Monday, January 22, 2018
Opinion

On college campuses, gossip is a hot seller

"Lauren," Duke University's infamous, pseudonymous freshman porn star, has never appeared in the media by her real name. But you can find her real name if you Google it.

In fact, thanks to a series of anonymous postings on forums like CollegiateACB, AutoAdmit and Barstool Sports, you can find out a whole lot more than that. You can see Lauren's porn name, photos from her films, and her casting page on the website of the model agency she works for. You can find the name of her hometown and high school; her father's email address; and a list of her hobbies and extracurriculars.

Long before the New York magazine interview, the Duke newspaper profile and the avalanche of related think pieces, Lauren had already been (a) outed and (b) accorded a level of scrutiny otherwise reserved for marquee celebrities or judicial nominees.

"We going to pretend like she was unaware of the social consequences of going into that business?" reads one of the many unsigned comments on a CollegiateACB, the anonymous college gossip forum beloved primarily by Greeks. "She made a decision, now she needs to live with the consequences."

And "consequences," when you're a woman who has done anything unexpected or transgressive, means a total forfeiture of privacy online.

Anonymous gossip boards are, of course, not a new story — but their role in the Duke porn scandal has generally been played down. Lauren has said she only chose to go to the media with her story after being "cyberbullied" on the forums; the forums themselves publicized her name and identity a full month before national media did.

Colleges have grappled with this issue for years. Before Collegiate ACB, there was Juicy Campus — the "dorm bathroom wall" of a website that encouraged anonymous posters to spread "gossip" about their peers. Founded in 2008, Juicy Campus ruined several lives within its first eight months of operation. One girl told the New York Times she worried about her job prospects after her (anonymous!) peers branded her the school's "biggest slut."

Torn between an obligation to protect students from harassment and to uphold first-amendment rights, several colleges considered blocking the site from their servers — a few of them actually did. But ultimately, Juicy Campus was brought down by economic pressures: After a year, the site suffered serious hits to its advertising revenue and venture capital funding and had to shut down.

But CollegeACB followed. And when it faded out, under hazy circumstances, CollegiateACB took its place. Whenever one site closed, there would be "countless replacements up and popular within weeks, if not days," prophesied Peter Frank, the founder of College ACB. The potential of other people's dirt was just too sexy for college students, advertisers and entrepreneurs to resist.

As if to prove that point, there are now at least a half dozen forums that have outed Lauren's identity. On top of CollegiateACB, there are gems like AutoAdmit (purportedly a forum for law school applicants, but frequently a pit of harassment and trolling) and Barstool Sports (a "lifestyle blog" that organizes "blackout parties" and makes rape jokes, among other things). Yahoo Answers had Lauren's real and porn names within hours. Some enterprising soul set up an entire SEO-juiced WordPress blog that does nothing but collect personal information about her.

In short, as long as people care about reading gossip, and advertisers care about reaching readers, anonymous gossip forums will thrive. That's just the Internet we live in. Protesting otherwise is almost as naive and absurd as Lauren's repeated comments that she'd like to stay anonymous; there's only anonynimity for gossipers, not their subjects.

Still, the case of Juicy Campus is instructive, and some of Lauren's defenders have also taken to CollegiateACB to try to fight back against the trolls. They're in the comment threads, defending how "nice" and "normal" she is; they've contacted the forums and asked they take Lauren's information down, lest she be threatened by stalkers or fans. Lauren herself made an appearance in one CollegiateACB forum in January, before her story was widely known.

"Hey this is the girl you're talking about," she wrote. "You guys are horrible [expletive] people. Get a life beyond harassing me from the comfort of your computer screen."

Of course, nobody listened.

Caitlin Dewey covers social media, digital culture and other online phenomena for the Washington Post.

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