Matt Ivester became notorious on campuses across the country in 2007 for publishing gossip—not about celebrities but about students—on Juicy-Campus, the Web site he created. The site was blocked by some colleges, banned by several student governments, and threatened with legal action by several students who claimed that defaming comments on the site had inflicted emotional damage.
Now, in an ironic twist, the young man who stubbornly hosted reputation-harming comments on a Web site despite student complaints is looking to reinvent himself as an adviser to help students clean up their online reputations.
In his book, lol... OMG!: What Every Student Needs to Know About Online Reputation Management, Digital Citizenship and Cyberbullying, Mr. Ivester recounts several cautionary tales of students trashing their reputations due to poor choices on the Internet, but he gives little mention of the role JuicyCampus played in defaming countless students. (But at one point, he does acknowledge that his creation regularly drew comments that were "racist, homophobic, misogynistic, vulgar, sexually explicit, deeply personal—you name the type of offense, and it was there.")
Today Mr. Ivester says he is sorry for his now-defunct site, and that had he known then what he does now about online-reputation management, he never would have started it.
While running JuicyCampus, Mr. Ivester argued that students needn't worry about false accusations posted on the site because the truth would eventually emerge when others came to their defense. Relax, he told angry students at the time, an anonymous free-for-all will be self-policing.
His book, by contrast, advises that students should be hands-on in both keeping unwanted information offline and making sure the most positive information is the stuff most likely to be found by potential employers or anyone else looking.
His new message is one that a growing number of colleges are trying to convey to students through educational Web sites and courses designed to raise awareness of privacy pitfalls online.
Students can probably find a better source than Mr. Ivester to teach them the lessons of the unforgiving Internet, said Tracy Mitrano, Cornell University's director of IT policy. "First he wanted to make his money by adversely affecting campus community relationships, and now he wants to do it by saying how much he wants to help students," she said.
Mr. Ivester admits that online-reputation management wasn't on his mind when he created JuicyCampus, but at the time he wasn't the only one to overlook the consequences of their online actions. Despite the ubiquity of the Internet, "online identity management" hadn't yet seeped into society's technological lexicon.
Monitoring one's digital footprint is a more-common practice today, and administrators and professors say they hope today's students will learn from the mistakes of those who blazed the trail before them. Including Mr. Ivester.
Teaching 'Digital Natives'
Basic expectations of privacy are getting rewired.
Today almost everything a person does online is recorded and tracked—something not everyone is comfortable with, or even aware of.
"I think we're still learning what it means to have zero degrees of freedom," said Munir Mandviwalla, chair of Temple University's Management Information Systems department. Mr. Mandviwalla, who teaches his students how to create e-portfolios, Web pages with the best of their academic work, says he regularly coaches students to be more aware of all the content a person creates online.
Students today are part of the "so-called Facebook generation," so they should understand what it means to leave detailed digital tracks, says Mr. Mandviwalla. But that doesn't mean they understand all the consequences of their online socializing.
Mr. Ivester, in explaining how he chose his book's title, writes how students messing around on the Internet found their actions funny at the time (hence the lol, or "laughing out loud"), until they were hit with the unintended consequences (OMG!).
Alexandra Wallace, a student who uploaded an anti-Asian rant to YouTube, is one such example Mr. Ivester gives in the book. (The book does not name her, but the story was widely reported in the press.) Ms. Wallace, a junior at the University of California at Los Angeles, only intended to share the video she made with her friends, but it soon went viral, receiving hundreds of thousands of hits. Ms. Wallace later issued a public apology, but it wasn't enough—she started getting death threats, according to the book, and eventually dropped out of school.
Ms. Wallace may have chosen YouTube because she figured it would be an easy way to share the video with friends, but she may not have thought about some of those same friends possibly reposting the video to Facebook or other social-media platforms. Mr. Ivester says he learned a similar lesson while running JuicyCampus.
One student, who was a victim not only of rape but also of online gossip, was horrified when she saw her classmates mocking her ordeal on the JuicyCampus Web site, her professor wrote in a Chronicle commentary. This type of malicious gossip marred students' reputations but drove the JuicyCampus traffic, so Mr. Ivester ignored its scarring effects. "My laissez-faire attitude toward information and opinions back then has changed," he said, because he now recognizes the importance of managing one's digital identity.
Plenty of people at the time attempted to clue Mr. Ivester in to the problems his site was causing. Officials from Duke University who had known him while he was a student contacted him privately to try to persuade him to take down the site. He refused.
In the end, Mr. Ivester shut down the site only when the money ran out. As a message on the JuicyCampus blog in 2009 explained, "in these historically difficult economic times, online ad revenue has plummeted and venture capital funding has dissolved." He ended with his trademark sign-off: "Keep it Juicy."
Colleges should play a part in teaching online-reputation management, Ms. Mitrano says, because a person's online identity now touches every facet of life, including the academic, the professional, and the social.
Most colleges, she says, are already guiding students. At Cornell, the university provides practical tips on its digital-literacy Web site. Other colleges, such as Michigan State University, offer full courses on the subject. Emilee Rader, who teaches "Your Digital Footprint: Privacy and the Online Information Explosion" at Michigan State, previously taught it at Northwestern University. "The goal of the course is not to turn people into computer scientists," said Ms. Rader, an assistant professor at Michigan State's college of communication, "but rather, it's to expose them to some of the inner workings of the Internet so they understand that anything they do online can be recorded by anyone at any time."
Helping people with their online presence is also an emerging industry. Simply search Google for "online reputation management," and the results will reveal the wide variety of companies offering just such a service. Reputation.com is first on that list.
Michael Fertik, chief executive of the company, says business is booming and that many soon-to-be-college-grads use his company's service to assess their online presence before entering today's competitive job market. "Digital natives," he added, often care even more about their online reputations than those in previous generations because they have come of age hearing how tough the job market is and how their online activity can affect their already limited chances of landing a job.
Fred Stutzman, a postdoctoral fellow researching social media and privacy issues at Carnegie Mellon University, agrees. He recently started a similar service called claimID.com.
Privacy, he says, is something that people must "talk into existence" and something that society should value more. For universities, this means showing students the benefits of having an online presence and being conscious of their digital footprints.
"The problem schools inherently face with younger students is that they're socially required to spend time online and engage with their peers," so they are constantly generating more and more content online, Mr. Stutzman said.
Some of the most-sensitive content is posted on JuicyCampus copycat Web sites that have recently emerged, which Mr. Ivester says are on the rise. The sites began on college campuses, but new iterations single out high-school and middle-school students, acting as breeding grounds for young cyberbullies. And changes in technology are raising new issues. "I predict that the next big thing in college gossip," Mr. Ivester writes in his book, "will be proximity-based message boards, accessible only through cellphone apps using GPS," which will "allow anyone to create a group (for example, the name of a dorm) and then allow anyone nearby to anonymously post to and read that dorm's continuous gossip feed."
Which will likely leave many frustrated students looking for advice.
How to Manage Your Online Reputation
Professors and college administrators offer eight tips on how to protect your online identity.
1. Google yourself. Know what others see when they search your name.
2. Don't disappear completely. People want to find you online, so use social networks such as LinkedIn to create spaces where you can promote your professional self.
3. Check the privacy settings on social networks. Make sure you know what you are sharing and with whom—and if you are not sure about something, then don't post it.
4. Remember you are never anonymous. Almost any content you create and post online can be traced back to you.
5. Only keep profiles you maintain. Unattended profiles may raise questions, so it's best to just erase the inactive ones.
6. Brush up on copyright and plagiarism laws. Ignorance is no excuse.
7. Keep your passwords to yourself. Don't open the door for others to post content under your name, even if it's just a practical joke.
8. Keep in mind that the Internet is forever.