Site keeps students posted

Johns Hopkins senior launches a network of anonymous, and often vulgar, message boards

May 02, 2008|By Gadi Dechter | Gadi Dechter,SUN REPORTER

Baby-faced Johns Hopkins senior Andrew Mann is a budding astrophysicist, but his unlikely sideline as a cyberspace gossip-monger already has him exploring the darkest, dirtiest corners of the undergraduate cosmos and fending off attacks from campus lawyers and outraged students.

Like, and other college-oriented Web sites that have recently exploded in popularity, Mann's upstart network of anonymous message boards - among them the Johns Hopkins University-focused - invites students to dish dirt and disclose secrets. Perhaps inevitably, the cloak of anonymity ends up attracting racist, misogynistic, homophobic and sex-starved vitriol that would make the seediest bathroom wall blush - and which is testing college administrators' tolerance for free speech.

In a post-Virginia Tech world, the dangers of unadulterated forums on college campuses make even free-speech champions uncomfortable, Mann acknowledges. Within days of his launching in January, one person posted a suicidal confession, and another published a homicidal threat, he said.

In response to angry e-mails from upset students, Mann and his partners quickly deleted those posts and set up security measures in an attempt to prevent similar problems.

"We don't want to destroy people's lives," Mann said. "It's not worth it."

Concern about hateful, defamatory and threatening messages that could impugn a college's reputation has led some university administrators and student groups in the country to crack down on the anonymous gossip sites, either by blocking access to them from campus computers or threatening legal action.

In March, New Jersey's attorney general announced an investigation into whether Juicy Campus is violating consumer protection laws by engaging in "unconscionable commercial practices."

While lamenting the existence of JHUConfessions, Hopkins officials say they have no plans to try to shut it down. "There's very little speech that shouldn't be protected speech, especially in a university community," said Paula Burger, Hopkins' dean of undergraduate education in the Krieger School of Arts and Sciences. "You just have to live with a certain amount of this."

Not all campuses targeted by Mann's CollegeACB startup, which stands for Anonymous Confession Boards, have adopted such a tolerant posture. Denison University Vice President Samuel J. Thios demanded in February that CollegeACB "desist and take down" DenisonConfessions "immediately" or face legal actions.

"I have serious ethical concerns for those who apparently wrap themselves in the First Amendment but exhibit no responsibility, no accountability, and no respect for those who are personally harmed by the material posted on the Web sites they host," said Thios in an e-mail to The Sun.

Mann said he believes Denison "has no case" but that, having no legal counsel or financial budget, he and his partners did not want to risk a fight and they shut down the site.

Mann agreed to talk publicly for the first time about only after learning through a reporter that Hopkins officials had pledged not to punish him or hold up his graduation next month.

"This is a great project and lots of fun ... but there's a constant fear of legal problems," said Mann, 22, who along with two friends at Connecticut's Wesleyan University launched the Hopkins site with just several hundred dollars and has watched its popularity skyrocket from roughly 2,500 page-views that month to about 500,000 in April.

Encouraged by the popularity of the Hopkins site, CollegeACB has also launched sites focused on Haverford College, Dickinson College, the University of Vermont and Ohio Wesleyan University. Mann said they plan to spend the summer developing social-networking features to the sites and will launch a new version in the fall aimed at as many as 200 campuses. The ultimate goal: to try to capitalize on the commercial potential of online communities such as Facebook and LiveJournal.

"Astronomers don't make a lot of money," said Mann, who will start a Ph.D. program in astrophysics at the University of Hawaii later this year.

Timonium resident Patrick Nagle, 25, a Towson University dropout who sold the anonymous teacher-evaluation site to media giant Viacom last year, said he thinks CollegeACB has promise as a business venture. "People are very interested in true opinion, and people thrive off of gossip," Nagle said. "The one thing I really like about the business is how localized the site is and the fact that it's not this conglomerate product that's trying to appeal to everyone."

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