Library Whispers had 1,000 comments in its first week.
A student-run Cambridge University website meant to be an innocent exchange between frequenters to the school’s library devolved into a “forum of hate” brimming with disparaging comments, forcing Cambridge students to pull the plug.
Library Whispers, a Twitter-style blog inviting anonymous comments about campus goings on, was shut down this week after the site was flooded with the “worst sort of bullying and abusive messages,” Oliver Rees, a Library Whispers cofounder, wrote in a message to the blog’s readers.
The furor over the Britain-based Library Whispers was similar to controversy caused by an American college gossip Juicy Campus, which shut down in February 2009 after 18 months of operation.
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But many of the comments posted to Library Whispers had a decidedly classist tone, unlike Juicy Campus, where sexism, racism, and homophobia proved student favorites.
One Library Whispers comment, first published in The Telegraph, read: “Just spat on a working-class person – f***ing jokes.”
Another commenter wrote: “Don’t worry she was a female arts student. Female x arts = second order, so can be ignored.”
Library Whispers had 1,000 comments within its first week of operation.
Rees, in the announcement of Library Whispers’ closing, wrote that the decision to end the website was at least partly related to student safety concerns.
“The site was started to give people the opportunity to break the boring revision period with a bit of interest, but it has turned into a forum of hate and revealed that, sadly, there are a lot of angry people in Cambridge,” Rees wrote. “The decision to close the site was taken before anything really bad happened on Library Whispers, and to prevent individuals from showing themselves to be complete idiots without a thought for the feelings of other people.”
Social media experts said student leaders and college administrators should be wary of overreaction to proliferation of campus gossip sites, even after the sites gain local and national media attention.
“There does seem to be a tendency sometimes to view something that appears online as more controversial than something that is said in person,” said Menachem Wecker, co-founder of the Association for Social Media & Higher Education. “Of course there’s a finality to some online comments that spoken words don’t necessarily have, but just because something is online doesn’t mean it’s influential.”
Wecker continue: “When one weighs the desire to keep online forums safe and welcoming with the importance of having authentic forums where people aren’t artificially silenced, one has a difficult task indeed.”
Since JuicyCampus first appeared in 2007, student groups protested personal attacks posted throughout the site, college administrators have sought to ban the site from campus networks, and attorneys general from New Jersey and Connecticut have questioned whether the site was complying with state laws that prohibit “libelous, defamatory, and abusive postings.”
Tennessee State University cut off access to the JuicyCampus site in November 2008, prompting protest from First Amendment attorneys and the site’s spokesman.
Wecker urged against a concerted crackdown on all college gossip websites. Campus rumors, he said, have a way of fizzling out without official campus policy designed to snuff out controversial online forums that crop up every semester.
“It’s not surprising that thoughts expressed on Twitter, Facebook, and other social platforms are often less than impeccable, grammatically sound, and insightful,” he said. “There may be merit to the argument that college is a good time for people to develop thick skins, and–within reason, and within the bounds of the law–many rumors should be permitted to die out on their own, rather than with administrative assistance.”