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Matt Ivester's Clean Slate

November 16, 2011

A lot of people dislike Matt Ivester, the creator and former CEO of JuicyCampus. Ivester’s laissez-faire moderation policies helped the college gossip website become a haven for bigoted screeds and anonymous personal attacks. The site finally shut down in early 2009 -- after advertisers fled the site and Ivester couldn’t reel in new investors -- but not before JuicyCampus became wildly popular among some students, leaving others in tears.

“If anyone has dirt on this CREEP Matt Ivester, post it on this page,” wrote an East Carolina University student on a retaliatory Facebook group she created in 2008. “I think it’s time he got a dose of his own POISON.” The group was called “Matt Ivester… i hope you’ve made your parents proud!” More than 200 people joined it.

But the ex-gossip guru thinks the haters would feel differently if they met him. “I think what surprises people when they meet [me] is they have a negative impression of JuicyCampus, and I’m a normal, nice, likeable guy,” Ivester told Inside Higher Ed this week.

After all, it’s easy to flame someone when you’re not doing it to his face. Ivester himself has written on the matter. When casting stones online, “you aren’t privy to all the non-text clues… that remind you of the other person’s humanity, and your own,” he says.

Now, Ivester is attempting to parlay his past as proprietor of the controversial gossip forum — which prompted condemnation from student governments, access bans from campus network administrators, and investigations from two attorneys general — into a new career as a self-styled sage of responsible digital citizenship.

Ivester has also started a publishing company, Serra Knight Publishing — named for Serra Street, which runs along the southeast edge of the Stanford University campus, and the Knight Management Center at the Stanford Graduate School of Business, where Ivester is working toward an M.B.A. with a focus in entrepreneurship and reputation management systems. Serra Knight is a modest publishing house, with only a single title: a sobering primer on reputation management and cyberbullying for college students.

The book is called lol…OMG!: What Every Student Needs to Know About Online Reputation Management. The author is Matt Ivester.

“I am part of the first class of students experiencing the real-world ramifications of our digital decisions,” Ivester, a 2005 graduate of Duke University, writes in the book’s preface. “Combine this with my JuicyCampus experience, and I realized that I am uniquely positioned to write a book like this: a guide to help students think about the way they portray themselves, and the way they treat others, online.”

Named for the Web-speak acronyms for laughter followed by surprise, lol…OMG! positions the rise and fall of JuicyCampus as a parable in which Ivester, well-meaning but naïve, fails to appreciate the scale and permanence of the Internet and inadvertently creates a monster. He then relates variations on this tale — a Duke student’s kiss-and-tell PowerPoint presentation (intended as a private joke, it soon became a mortifyingly public one), a UCLA student’s impolitic YouTube rant about Asian students in the library (she received death threats and eventually dropped out), and the fateful decision of a Rutgers freshman to webcast a video of his roommate, Tyler Clementi, in an intimate encounter with another man (Clementi killed himself days later) — before offering practical advice on how to avoid making (or becoming the victim of) similar mistakes.

“I don’t think that everyone who makes a digital mistake is just being stupid,” Ivester told Inside Higher Ed in an interview. “There’s a lot of nuanced things going on online that a lot of smart people might not be aware of.” Ivester explains some of the psychological effects associated with communicating via the Web, which weakens people’s inhibitions and magnifies their mistakes.

Ivester says he thinks students will be less likely to make those mistakes if they understand the true nature of the stakes and the forces working against them. But he does not necessarily expect students to spring for the $24.95 hardcover (or the $9.99 e-book) on their own. “So I think I’m marketing the book to administrators, and also to parents,” he says.

In other words, the success of Matt Ivester’s new venture could turn on whether he can win over the same moms, dads, and deans who campaigned to have his last one shut down.

That might depend, at least in part, on how convinced those would-be customers are that Ivester's latest entrepreneurial turn is primarily driven by the desire to atone for JuicyCampus, and not merely a strategic attempt to wash his hands of the controversial site while using it to pivot into the emerging (and lucrative) reputation management industry.

His reflection on JuicyCampus, in the book’s preface, paints a portrait of an ambitious kid who got in over his head. “I put the site up without much thought, and without a thorough understanding of the many important ways that online content differs from offline content,” Ivester writes. “I just thought it would be fun (lol); but it quickly turned into something else — something much bigger, more negative, and harder to control than I had expected (OMG!)."

Ivester cops to keeping the site going even after his "OMG!" moment, explaining: “I felt trapped, unable to simply shut the site down — I had employees counting on me for their livelihoods, and I had spent a lot of venture capital money with the expectation of a return on investment." (Ivester had seven full-time employees at the time, he says, and was in the process of burning through $1 million in venture capital.)

He also defends his light touch as a moderator, as well as the federal law that allowed him to post user comments without first screening them. A ban on anonymity, he contends, would have “a chilling effect on free speech” (which, the Supreme Court has repeatedly suggested, does extend to anonymous Internet trolls). Meanwhile, heavier regulation of anonymous speech would result in “an Internet full of only the nicest, most positive reviews,” he says. Pretty bland, as juice goes.

Still, JuicyCampus “is not a company that I would ever start again,” Ivester says.

Ivester acknowledges that some look at his self-published book, the paid speaking gigs he is working on lining up, and his deft wielding of the narrative of JuicyCampus at the point of sale, and see an opportunist at work.

They might imagine Ivester to be taking his own advice: “Sometimes you won’t be able to get rid of content you don’t like,” he writes in lol…OMG! “… Maybe the content isn’t illegal, just really mean. Or perhaps the content is true, but something you would rather have forgotten, or would rather keep private. You still have another option. You can bury it.”

But Ivester has already won some advocates in the student affairs world — including at least one who dealt with fallout from JuicyCampus postings at his own institution.

Ozzie Harris II, senior vice provost for community and diversity at Emory University, says he remembers students “frequently” complaining about hateful postings on JuicyCampus’ Emory page. But when Ivester, who participated in a panel discussion on online gossip at Emory in March, asked Harris to help edit his manuscript and blurb the book, Harris agreed.

“You never know what anyone is like in their heart and soul, but my sense of him is he’s being very authentic,” says Harris, adding, “I think the book is useful no matter who wrote it.”

As for whether he thinks his colleagues at other institutions might hold JuicyCampus against him, Harris said: “I’d like to think any of us are relatively forgiving and open to people who are seeking to make sense of the world and themselves, and Matt Ivester hasn’t really done much more than change his opinion about what he was engaged in, and been very open and public about that.”

Greg Boardman, the vice provost for student affairs at Stanford, agrees. "Sure, JuicyCampus caused a lot of headaches and anxiety a few years ago," he wrote in an e-mail, "however, I believe Matt has realized the harm JuicyCampus caused; and, his desire, I believe, is to share information so students don't fall in to that trap."

Harris does allow that some colleagues might furrow their brows at the fact that Ivester shut down JuicyCampus unwillingly, despite his purported moral reservations. “Maybe if he had a company to run, we’d still be talking about JuicyCampus,” Harris says.

Ernest J. Wilson III, dean of the Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism at the University of Southern California, also gave the book a ringing endorsement after reading the manuscript. “Frankly, what I paid attention to was the 137 pages that I had in front of me at the time, and I thought those pages were useful to me,” he told Inside Higher Ed. “I wish I had some of these things years ago when I was teaching, and it also struck me as a parent.”

But other parent-educators might be more difficult to win over. “Mr. Ivester rides the wave of notoriety at any cost that is in keeping with the contours of American entertainment and media culture,” says Tracy Mitrano, the director of I.T. policy at Cornell University (and a blogger for Inside Higher Ed), who has been a harsh critic of websites that allow students to flame each other anonymously.

“I would certainly understand why student affairs administrators might have negative feelings toward JuicyCampus and, as a result, toward me,” Ivester says. “But I would hope that they would put their students’ interests first and recognize that I have expertise in this area and have written a really valuable book for their students.

“I’m not sure that there’s very much else that I can do, honestly.”

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



 

 

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