With the creation of anonymous online gossip forums, old-fashioned bathroom wall graffiti—joking, well intentioned, or derogatory—is effectively transmitted to virtual stall doors worldwide.
College ACB is the newest college gossip site, which came to the formal attention of the Office of Residential Life and the Office of Student Affairs late last week when a student who was discussed on the site reported it. The increase in student posts over the past two months has triggered student backlash.
"[Threads are] popping up more frequently. It's taken on the characteristics of a website gone viral," said Oronde Cruger '11. He called the website "very middle school and very immature."
The "College Anonymous Confession Board" rides on the coattails of JuicyCampus.com, which was shut down in February 2009 amid legal controversy and economic troubles.
College ACB was first developed by Andrew Mann of John Hopkins University and Aaron Larner of Wesleyan University, both of the Class of 2008. The site is now operated by Wesleyan University junior, Peter Frank.
According to its press release, "[College ACB] is the campus center, the dorm room, the cafeteria, and the lecture hall, all combined into a single, easily accessible forum where everyone is invited to converse openly, without fear of reprisal or reprimand. From sexuality to politics, from keg parties to concerns about course selections, College ACB is a website that helps build community and engenders the open exchange of information."
Nonetheless, the majority of the site's contributors take advantage of the cloak of anonymity to defame others. The threads on Bowdoin's page range from "which girl is the best rager?!" to "People We Hate."
"It's all gossip...I don't think anyone would use it for anything but gossip," said Thomas Keefe '14.
The website encourages user-moderation with a report button, and with each click on a post the "report value" increases until it crosses the threshold of acceptability and is removed.
Although users must have an .edu e-mail address to report posts, anyone can read or post anonymously on Bowdoin's page. Posts on the page are not linked to through Google's search engine.
Frank was not reachable for contact, but wrote on the website's blog that he concedes the "level of discourse is nowhere I'd like it to be." "I'm passionate about giving an open forum for discussion where people can share without fear of retribution."
Dean of Student Affairs Tim Foster described the site as "wildly hurtful...the fact that it is anonymous triply so," describing remarks as "racist, sexist and homophobic in my opinion."
Associate Director of Residential Life Ben Farrell was troubled by the discrepancy between the complete anonymity of the poster and the direct targeting of the subjects. "It can tear at the fiber of Bowdoin in a way that is pretty depressing to see," he said. "There is no good that comes from this...it is all negative."
The College has promised to provide a support network for students who have been affected by the site. At its weekly Friday lunch meeting, Residential Life staff briefed Head Proctors on the website, while noting the recent increase in nationwide cyber-bullying.
"I don't know if everybody who is writing on this site realizes the implications of what they are doing," said Farrell.
The Bowdoin Social Code each student signs stipulates that students must not display "verbal abuse or assault; threats; intimidation; harassment; coercion; and other conduct that threatens, instills fear, or infringes upon the rights, dignity, and integrity of any person," whether on or off College premises.
"People get caught up in wanting to go with the crowd and say something that people will be shocked by," said Zara Bowden '13.
"It's supposed to be funny, but I think that people could take it the wrong way," said Hannah Wright '13.
Cruger is spearheading a coalition of students and administrators to discuss "if we should do something [and then] what should we do," about the ACB. He believes "student to student" awareness is crucial.
Foster said some students are already working to saturate the website with positive commentary to counteract hateful speech.
"[ACB] does effect everyone, in that there are people on there who don't realize they are on there and there are people on there who do realize, and both are equally problematic. These are people they know, people they see everyday who are doing these malicious actions towards them," said Cruger.
Asher Stamell '13, who is the subject of a thread on the website, said "we have perfect venues for silly gossip already in Saturday brunch at Moulton...we don't really need a website for that."
"It's only a problem if we give it the time of day...if everyone just ignores something like this, it will pass in no time," he said.
Caleb Pershan '12 said previous forums such as JuicyCampus.com "Never, in my experience, had any effect on campus...Bowdoin students are usually above posting their social lives online."
"It doesn't really display what Bowdoin is," said Lyne Lucien '13. "It's just people who are angry...they'll make up rumors and people believe it."
Ryan Holmes '13 agreed the site and the behavior it encourages are not representative of the College, believing it is currently "confined to a few circles and people."
"Looking at other schools my friends [go] to, it was like 10 million times worse, Bowdoin isn't as bad as I thought...but it's awful," said Bowden.
"I'm all for free spaces, but not for anonymous free spaces," said Foster, citing commenting features on BCuria and the Orient Express as productive forums for online discussion.
The administration has stressed the importance of free speech and access, and has said they will not try to censor or block the website from campus.
"If we were to shut down right now, there would be countless replacements up and popular within weeks, if not days. We already have competitors who tout that they will never remove posts, no matter how libelous," said Frank.
"[Maybe] this is just a generation that plays in these spaces and this is the way it is," said Foster.
A recent thread on the forum is titled, "collegeacb...a good thing for bowdoin?" Only one out of the seven posts answered "yes."
Anonymous wrote: "A campus such as Bowdoin that encourages open conversation does not need a website forum that facilitates such infantile and simply mean comments. I'm embarrassed to be a part of a community that prioritizes rating the attractiveness of students or attacking individuals on campus. Find a more mature way to voice frustrations, because this is not the place."