STANFORD GRADUATE SCHOOL OF BUSINESS – Matt Ivester, MBA class of 2012, learned the hard way that the digital age can play havoc with normally well-behaved people. The result isIvester’s book, lol … OMG!: What Every Student Needs to Know About Reputation Management, Digital Citizenship, and Cyberbullying, which lays out, in sometimes ugly detail, the dangers of bad online behavior, and offers a prescription to college students who want to enter the adult world with their reputations intact.
Like any good entrepreneur, Ivester created his current project from the ashes of an earlier startup that went awry. In 2007 he founded the website JuicyCampus.com and invited students at his alma mater, Duke University, to gossip freely and anonymously. “When I started it, I thought it would be a fun place for college students. It became this malicious website where students were attacked. It got away from me,” he says now.
“The posts named names, and they were racist, homophobic, misogynistic, vulgar, sexually explicit, deeply personal,” he writes in the book’s preface.
JuicyCampus.com spread to 500 campuses, attracted investigations from two state attorneys general, spawned hundreds of complaints from college administrators, students, and parents, and even caught the attention of national broadcaster Katie Couric, who described JuicyCampus as a “malicious cesspool of barbs, disses, and insults.” In February 2009 Ivester shut it down.
Though he moved on to other ventures, Ivester continued to reflect on his experience. What seemed reasonably harmless, or mildly embarrassing when spoken in a college dorm among friends, turned poisonous online. Being on the receiving end of death threats was scary, he says. Invited to speak on a panel at Emory University on the topic Civil Discourse: Gossip, Bullying, and the Digital Age, Ivester says he sensed the anxiety in the voices of parents, students, and college staff looking for advice. “There was genuine concern about some of the negative stuff happening online that affects college students,” he says.
An enthusiastic entrepreneur, Ivester saw a business opportunity. “I realized that there is still a big problem on campus with reputation management and cyber-bullying and that there aren’t really great resources for college students,” he says.
Ivester’s experience and observations are wrapped up in lol … OMG!, a guide to managing online reputations from the moment a student steps on campus until graduation. Ivester’s goal is to raise students’ awareness on two fronts; how their decisions about posting content online will affect how others see them, and how posting decisions by one student will affect the reputations of others. The book includes carefully chosen anecdotes about videos, PowerPoints, and emails sent for the eyes of a few, and seen eventually by millions, that will send shivers down the spine of anyone concerned about online content and lifetime reputations.
As Ivester points out, in the digital age missteps don’t go away. Twenty years later photographs of unflattering behavior, vicious comments on blogs, and even students choices of which pages to “Like” on Facebook might come back to haunt them. Because of this permanently public record, Ivester believes that college is harder today than ever. Previous generations didn’t have to worry about their college experiments and mistakes living forever for billions to view, he says.
Since the internet is here to stay, Ivester’s purpose with the book is to help college students make the right decisions, to take control, to think carefully about their every online activity. “The book is all about personal responsibility,” he says.
He starts from the premise that students are creating their online reputations with every piece of content that they post. Most of them enter college with an established digital trail. “Now it’s time for them to take control of that trail and make sure that they are portraying themselves in a positive light,” he says. Campus life offers many temptations and opportunities to experiment. What goes up online will be taken seriously by many people in the outside world. Prospective dates will do a search on their names. Professors, future employers, neighbors, and parents of the friends of their children — the list of possibilities is long.
In the book, scheduled to be published in October, Ivester describes the many ways students can protect their reputations, from carefully managing their privacy settings to constantly monitoring what appears about them online. Ivester is particularly adamant about raising the awareness of the behavior gap between what people might say or how they might act in the real world versus words and actions online. Psychologists have noticed an “online disinhibition effect” with normally polite people slinging insults unabashedly when commenting on websites. Ivester also gives them a crash course in free speech and tips to help persuade others, either through friendly or litigious means, to remove unflattering content.
Ivester’s business plan includes offering the book to colleges to include in freshman welcome packets. He is making himself available to speak to incoming classes. With job seekers in mind he is looking for partnerships with career development centers to help seniors present their best selves online to employers and to companies such as Social Intelligence, whose business is investigating and reporting the online behavior of potential employees.
By these efforts Ivester hopes to implant in today’s college students and administrators the phrase Digital Citizenship and all that it stands for — self-testing a twitter entry, a photo upload, a blog entry — against a set of standards that represents the students’ values toward themselves and toward others. “JuicyCampus was my lol … OMG! moment,” he says. He hopes to spare others the same experience.
— Anne Gregor
Also on Stanford Knowledgebase: