Within a few days of the College of William and Mary’s Juicy Campus launch, site CEO Matt Ivester contacted The Flat Hat offering an interview. The Duke graduate seldom grants interview requests, but was interested in the popularity of the site on our campus. Within days of its introduction, “William and Mary” quickly rose to the top of Juicy Campus’s search terms. As students denounced the site and called for its ban, more still continued to post on it. According to Ivester, such is the nature of gossip.
How did you get interested in free speech: is it something you’ve been interested in for awhile or did it come more from wanting to see this sort of a site?
Well, to be honest, it has grown out of my involvement with this site. Juicy Campus wasn’t started as a soapbox for free speech. It was started as an entertainment site … to this day.
What was it that made you want to start a site like this?
I thought back to my college days and remembered all the fun hilarious things my friends and I would do. And it occurred to me that every day on every campus, every group of friends has these same great stories happening. And so, why not create a place online where people could share the crazy stories of college hijinks online?
What were you involved in during your college days?
I was a double major in economics and computer science, and I was very involved in the Greek community. I was the president of my fraternity, I was president of the Greek Honor Society, and I was vice president of the IFC.
Did you create the site yourself?
I wrote the technical specifications, but it was a team of people that really did the programming of the site.
Was there anything close to Juicy Campus during your college days that inspired you to create this?
Oh gosh, back when I was in school, Facebook was still a relatively new thing, so there was nothing like Juicy Campus.
Tell me about the first time you realized there might be another side to this site.
It was probably a month after launching. I don’t know. You could look on the blog. At some point, I wrote a letter to the users, and it’s called “Hate Isn’t Juicy.” I put it up on our blog, and I still refer to it a lot today because I believe very strongly in it. Juicy Campus was created as a place for fun, light-hearted gossip, and to the extent that there are personal attacks or mean-spirited comments, that’s really not what Juicy Campus is all about. And we’ve encouraged our users not to use Juicy Campus for those purposes.
Have you ever considered any sort of mechanism to verify that people go to a certain school or are at least in college?
Right. I mean I think that employers searching the Juicy Campus website would be a really irresponsible employer. I’d be surprised if many or any employers are really doing that. As far as thinking about whether to verify that students are students, that really requires collecting information that really chips away at the anonymity of the site, and we don’t want to do that.
Are you familiar with any of the personal stories — not so much the legal side, but what has happened to people who have had their reputations tarnished by the site?
Not really. We don’t know the people who are being talked about on the site. Generally we don’t know anything about the campuses. So no, we’re not so involved with the personal drama of every day college life and gossip.
Did the site emerge as you envisioned it originally, or were there changes?
We always envisioned it to be a site for students by students, and … it has changed in a sense that I didn’t anticipate. There’s a lot of the great stories that I thought about, but there’s also been personal attacks and some other stuff that I still think is a misuse of the site. But it came absolutely on track as far as I’m concerned in a sense that all of the content is user-generated, and college students are talking about the topics that interest them most and in the manner that they think appropriate. We’ve always wanted to create a really authentic college website where students can decide what is and isn’t appropriate and what they want to talk about.
How long has the blog been in effect?
The blog we launched with the website, so basically since we’ve started. I’m not sure exactly how far back it goes, but a pretty good ways.
What does the blog include?
You know, it’s announcements; it kind of gives the history of the site. If you were to go through it, you’d see all the … the press that we’ve gotten. We announce whenever we add more campuses. The last few posts recently have just been a lot of new campuses that we’ve added. We’ve gotten great videos up on the site, too; I think that they’re pretty funny. It’s talking about what is and what is not defamation. What does anonymous mean? All kinds of good, juicy stuff.
I’m curious about how you developed the business model for the site.
Well, the business model is very much like any website. It’s an advertising-based revenue model, and I guess there’s nothing particularly innovative about it.
What are your ad revenues like? Was it profitable from the beginning?
We’re still testing a lot of the technology and adding new features and stuff. We’re still not profitable today, but that’s pretty common with big startups. We’re really excited about a feature we’ve got coming out at the end of this month … called rankings, and we think college students are going to be very excited about it. We’re not telling anyone what it is yet, but if you go to our website, it’s going to be our first new tab after “gossip.”
Who works on innovating?
We’ve got a big technology team now. We’ve got almost 10 people working on coding and coming up with the … latest, greatest stuff.
If you’d had this site when you were in college, how do you think you would have been involved with it?
I think I probably would have posted on it, because, like anybody, who can resist gossip? And I’m sure that I would have been talked about on it. I think that anyone with a prominent position, leadership position, on campus would be talked about, and you just have to kind of expect that.
It’s very legally sound even though a lot of people have a lot of problems with it. Did you know that from the beginning or did you have to go through and check it to a certain degree?
It is surprisingly legally sound, isn’t it? [laughs] I wish I could say I knew all of that when I started it. I certainly did some research to make sure that everything was going to be legal, but I’ve also learned a lot about our legal defenses and claims that might be made. So I’d say I didn’t know right from the beginning how bullet proof our legal immunity was, but I certainly learned a lot since then, and I’m very confident that we’re not in violation of any laws.
The site isn’t searchable on Google. Has that always been the case?
It sure has. From the very beginning, we put that in on purpose as a way to, I guess, keep the gossip contained.
Do you know if it has impacted people after I’ve graduated?
Well, because we are only a year old … I guess there was that opportunity for people that were seniors last year, but we haven’t heard any stories from anyone.
Are you often contacted by college administrations?
I wouldn’t say often. I think most administrations recognize that what we’re doing is completely legal, and they recognize that we are not the ones who are posting any of the content on Juicy Campus. I think administrators are actually doing something really smart, which is recognizing that they need to educate students on how the internet should be used and what kind of speech is appropriate and not. We’ve heard of some administrations implementing programs to educate students more about online speech, and we think that’s fantastic.
Do you know specific schools that have done that?
You know, I read through a lot of the press articles every day, and they all kind of blur together at some point, but I’m pretty sure I read something about that.
Have your policies changed or evolved since it was launched?
They probably have. I say it’s largely they’ve stayed the same, but the only place where we really have policies are around what we will or will not take down, and our [policies] in that regard have stayed pretty much the same since we launched. We won’t take down most things, but we will take down contact information, we will take down spam, and we will take down hate speech.
How do you choose which colleges you’re going to add next?
About a year ago we got almost 15,000 requests for campuses to be added. We consider those requests and kind of just our own sense of where might be fun to go to and where we might be successful.
Are they mostly bigger campuses? Is there any sort of trend?
Actually, no. There’s a real mix, and we’re successful [on] small campuses, but we also can be very successful on huge state-school campuses.
For quite a while University of Arizona was at the top of the searches, and that’s a pretty big school from what I know. But then we were at the top of the search for quite a while, and we’re much smaller, about 5,700.
That’s about the same size Duke is. We see success on smaller campus like that, but we’re also doing very well on Ole Miss. I don’t know how big they are, but I think they’re kind of a big school. But I think USC certainly is going well — they’ve got 25,000 undergrads, or however many, so it really just depends campus to campus.
Do you know if you’ve ever been mentioned on the site?
Oh yeah, I’m mentioned quite a bit. People love to talk about me because I’m the founder.
Do you follow the website gossip about you?
Not really. I mean, every once in a while I’ll do a search; I can’t resist. I think like most people; everybody’s searching [for] their name. And there’s a variety of stuff — everything from I rape goats to I blow guys for coke.
Does that bother you at all?
No. I mean, I take that for what it is. It’s unsubstantiated, anonymous gossip, and everyone realizes that. And some of them are kind of funny. I think, in fairness, I like to leave them up, and I’m okay with them.
Does it bother you that there are innocent victims of the site who really haven’t done anything, and yet are still called out for really awful things?
If that’s true, it’s certainly unfortunate. I mean, yeah, I certainly don’t like to hear that, and that’s not what Juicy Campus is meant for.
Do you think the site is legally responsible for defaming statements?
You know, I don’t, and here’s why: I think each individual poster, each user, has a personal responsibility to use the site appropriately, and it would be unbearable for Juicy Campus to have to make determinations about whether certain content is defamatory or not. For example, content can’t be defamatory if it’s true, and we would have no idea whether these things are true or not. And if we start taking content off just because someone asked us to, then that would have a chilling effect on the free speech on our website.
You don’t think it’s wrong to create a forum that specifically encouraged this style of harmful jibes?
I don’t think we’ve ever encouraged harmful speech. It is a gossip site, there’s no denying that. But to the extent that a person’s reputation can really be damaged—I think a reasonable person reading Juicy Campus recognizes that what they’re reading is unsubstantiated, anonymous gossip, and a reasonable person doesn’t believe everything on the site. My experience has been that the people who are most upset about the site are not the ones that have had lies written about them, but the ones that have had truths written about them that they don’t want to confront.
People make the argument that if you want to say something you should put your name to it, and stand behind it. What is the advantage to be of keeping it anonymous?
It allows students to be more honest. They can talk about topics that are controversial or perhaps opinions that are unpopular, and they don’t have to worry about negative repercussions from school administrators or their peers.
How do you think that adds to the community?
I do think that having a venue for anonymous speech can be very important. There are a lot of examples where it could be really critical. For example, if a professor were sleeping with students in exchange for good grades, and someone posted that to the site, and then it got stopped, that could be a great use of the anonymous speech on Juicy Campus. Or even just having discussions. We see a lot of discussions around race. People are sometimes uncomfortable having those discussions face to face. I think creating that dialogue is … a part of what the mission of college campuses is and should be.
And you think that the potential benefits outweigh the costs?
I do. I think you take the good with the bad, and, net-net, Juicy Campus is beneficial. But to the extent that anyone disagrees, everyone has the option not to visit the site.
There are a lot of people who have had their reputations really damaged. Do you ever feel personally responsible for things like that?
You know, I don’t because Juicy Campus is just a forum for speech. It’s a platform. We’re not the ones posting the content; we’re merely providing a mechanism for people to speak and I don’t think there’s anything that is wrong with that.
Do you think that’s productive?
I think people have a right to discuss true things if that’s what they want to discuss. Certainly it’s been a very controversial and interesting topic on college campuses across the country.
Did you anticipate the controversy?
We had no idea that it would be so popular and so controversial. The site’s growth really exploded and there was no anticipating that.