Behind The Controversy At RateBU

December 5, 2010

by

“If people are going to use it, might as well make it.”

Those are the words of College of Engineering Sophomore Justin Doody, who until today was the anonymous founder of RateBU.com, a new website that has swept through BU’s campus and gained over 1,160 users since being launched on Friday afternoon.

The story of how Doody got the idea for RateBU and how the Quad found him all comes back to Facebook and its founder, Mark Zuckerberg. About a month ago, Doody and some friends saw The Social Network, a film about how Zuckerberg created Facebook, the now-ubiquitous social networking site that dominates the online lives of most college students. In the film, before he programs Facebook the young New Jersyan creates Facemash, a site that allows Harvard students to rate girls against each other. When Doody saw the concept on the silver screen, he decided to bring a similar idea to BU:

“Me and some friends just saw it [Facemash] and were like, ‘wow, we could make this’,” said Doody. “We knew the concept wasn’t unique at all, but it was still a lot of fun. Everyone I talked to about it was just like, ‘yeah, you should do that.'”

In the film, Zuckerberg gets in trouble because he hacks into private servers to grab photos of the girls. Doody came up with an ironic workaround that he hopes will keep him out of trouble: ask users to upload photos. From Facebook.

“Everything on this site is user generated, I’m not adding any of these girls. I let the users do that, and then I just approve it or whatever,” he said. “So I mean, all the photos on the site come from Facebook.”

Kara Korab, who graciously agreed to let us post this, on RateBU.

Kara Korab, who graciously agreed to let us post this, on RateBU.

The prospect of strangers being able to upload photos onto a website so that people can judge them has some of the site’s “early adopters” on edge. Kara Korab (CGS ’14), a Quad photographer whose friends found her on the site Sunday morning, said she thought being in the site’s top girls would be hard to handle. “I can’t imagine how people in top 15 people feel. I don’t know how I’d feel up there. I feel like they’re really exposed.”

“I would have liked to have been notified that I was put on this website,” said Adriana Alcivar (CGS ’13), who was one of the top five women on the website as of Sunday night. “Whoever wanted to do it just did it.”

Casey Prusher (CAS ’13), a Quad copy editor whose photo was found on the site during our investigation was similarly upset. “Whether or not it’s legal, it feels like someone took my information. I’m unwillingly being looked at and possibly being defamed or disparaged on a site I don’t condone,” she said.

Doody did not seem as concerned.

“I didn’t maliciously try to do this,” he said. “I think people are going to do this no matter what. I just created something that’s a little more public and visible as opposed to just like, gossiping at lunch or whatever.” Doody also noted that many of the girls on the site had uploaded photos of themselves, and that more than half of the site’s users at the time of publication were female.

However, Doody was initially unwilling to be subject to the same visibility he subjected his site’s girls to. As of Sunday, Doody had chosen to remain anonymous. The founder did not post his name on the website, used an anonymous contact form on the site, and entered in fake WHOIS data when he registered the domain, which is of questionable legality itself, especially if the use of the domain is determined to be illegal.

On the site’s “Legality” page, Doody quotes Facebook’s terms of service to justify the legality of uploading girls’ photos onto his site:

For now though here is an excerpt from facebooks terms:

“4. When you publish content or information using the “everyone” setting, it means that you are allowing everyone, including people off of Facebook, to access and use that information, and to associate it with you (i.e., your name and profile picture).”

Also don’t forget that this is a user generated website. This sites concept comes from the site FaceMash featured in The Social Network Movie. The problems FaceMash ran into included breach of security, because Zuckerburg hacked into confidential servers, which isn’t a factor here. He also faced violation of individual privacy rights because the pictures came from a private source. The source of photos on this site somewhat ironically is facebook which clearly states that once you post pictures and other material online you are giving up some of your rights.

How right he was.

Click to see the full post.

In an even more ironic twist, the Quad was able to ascertain the founder’s identity within an hour of first discovering the site through, you guessed it, Facebook. We found a post, accessible to anyone in the BU Facebook network, that Doody made on a friend’s wall. In the post, he asks his friend to check out the RateBU site. Another one of his friends asks if the site is public, and recommends a marketing tactic: posting references to the site on likealittle.com.

From there, the Quad got in contact with Doody, again using Facebook, who admitted to founding the site and consented to being interviewed, acknowledging that his name was going to get out eventually.

So we asked why, if that were the case, he chose to launch the site anonymously at all. His answer: “I just wanted to see how reception was before people knew that it was me. That’s really it. I think most people would do it anonymously, if they were making it.”

That reception has been mixed. Doody claims to have received only 10 negative emails from his over 1,000 users. The Quad had no trouble finding women who were upset, despite the text at the top of the website that tells girls “please don’t take the site too seriously or as an insult in any way.”

Alcivar said that when she first saw the site, she was not yet on it, but thought right away, “I hope my picture doesn’t come on this site. I don’t really want to be on this site.” When her photo did appear, Alcivar admitted to being surprised. “It didn’t even cross my mind that I would be on it,” she said. “And I didn’t want to be on it.”

She said the site sends a bad message about BU. “It’s like, all of the girls at BU are just kind of like a piece of ass and not really taken seriously. I think that’s what this site is kind of embodying. It is degrading. We’re at BU, it’s a really good school, but like, BU is known for, apparently, attractive girls.” She added, “I just wish my photo wasn’t on there.”

Prusher also thought the site reflected poorly on the school. “I think BU’s a better school than that. I think it’s like, it’s just an ugly mark on our student body.”

Prusher and Alcivar are considering asking for their photos to be taken down, and both Prusher and Korab hope the site will eventually die out.

Doody, on the other hand, is already looking ahead. “BU is sort of the test one, to see how it goes, and if I do face any major problems. But I have thought about definitely expanding,” he said.

Is the next Mark Zuckerberg going to come from BU? Doody admitted to admiring the Facebook founder, scruples and all.

“He came up with this idea, and Facebook of course, so yeah,” Doody said. “I think everyone would like to be the world’s youngest billionaire.”

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