November 10, 2010

Information Deprivation: Cornell’s Online World

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When perusing my usual sources of Cornell news and information to find a topic for this column, I came across issues like the proposed cut of the University’s Department of Education, the S.A.’s new mental health campaign and the new bridge barrier plans. When I ran these ideas by my friends, however, they showed little interest. Rather, they were more engaged by a recent string of sexist, bigoted and anti-Semitic postings on the gossip site CollegeACB. I am less intrigued by the postings themselves as by the fact that students seem to be more aware of what is posted on anonymous discussion boards and gossip blogs than what is reported in legitimate sources of news and commentary. In other words, why do Cornellians seem to spend more time reading and discussing CollegeACB and IvyGate than The Sun and MetaEzra?

There are plenty of places online to find informed, interesting stories and commentary relevant to all members of the Cornell community. MetaEzra, operated by Cornell alumnus Matthew Nagowski ’05, thoroughly critiques University news and policy. The editors of the Cornell Review maintain Cornell Insider, which offers a conservative slant on campus news. A new entrant to the scene, BigRedMyCampus offers Cornell-related satire and musings. Last but not least, for all you fellow members of the Lynah Faithful, eLynah.com is the perennial place to discuss the Big Red.

Unfortunately, all of these blogs combined do not have the same reach and influence of CollegeACB when it comes to fostering student dialogue. Founded in 2008 by students at Johns Hopkins University, users have the opportunity to post and comment on anonymous gossip. Since then, the site has expanded to over 500 campuses and 900,000 daily users, according to Peter Frank, operator of the site. Sun columnist Carolyn Witte ’12 articulated many of the problems that the use of CollegeACB brings to our campus in an opinion piece published last semester. Threads ranging from “Will top houses give bids to Jews?” and “Hottest freshman girls” to “Best fraternity rankings” and “Discuss [John Doe]” are the norm. While there is a procedure for reporting posts, it requires registration and is rarely taken advantage of. Thus, the derogatory, hurtful and untrue statements of a few anonymous students can be widely read without consequence.

CollegeACB is not the only perpetrator that spreads potentially damaging gossip. IvyGate, a more substantial gossip blog, tries to be to Ivy-league campuses what Perez Hilton is to Hollywood. I think it’s safe to say that College Ave. is a long way from the Sunset Strip. College students should be treated and scrutinized differently than movie stars. Not only that, IvyGate has in some cases been completely wrong. For example, they recently they posted a story about a Harvard fraternity exchanging “Mystery Cock of the Week” e-mails, only to later admit that they story was a hoax started by the Harvard Lampoon. Nevertheless, the post undoubtedly tarnished the house’s reputation.

There are obviously many students who do prefer sites such as The Sun to sites such as CollegeACB and find the gossip discussions to be distasteful and counterproductive. My concern, however, is the average Cornellian. It seems those who frequent the reputable sites I mentioned are already involved in campus policy discussion and governance, seeking the content themselves. In fact, the results of the latest in my series of informal frat house polls showed that few of my brothers know of the sources of legitimate information. I wonder if people frequent such sites as CollegeACB and IvyGate simply because they are well-known. Most of us find CollegeACB awful and mock the posts and the anonymous cowards behind them, yet we all continue to read their words and glean their wisdom.

It is my hope that, with increased promotion of legitimate sources of Cornell-centric information and the development of features that will make them more interactive, students will be driven to spend their time reading such sources instead of posts on CollegeACB and IvyGate. It is my contention that citizen journalism and social media do not, nor should they, have an adversarial relationship with legitimate news sources. To its credit, The Sun re-launched its website earlier last spring with blogs and interactive features. If integrated properly, these and other features can be used by respected newspapers and blogs to counter the reach and influence of slanderous, degrading gossip and discussion sites.

Rather than frequenting gossip sites, we should use our time and energy to critique policies that actually affect us on a daily basis. Cornell students should be exercising their rights to free speech and openly discussing issues on campus, just not in ways that can hurt people and make us a less caring community.

Jon Weinberg is a sophomore in the School of Industrial and Labor Relations. He may be reached at jweinberg@cornellsun.com. In Focus appears alternate Thursdays this semester.

Original Author: Jon Weinberg