Web sites that allow students to air their thoughts anonymous thoughts have become popular as well. Campus-based knock-offs of sites such as FMyLife.com and OverheardInNewYork.com have sprung up at a number of colleges, giving students a chance to express frustrations, relate anecdotes, or tell jokes for the benefit — and often at the expense — of their classmates without being held accountable.
The emergence of these sites has not been without controversy. JuicyCampus — perhaps the most infamous forum, where college students could namelessly defame their peers — was widely criticized before its creator shut it down early this year, citing an unsustainable business model.
The Boredat sites had also incurred some criticism. Andrew Fine, a columnist for the Harvard Crimson, wrote against BoredAtLamont, the Harvard version, after noticing that he had been referenced by multiple anonymous commenters (in both flattering and hurtful contexts). “Online forums could institute a vicious cycle in which the most vulnerable students become reliant on virtual reality as their medium of contact,” Fine wrote, noting how many students were posting about how lonely they were.
But Pappas said he thinks the Boredat sites have the potential to do good. Not only can they be therapeutic for students who wish to express themselves unabashedly, he said, but they can also offer an unusually honest view into the collective mindset of students.
“It’s trying to bring to the surface what people are thinking,” Pappas said. “When identity is involved — like with Facebook, MySpace, and Twitter — people will inherently dress up the things that they say, knowing that everyone they know is going to read it. So it’s inherently flawed.”
Pappas said he plans to bring the sites back at every Ivy League college, but with controls that would automatically quarantine posts containing certain offensive words, and delete any post to which even a single student objects. He said he also hopes to recruit site engineers at each Ivy to help design and administer the revised sites.
Joseph Storch, a lawyer for the State University of New York who has criticized such sites but advised colleges against overstepping their bounds by censoring them, said he thinks a self-moderated version of the site could work. “Just like anyone would say, ‘Hey look there’s graffiti on wall of our library,’ if there are people who value the virtual discussion board at their library, and who are willing to put in the time to moderate it, that could be a good model,” he said.