The Cornell University junior was in his dorm between classes when the text message came in from a friend. Check out JuicyCampus.com, it said.
The student found his name on the Web site beside a rambling, filthy passage about his sexual exploits, posted by an anonymous student on campus. The young man could only hope the commentary was so ridiculous nobody would believe it.
"I thought, `Is this going to affect my job employment? Is this going to make people on campus look at me? Are people going to talk about me behind my back?" said the student, who asked not to be identified. He also wondered about his 11-year-old sister, who is spending more time on the Internet. "What if she Googles me? What will she think about her big brother?" he said.
JuicyCampus' endless threads of anonymous innuendo have been a popular Web destination on the seven college campuses where the site launched last fall, including Duke, UCLA and Loyola Marymount. It recently expanded to 50 more, and many of the postings show they've been viewed hundreds and even thousands of times.
But JuicyCampus has proved so poisonous there are signs of a backlash.
In campus debates over Internet freedom, students normally take the side of openness and access. This time, however, student leaders, newspaper editorials and posters on the site are fighting back — with some even asking administrators to ban JuicyCampus. It's a kind of plea to save the students, or at least their reputations, from themselves.
"It is an expression from our student body that we don't want this junk in our community," said Andy Canales, leader of the student government at Pepperdine, which recently voted 23-5 to ask for a ban.
The vote came after a long and emotional debate on the limits of free speech, and was swayed by stories from students such as Haley Frazier, a junior residential adviser. She had recently come across a teary transfer student who had been humiliated on the site barely a week after arriving on campus.
"I can't imagine the disgust she must have for Pepperdine if that's what (students) say," Frazier said.
College administrators say they are appalled by the site but have no control over it since students can see it outside the campus computer network. They say all they can do is urge students not to post items or troll for malicious gossip — and hope that in the process they learn about how to get along.
That tactic may be having an effect.
At a number of campuses where JuicyCampus was a hot topic even just a few weeks ago, students and administrators say use and complaints have tapered off sharply. That's hard to confirm; Internet tracker comScore Inc. says the site's visitor numbers are too low to be counted by its system.
But more and more postings criticize the site, with comments like, "let's not ruin each other's lives," and, "If you can't personalize any of the stuff you read or write here, imagine it happening to your sister or your best friend."
"People have gotten just extremely sick of hearing all this stuff," said Rachelle Palisoc, a freshman at Loyola Marymount in California, who joined a Facebook group called "Ban Juicycampus!!!!" that has about 850 members.
Free to use and supported by advertising, JuicyCampus is a simple conduit urging users to post gossip and promising them total anonymity. There are threads on campus hook-ups, who's popular and who's overweight.
"Top ten freshman sluts" reads one typical thread, and "The Jews ruin this school" another. Homophobia is common. Many postings combine the cruelty of a middle school playground, the tight social dynamics of a college campus and the alarming global reach of the Internet.
JuicyCampus pledges that it blocks its discussion boards from being indexed by search sites like Google, and that appears to be true.
"College students are clever and fun-loving, and we wanted to create a place where they could share their stories," said Matt Ivester, the site's founder, who agreed to answer questions by e-mail.
"Like anything that is even remotely controversial, there are always people who demand censorship," he said in response to calls he has rejected — including one from his alma mater, Duke — for him to shut down the site. "However, we believe that JuicyCampus can have a really positive impact on college campuses, as a place for both entertainment and free expression. Frankly, we're surprised that any college administration would be against the free exchange of ideas."
Duke's vice president for student affairs, Larry Moneta, said the school asked Ivester to consider "moderating the venom or at least moderating the opportunity for venom." However, "my sense is that's not that person's interest," Moneta said.
Under U.S. law, sites like JuicyCampus generally bear no responsibility for what their users post, said George Washington University law professor Daniel Solove, author of the recent book "The Future of Reputation: Gossip, Rumor, and Privacy on the Internet."
But Solove believes Congress and the courts have gone overboard protecting such sites. It's one thing to protect the owner of a Web site when someone posts a defamatory message unbeknownst to the operator. But Solove says sites like JuicyCampus exist solely to propagate gossip and should be held to a different standard.
Cloaking IP addresses
In fact, JuicyCampus seems designed to shield its users from the threat of libel claims. The site's privacy page notes that it logs the numeric Internet protocol addresses of its users, but does not associate those addresses with specific posts. That is unlike mainstream social networking sites, which do maintain such detailed logs.
JuicyCampus also goes further by directing posters to free online services that cloak IP addresses. "Just do a quick search on Google and find one you like," JuicyCampus advises.
The site's companion blog reminds users that "our terms and conditions require users to agree not to post anything that is defamatory, libelous, etc." But a few paragraphs later, the blog implies that it will rebuff anything short of a public safety query: "If your school calls upset about some girl being called a slut, we're not handing over access to our server data. If the LAPD calls telling us there is a shooting threat, you better believe we're gonna help them ..."
Fraternity and sorority leaders and student governments are mainly urging students to sap the site of advertisers by turning a blind eye.
"If we don't get on there it will die," said C.J. Slicklen, student government president at Cornell, where students vented at a meeting last week.
The concerns extend beyond hurt feelings. At Loyola Marymount, a now-former student was arrested after allegedly posting a threat of a campus shooting spree on JuicyCampus. And the dangers of social network bullying were highlighted by the recent death of a 13-year-old suburban St. Louis girl who committed suicide after receiving cruel messages on her MySpace page — messages that turned out to be a hoax.
Pepperdine spokesman Jerry Derloshon said the school applauds the student government's reaction, though Pepperdine has not banned the site.
"In the end," he said, "the site's shock value will diminish and it will be revealed for what it is: empty."