Student pushes back against college gossip site gets about 20 million monthly page views.

Hurling online insults is easy when you’re anonymous. Putting a name to that invective changes everything—and that’s what University of Southern California (USC) freshman Haley Winters is banking on.

Winters created an online petition March 21 asking college students to pledge to use their names in posts on the website, described by its creator as an “anonymous confession board” with more than 20 million monthly page views.

The petition asks students to sign their names and pledge to take “the anonymous out of CollegeACB.”

Winters, a theatre major from New York City, said the website has fostered a culture of cyber bullying across the USC campus, but especially among members of the Greek community. Visitors are asked to rank sorority members by appearance, for example, and sexual exploits—real or imagined—are described in detail for all to see.

“I was really taken aback by the level of viciousness displayed on the site,” said Winters, 19, a member of the university’s Delta Delta Delta Sorority who first found CollegeACB when she came to the USC campus last fall.

The online petition comes after seven months of “wishing someone would do something about this site. And I realized that by me not doing anything, I’m basically just fueling it and accepting it.”

Winters also created a Facebook page that serves mostly as a rallying point for 235 college students who see CollegeACB as a socially destructive force on campus. Winters’ petition had about 150 signatures as of press time—a total she is “not satisfied with at all.”

“This has become our version of Star Magazine—we get to rag on each other without any accountability,” she said. “There are absolutely no consequences here … and it’s starting to seep into the actual social life of the campus and affect the way people treat each other.”

CollegeACB promotes itself as a rare online forum that allows students to converse openly without the risks that come on Facebook, where everything a user posts or writes can be found by parents, professors, and potential employers.

The site’s facelessness—like many gossip sites that preceded it—has led to strings of sexist, homophobic, and racist rants, along with personal attacks that include students’ full names and the names of their sorority or fraternity houses.

There are many CollegeACB posts that ask for advice on how to handle breakups with girlfriends and boyfriends. Thoughtful responses to personal questions can be found on any of the individual campus pages available on CollegeACB.

Peter Frank, the former manager of CollegeACB, said in a Jan. 11 blog post that he sold his stake in the site and new management had taken charge.

In an eMail message to eCampus News, a CollegeACB spokesperson who did not give his or her name said the site was working with campus leaders at various schools to clean up the strings of offensive comments that populate the site.

The spokesperson said CollegeACB officials have been in contact with student leaders at the University of Maryland (UMD), which until last week boasted a form “filled with hateful and disparaging posts” on CollegeACB.

“We have seen a dramatic improvement in content with no decrease in page views” on the UMD page, the spokesperson said. “We think that under the right environment and with the right encouragement, all college campuses can be like that.”

CollegeACB’s front page features a pledge to host a “more positive and productive place to have anonymous conversations,” adding that visitors would have the ability to remove content they found offensive.

“Mostly these improvements have come from the fact that a core group of students have been much more vigorous in reporting posts,” the spokesperson said. “While they still have a long way to go, we’re confident that in a few months, their ACB will look much more positive.”

Moving away from a website built on anonymous postings, however, is off the table.

“We think that anonymity is not only in the title of the site, but it is crucial to what we do,” the spokesperson said.

“Why anonymity? Because everyone has something that they’re afraid to say out loud,” the site’s management said in a mission statement posted to the front page. “We’ll be there when you want to write without responsibility. For some of you, it’ll be an excuse to be judgmental, petty, and mean. For others, it’ll give you a chance to explore your imperfections without looking stupid, to be excited without looking lame, to examine yourself without looking weak …”

CollegeACB grabbed the attention of college students nationwide after another popular gossip site,, shut down in February 2009. The site was banned on at least one campus, and student groups spoke out against vitriolic conversation threads that targeted student groups, individual students, and professors.

JuicyCampus was shuttered when its creator, Matt Ivester, ran out of funding. In the months before its closure, attorneys general from New Jersey and Connecticut questioned whether the site was complying with state laws that prohibit “libelous, defamatory, and abusive postings.”

The petition for students to no longer hide behind their anonymity, Winters said, isn’t an infringement upon free speech, but a call for accountability on a public and popular website. Several commenters on Winters’ petition see it as an assault on basic First Amendment rights, and let her know it in unsubtle tones.

“I think people on the site have every right to say what they want to say,” she said. “I don’t want to shut it down. I want to lend support to the people who have been victimized by the site.”

Winters’ petition is filled with encouraging comments and notes of support from people applauding her stand against hateful anonymous posts. Interspersed within the positive remarks are personal attacks directed toward Winters and racist slurs that draw the ire of petition signers.

The anonymous insults, she said, were not unexpected.

“I knew it wasn’t going to be easy,” Winters said. “But when you see those horrible things said about you, it just makes our argument that much stronger. … So far, it hasn’t been anything I can’t handle.”

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