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A New Gossip Guru

February 25, 2011

CollegeACB, the controversial online forum where students can anonymously seek advice, post inane observations and rants, or simply sling mud with impunity, is under new ownership. The new boss has promised reforms to “push the culture of the site in a more positive and productive direction." At the same time, he has made himself even less accountable than his predecessor by declining to disclose his own name.

In a revamped mission statement, the website’s new proprietor, who took the reins at the end of January, envisages CollegeACB as an antidote to the culture of über-accountability elsewhere on the Web that could make students reluctant to speak their minds for fear that their candid remarks might be immortalized.

“We surround ourselves with tremendous self-censorship,” he wrote. “Tom wanted to trade credit default swaps, but when Goldman Sachs found pictures of him dressed as Legolas with a Derek-Zoolander pose, they just felt like he wasn’t quite the right ‘fit.’ When you start adding your parents to Facebook, a little part of you stops expressing itself. You have the right to remain silent, but anything you say can and will be used against you.”

The irony, of course, is that CollegeACB, since its founding in 2008, has become notorious for trafficking in character assassinations -- digital graffiti by anonymous users that leave the innocent bystanders, not their loose-lipped assailants, fighting to protect their privacy and reputations. The website, which hosts message boards for more than 560 colleges and gets 25 million visitors each month, has attracted a great deal of criticism from colleges, parents, and students, who are at the mercy of the site’s discretion when it comes to getting offensive posts scrubbed.

Some have moved to take action where they can. Creighton University last fall reportedly began blocking students from accessing the site through the campus network. Drew University has reportedly sought recourse from the New Jersey attorney general's office, which is investigating possible violations of anti-bullying statutes, according to the student newspaper there. (As a matter of policy, the attorney general’s office declined to confirm or deny that the site was being investigated.)

At Emory University, the Inter-Sorority Council this month asked its members to pledge not to visit the site and is trying to persuade other student organizations to push for similar moratoriums from their members -- although posts discussing sorority members in vulgar terms have continued to accumulate on the Emory message board.

But the new owner of CollegeACB says he is planning changes that might address the grievances of the site’s critics. In a lengthy interview with Inside Higher Ed, conducted through an e-mail-based text chat, the new chief of the site said he decided to take it over after watching some friends get burned by anonymous users.

“We don’t want to rehabilitate the site,” he wrote. “We want to basically use it to launch an entirely new product. We’re not looking at improvements. We’re looking at a fundamental change.”

The site’s previous owner -- Peter Frank, who is now a senior at Wesleyan University -- was not shy about attaching his name to the site and even appeared on camera for a TIME.com news segment in 2009. The new boss is less open, refusing to disclose his identity. Since CollegeACB has made itself difficult to pin down -- the company registered its Web domain through a third party and uses Google’s famously hard-to-trace e-mail service -- he has taken care to make himself as unaccountable to critics as the nameless users who use the forum to hurl epithets and assess their classmates on the basis of hygiene or sexual viability.

The new boss claims to be male, in his 20s, and politically connected. He says he bought CollegeACB with the help of investors, but says that he and they aren't concerned about making money. He jokes that the site is a bad investment by conventional standards, and said that if he cannot successfully change CollegeACB's smear culture, he plans to sell the site to someone who can.

Asked if he thinks it cowardly to mask his own identity, he said, “Sure it is. It’s also smart. That’s kind of the point of our site, too.”

With the right design, the new owner argues, the site could work as a legitimate forum for candid discussions about college life. For example, he says the company may write mechanisms that recognize certain names and epithets and redact them automatically, preempting personal attacks, race-baiting, and the like.

“We don’t like those posts,” he says. “Not only that, but those posts aren’t interesting or fun. They hurt us because they impede a better culture. We can’t and shouldn’t control what people say. We can only guide them to say better things.… We think that we can develop tools that will highlight the good and decrease the bad.”

But the site faces an uphill battle in winning the confidence of its detractors. One parent, whose son considered transferring from his current college after being ridiculed on CollegeACB, asked not to be named in this article because allegedly “combative” exchanges with the new owner via e-mail left her fearful of crossing him. She says that she and her husband are weighing their legal options -- which are few, considering the site’s considerable legal protections under the Communications Decency Act of 1996.

In an attempt to signal a change in ethos, the new boss says he pulled advertisements from the site’s previous sponsors -- which included Kodak, H&R Block, General Mills, Ticketmaster, Hewlett-Packard, Toyota, and Expedia, among others -- and replaced them with public service announcements and ads for nonprofit organizations.

But the tone of the website has not quite caught up to the change in vision, making for some odd juxtapositions: Next to a thread where users speculated on which girls at their college were “clinically insane,” an advertisement for the American Heart Association. Next to a thread where users named sorority members rumored to engage in unusual sexual acts, a plug for Big Brothers Big Sisters. That dissonance proved too unflattering for Ad Council, which confirmed that it is moving to forbid CollegeACB from using its material.

Meanwhile, students and their families continue to threaten lawsuits. “Hey, if you’re curious, there is a woman who actually wants to sue us and has been pretty persistent with her efforts,” the new boss volunteered in a note to Inside Higher Ed late Thursday afternoon. “We just found out…. We’re legally immune, but we feel like if she has really strong feelings about the site, we want to talk about what we can do with her.”

CollegeACB’s new boss takes the same approach as his predecessor, Frank, when faced with such threats: he doesn’t sweat them.

“I think that people who want to sue us will want to sue us no matter what,” he added later. “It’s not going to change because of some promises we made. What we DO hope will change is that people will actually tell us how to make this better…. We’re not asking for people to like us. We’re asking for criticism.”

As for remaining anonymous, the new owner says he and his team think users care more about how responsive the administrators are than they do about knowing the administrators' names. “We think that we would never be able to have an honest conversation with you or anyone else who reaches out to us,” he said. “We talk to every single person who has ideas about how to improve the site.”

Besides, having your name on a site like CollegeACB could be dangerous. "We don’t want our families to be harassed,” he said. “We don’t want our kids to be bullied.”

For the latest technology news and opinion from Inside Higher Ed, follow @IHEtech on Twitter.

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