JuicyCampus, an anonymous forum devoted to gossip and rumor, has taken off in recent weeks on college campuses across the nation, and represents what is perhaps the final stage of the digitization of student identity. Where before individuals controlled the level of disclosure contained in and the accuracy (or inaccuracy) of their online façades, now anyone may say anything about anyone. In a sense this was always true on the Internet, but in the same way that Facebook popularized and systematized discourse between known or quasi-known persons, JuicyCampus operates without reference to providers or receivers. There is only information, be it good or bad, true or false.
Structuring identities within broader communities is never a simple task, but with the aid of the Internet this generation has tried to make it so. Facebook developed as a means of boiling down the individual into a system of manageable and malleable parts such as interests, tastes, communications, and visual snapshots. Once enough meta-representations of individuals formed, they began to join together first within campuses, then in groups, and finally in networks sharing at times no greater common denominator than nationality. Within these groups, a discourse of pokes, wall posts, and tags serves as a simulacrum for communication, and “friendships” develop between online identities where none exist in ‘first life.’
Just as Facebook allows the user to paint himself as he likes, JuicyCampus allows users to paint anyone however they like. Perhaps a reaction to the constructive power of Facebook, JuicyCampus users devote their energies to the deconstruction of contrived personalities. Gossip has always worked this way, but in the past the gossiper had to know when and with whom to hold his tongue, lest he be branded a libeler.
Paradoxically, without the elements of risk and selectivity of audience, gossip is at once empowered as information, but robbed of all currency as power. Certainly JuicyCampus is a hot item now, but what are its prospects? When every appetite for random, pointless, and unverifiable licentiousness has been satiated, once we are all incriminated, who will want to read it?
Rob Madole talked to JuicyCampus creator Matt Ivester to try to get to the bottom of this new forum of discourse and to see plausible defenses for what many perceive to be a total waste of time.
Nassau Weekly: I wanted to ask how you guys came up with the idea for the site. It seems to combine aspects of Bored@ and Facebook.
Matt Ivester: (Pause). So how did we think about this?
NW: Yeah, what was its origin as an idea?
MI: I guess…I was trying to think of business ideas, and it occurred to me that some of my best stories, that I love recounting with my friends, and some of my most hilarious stories, came from college. And I was hanging out with my friends and recounting some of the ridiculous things we used to do, and the fun times we had, and I was thinking, everybody has these stories. On every college campus, every group of friends has these hilarious things that are going on every day, and so why not create a place where all that can be shared, because I didn’t see anything like that on the Internet.
NW: What’s your educational background? Did you study psychology at school—it’s almost like a large social experiment or something.
MI: uh…you know, it would be, I think, a really interesting sociological study if some sociology professor…I think they could teach a whole class about JuicyCampus, honestly. But no, I double-majored in Economics and Computer Science.
NW: Well, when did JuicyCampus go online? How long has it been around? MI: It just went online a few months ago. It actually launched on seven campuses, October 24th, 2007.
NW: I think Princeton students started responding to the site a few months ago, or maybe even only a month ago—what was the process, how did universities get added to the server?
MI: Yeah, so, we tested it out on seven campuses, just to see if this was going to be a thing that people even cared anything about or anybody’s going to be interested in, and what we found, after doing our test on seven campuses, was that there was tremendous demand for this kind of website, and it grew much more quickly than we ever expected. So, kind of knowing that we had this proof-of-concept already done, we decided to invest further and open it up to 50 more campuses, and, that was about a month ago. That was when Princeton was added.
NW: So have you moved into an office? Has this become a full-time job?
MI: Yeah, it sure is. (Chuckles). Yeah. This is what I do all day, every day.
NW: Where is the whole service run from—where are you guys located?
MI: L.A. (Pause). L.A.
NW: To what extent is the site moderated? Can anyone post anything?
MI: Well, they can’t post anything, I mean, it’s all set to our terms and conditions, which are fairly extensive, but it is an unmoderated site, so we’ll delete spam if it comes to our attention, but it’s very rare that we delete a post. We don’t want to be in the censorship business, and frankly, with thousands and thousands of posts a day, it’s just not feasible.
NW: What kind of personnel help maintain JuicyCampus?
MI: We’ve got a few people working for us, and we’ve got a whole technical team building out the site…yeah, we’ve had to, actually had to expand, get an office, all of that.
NW: That brings me to your plans—do you envision JuicyCampus becoming a college institution, a la Facebook? What do you plan to do with it all at this point?
MI: You know, we get that question a lot, and everybody likes to compare it to Facebook, which, first of all, I take as a huge compliment because they’ve been wildly successful. But we’re really not trying to be the next Facebook. Facebook is what it is, and they’ve got a great product. What we’re trying to do is be different, so, we’re not going to be incorporating a social networking aspect. We like the anonymous thing, and that kind of differentiates that.
NW: What do you see as your “product,” if you can encapsulate it?
MI: Um, well, I mean, obviously, our core product is gossip. But, in the future, I think we want to kind of expand the content that is on the site and provide more ways for users to interact. I prefer not to go into the specifics of it, for business reasons. But we’re definitely looking at expanding it very aggressively over the next six months.
NW: Did you have any history with Internet start-ups before, or is this your first foray?
MI: This is certainly my most successful one, yeah. This is kind of the first big one.
NW: I found out about JuicyCampus the way, I think, a lot of Princetonians did–by way of a Facebook advertisement. That’s obviously pretty good targeting, demographically. Have you guys already found investors? Did the money come from investors originally, or did you guys sort of decide to do the Facebook ad on your own?
MI: Well, now, to get it started, it was just a very small group of investors, and then, we’ve gotten a lot of interest since it’s kind of shown itself to be a really viable, valuable website. We’ve had a lot of interest from investors and we’re pursuing all of that. So, you know, it’s totally privately funded by a small group of investors right now.
NW: Has there been any interest from larger companies? Have you heard from the big Internet companies at all?
MI: You know, I don’t think we’re at that point yet. We launched three, four months ago, I guess, so, we’ve seen tremendous growth, and we haven’t really had a chance to catch our breath and talk with any bigger companies.
NW: Do you ever see an option where you would sell it out, or do you want to stay with it like Mark Zuckerberg if it gets big in the way Facebook has?
MI: I think our options are open. We are, we’re talking with investors, and there’s certainly people out there who are interested in putting money into the company, um, but certainly, if the right oppurtunity came about to talk to a bigger company about JuicyCampus, we’d consider it.
NW: How do you deal with legal questions about the site? Is there ever a concern that if someone uses it to libel someone else, you’ve provided a forum for that?
MI: I mean, the fact that you bring up the question means there must be some concern out there, but JuicyCampus doesn’t provide legal advice; we’re not in a position to do that—that’s what law firms are for. We have, um, (pause), we have, basically, immunity as a platform provider under, I believe it’s section 230…of some congressional thing. I leave that to our lawyers (laughs). But, basically, as an interactive platform provider, we can’t be held liable as though we were the speaker of the content. So we haven’t really had very many legal concerns at all, ’cause all of the posts on JuicyCampus are user-generated. (Pause). And the reason Congress has done that is to protect sites, you know, I mean just because someone posts something malicious on Facebook or Myspace or something else doesn’t mean they should be held liable, I mean, so, it’s a law that makes sense.
NW: When you talked about the genesis of the idea, it seemed to be a medium for the exchange of humorous stories. I was surprised at how quickly—and it may be just localized to each community—but the Princeton one became vicious very fast. Has it surprised you, the extent to which the content varies from university to university? Have you noticed anything particular to different regions or different colleges?
MI: Um, well, yeah, I think if you go on and read the post for each different school, there’s a little bit of a different feel and a different taste, which totally makes sense, because every college community has their [sic] own feel. So, I certainly have noticed that, and I guess I’m not surprised by it though.
NW: Do smaller schools tend to engender more back-stabbing? Have you seen any sort of correlations between size, or…(cut off)
MI: You know, to be honest, we don’t really read posts. We’ve been so busy working on new features, and getting users to the site that we haven’t really done a real analysis of small schools versus big schools, or different kinds of content, or anything like that.
NW: Understood. Have you been troubled at all by the content?
MI: Um, well you know, we leave it to our users to create the content that most interests them, so, um, so, I try to withold judgment.
NW: I read something about Pomona trying to ban access to the site from the campus. Would you have any response to that, if a school chose to do that?
MI: Would we have any response? I mean, I think we’d certainly be surprised, if a school was [sic] to ban, you know, a free speech website. You know…I guess we’d be very surprised, would be our response.
NW: But you wouldn’t try to petition to get it back, or do anything…
MI: We would consider our legal options, but I’m not sure what those would be, or anything. It hasn’t happened, so I guess we’ll cross that bridge if we have to.
NW: I was wondering, you said, you didn’t want to talk about the plans for it, but what features have happened over time—what did it start with, and what has been added since the beginning?
MI: Um, I’ll tell you, the thing that we keep working on is the site speed. I don’t know if you’ve been on it recently, but we’re growing so quickly, our server can’t keep up with the tremendous growth that we’ve seen, so that’s been our number one priority…But aside from that, users can look forward to, and we’re very close to rolling these out actually, things like e-mail alerts, so you can be notified if there’s a new reply to a post that you’re interested in, or, we’d like to add a sort option, so that you can see latest replies instead of just the latest posts. Other things kind of like that…So I think that’ll be good.
NW: Well I think that’s about all I wanted to ask. Thanks for the time you gave me.
MI: Yeah, no problem. And if there’s anything else we can do, just give us a call.
—Interview conducted by Rob Madole
[This piece has been edited for content and clarity. —The Eds.]