Juicy Campus Founder Defends His Controversial Web Site

Matt Ivester defends his "amoral" gossip site, introduces "Rankings" section.

ByMeghan Lisson
October 08, 2008, 12:25 PM

SYRACUSE, N.Y., Oct. 9, 2008— -- Web site managers at JuicyCampus.com, a controversial online gossip site, did not initially respond to a request to be interviewed for an ABC News On Campus story that first appeared last week. The story detailed the controversy generated by the gossip site, which has the self-described mission "of enabling online anonymous free speech on college campuses."

But after the story appeared, site founder Matt Ivester, who rarely does media interviews, responded and spoke with a reporter from the ABC News On Campus bureau at Syracuse University. Here are excerpts from the interview.

Where did the whole idea for the site come from?

...I wish I had some really great story about how I came up with it, but the truth is ...I knew that I wanted to start an Internet company. I was thinking that the college space would be a good fit for me since I was just a couple years out of college and, basically, because of that I'd have an advantage over people maybe with more business experience.

And, I started thinking, gosh, even two years out of college some of my favorite stories were from my college days -- just the stupid things my friends and I would do -- and it occurred to me that every day, on every college campus, every group of friends had these same great stories. So, why not create a place online where people could come together and share those stories?

OK, what do you think it is about college kids, in particular, that makes them want to share their stories with people on the Internet -- not just with their friends, not just gossiping?

Well, you know, it is a different generation. It's the Internet generation. And people are willing to put photos up on Facebook and write on each others' walls. I mean, basically, it's a logical extension of the fact that college students are spending more and more time online -- and this is the same gossip that used to happen offline. Now it's just happening online.

You mentioned how people can share their really great stories, but a lot of it's turned into not necessarily vicious gossip, but it's definitely more along the lines of "so and so is fat," "who's the sluttiest girl on campus," things like that. Was that what you had anticipated when you started?

My original idea was to create that place for the hilarious high jinks of college life and, to this day, our intention with the site is always just to have it be for fun, lighthearted gossip. Really, to the extent that anyone is using it for personal attacks or to be vicious, as you said, really isn't the intent of the site; it's a misuse of the site. But our other intent is always to create a really and truly authentic college Web site and the only way to do that is to create a place for college students where they can discuss the topics that interest them most, and in the manner that they deem appropriate.

We don't want to be censors; we don't want to be kind of playing "big brother" in deciding what is or is not appropriate for these students to be talking about.

So, a lot of the media have been focusing on the negative reactions toward your site, but what kind of positive responses have you gotten from people by giving them a place like this where they can put up what they're thinking about ?

I think that the best evidence of a positive response has been that since we launched just a year ago, we've gotten almost 15,000 requests from students asking us to add their campus. And we get e-mails all the time from students saying "please come to my campus, there's all this great juicy gossip," "you would do so well here." And, you know, actually, we got an e-mail last week that got passed on to me -- and I don't remember the exact wording -- but it was something like, the person signed it "Oppressed Student" and it said, "Our school administration is threatening to expel people if they use Juicy Campus and, you know, I believe in the right to anonymous speech and this is ridiculous. Thank you so much for coming to my campus."

Well, going off of that, actually, on our campus there have been some rumors that the university officials [at Syracuse] might be planning on banning the site from our wireless networks, though we have not been able to confirm this. How fair do you think that is?

You know, I'd be really surprised if any institution of higher education decided to ban Juicy Campus. ... A legitimate institution, I just don't think would do it, it's so counter to the principles of education and free speech. I mean, there's nothing on Juicy Campus except speech. And so, to make some sort of special exception to disallow a Web site like ours would be so oppressive. We tell people, every once and awhile they say that they want us to censor our Web site or they want to ban Juicy Campus -- we liken it to China. In China, they censor the Internet and I'd be surprised if any institution of higher education really wants to join the ranks of China and other countries that censor the Internet.

So. you haven't actually seen any schools ban the site yet, right?

No, there have been a couple schools that have had student governments vote to ban the site but, to my knowledge, administrators have said "you know what, censorship is a really slippery slope, we don't want to do that, there are a hundred ways around any block that they can come up with" and, really, the most responsible administrators -- the most forward thinking ones -- say "hey, you know what, this is an opportunity for us as an institution to tackle an emerging issue, which is what is and is not appropriate speech online. Because this is, you know, it's the Internet age and this is a new issue that we need to educate our students on."

Going along with that, do you have any fears that there might be some new legislation passed? ... The Internet is so new, are you afraid that new legislation might block your site, take it down or do you feel like you're safe?

Well, I can tell you this: I would be very surprised if any legislation was directly targeted against Juicy Campus. I can tell you this: We are 100 percent confident that everything we are doing is within the current laws. And, of course, new laws will emerge, and we'll have to adapt our site accordingly. You know, one of the most relevant things I can think of right now is the presidential election. And, to my knowledge, neither candidate is talking about changing Section 230 [of the Communications Decency Act of 1996], and both candidates are in favor of an open Internet. I'm not actually sure that John McCain is familiar with the Internet generally, but I think, I've read that his people, at least, are in support of a free and open Internet.

Have you been tackled with any lawsuits from people who were maybe mad about that or are you guys kind of immune to that because it's other people putting it on your site?

Well, you know Section 230 provides very broad immunities for Web site providers like us. And so, no, we really haven't had any legal troubles in that regard. Because, it basically says that we cannot be held liable as the speakers of the content on our site when it's generated by a third party like this.

Where are you looking to take your site in the future -- I mean just this month it's been skyrocketing, the number of posts, the number of campuses that have been jumping on board -- where are you looking to take this?

We have so many ideas ... I'm so excited. We just completed a huge expansion from 60 campuses to 500. ... It's been a huge past 30 days for us and, you know, just last September we re-launched the Web site with a completely new interface and design, we upgraded our servers; we really just keep expanding the features and the functionality of the site. The next thing for us is a whole new tab where we're moving away from just pure gossip and were opening up a tab called "Rankings." It's going to be a new section of the site and we're not telling anybody what it is except that it's coming out this month, and I think students are really going to enjoy it. I think it'll be huge on college campuses.

OK, do you ever see Juicy Campus going beyond the college campus and maybe having something like Juicy Office or something like that -- do you ever think it will go to another forum beyond the college campus like the workplace?

Maybe. We've certainly registered a lot of other domain names and we've talked about going to offices -- you know, one place we said we'd never go is high school. But, anything else is open ground. To be honest, though, that's a little ways away. We feel like we've got plenty of places we can go with the college audience.

What would you say is one of the funniest posts you've ever read, just randomly looking at your own site?

Oh gosh, I should just have a good canned answer for this. I haven't read it in quite awhile. You know, I always kind of think the posts about me are funny. I think everyone finds the posts about themselves to be the most interesting. Maybe that's just human nature. I love reading that stuff, even when it's mean, if it's cleverly mean, I have to laugh it off.

Well, do you ever feel bad about the posts people are putting up on the site? Sometimes it's mean, but obviously it's what people are talking about -- but do you personally ever feel guilty that you're giving people a forum for that or do you almost feel proud that you are giving people this place to talk about things?

Well, I'll tell you from a personal standpoint, not as a Juicy Campus representative, but you know personally there has been a lot of stuff on Juicy Campus that I've read and I just, personally, find it abhorrent. But I absolutely do not feel guilty -- and I don't think there's any reason for me to feel guilty about providing a forum for speech. What we're doing is kind of amoral. We are just the platform. And I don't think there's anything to feel bad about that.

What would actually constitute a post that you would take down? Besides, obviously, threats to people, I've seen articles where people have threatened shooting sprees and you have worked willingly with the police, but what would constitute a post you'd remove?

There are basically three categories of posts where we've said "this is what we will take down." This is where we draw our line and other Web sites might draw the line differently and they're free to do that and we're free to do this. But this seems to work for students where it doesn't feel like there's too much censorship but it's an appropriate level of deletion. These three categories are spam, contact information and hate speech.

More specifically, what would those be?

Well, spam would be -- this is a college gossip Web site, if you're posting your favorite chocolate chip cookie recipe, that's spam. If you're posting links to your Web site trying to promote it, if you're just trying to fill up the Web site with garbage so that nobody can read the other posts, that's all spam and we'll delete that. Contact information is not just the full name, it really needs to be a phone number, a physical address, an e-mail address, etc. And, as soon as we get an e-mail about that, we'll review it and remove it.

And as far as hate speech, what would you say that would include?

Hate speech is a trickier one. We certainly want discussions about race on our Web site and we allow that. I think race is still a -- if I've learned anything from Juicy Campus -- race is still a major issue on college campuses and racism still exists. So, to foster a healthy debate about that, can be one of the good uses of Juicy Campus. But, to the extent that people are just being hateful -- and I don't know how else to describe it exactly -- if they're not having a real discussion and they're just being negative and hating on a certain race or hating on gay people, or Jews, or whoever it might be, we'll go ahead and remove that.

Do you have a team of people that monitor the site -- how many people actually work on the site?

We have about 20 people working for Juicy Campus right now.

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