Attendees at the open RateBU meeting at the Women’s Resource Center last night came hoping to take action against the now infamous website, which has garnered national media coverage and thousands of hits since the Quad broke the story by revealing its founder’s identity on Monday. What they did instead over the course of a meeting that was equal parts hopeful, comforting, frustrating and inconclusive, was underscore just how complex the issue is. How do you deal with a threat to a community that deliberately skirts along the boundaries of what’s legal, what’s ethical and what’s possible?
It complicated matters that Justin Doody, the site’s founder, showed up at the meeting with several friends to challenge even the notion that his site is a threat at all. Aside from an exchange as Doody and friends left where one student “rated” the departing group on a numerical scale, the discussion was remarkably civil. But Doody was completely defiant about his role in any of the controversy his site has generated. “You’re always being judged, that’s the culture we live in,” he said at one point, as he and his friends repeatedly deflected criticism back at society and the fact that Justin himself doesn’t upload any photos himself– other BU students do.
And this last point is why the site is such a problem. Because anyone at BU can anonymously upload a photo of another student, there is no single source of the threat, like there was with Mark Zuckerberg’s Facemash, the inspiration for RateBU (Zuckerberg himself took photos from several Harvard residence websites). And the lack of a single, identifiable cause of the problem has lead to fear – fear that anyone, even your friends, could make the decision to put you up for rating and judgement without your consent.
For some who have already had their images posted, the fear of the anonymous has morphed into the discomfort and even shame of being exposed against their will. At the meeting, WRC Center Manager Meghan Faulkner read an anonymous letter from a student who believes she has been subject to sexual harassment, as defined by Boston University’s Code of Conduct, as a result of the site. Wrote the student, “It has left the site, and is impacting my life. People are coming up and joking with me about how I am on it. This is creating an humiliating, offensive living environment for me.”
Student Union President Arthur Emma told the group that the issue first hit home for him when a constituent came to him in tears over being put on the site. He urged Doody to take down the site because it reflected poorly on the university. Doody countered all of these arguments by saying that the site wasn’t intended to be offensive but merely a form of entertainment, and noted that “the community does embrace the site. There have been over 1 million votes and I haven’t voted myself in days.”
The issue of community responsibility is what makes the site so interesting, so controversial, and in the end so difficult to deal with. In an age of social networks that eschew privacy for openness, Doody’s site shrewdly uses the shared responsibility of the BU network in populating, promoting and popularizing the site to justify itself legally, ethically and as a part of civil society. And Doody is right: BU’s civil society has largely embraced the site thus far, and attempts to take it down will find themselves struggling to balance the risks of giving it more publicity, on which it has thrived, and posing effective challenges.
After Doody left the meeting, attendees faced this reality and left without deciding how best to deal with it. Students agreed that RateBU is unlikely to die out on its own in the near-term, and as Dean of Students Kenneth Elmore made clear in his eloquent piece on the site today, legal challenges are unlikely to succeed. But Elmore’s solution – hoping that if we ignore the site enough it will go away but the discourse on the issue will continue – was not enough to pacify students who felt threatened by its continued existence. Moreover, frustration was leveled at the administration for failing to act.
Since the meeting, some of the students present created a Facebook page to organize efforts against the site. Meanwhile at RateBU, Doody updated the site last night to include the following line at the bottom of the main page: “Just updating everyone that something big is coming soon! It will calm the critics and improve the site. Stay tuned.”
Unless things change, many of us will.
For more on this event, see our live Twitter coverage from last night.