I am what someone nice might call a “chronic oversharer” on the Internet. Someone less nice might call me an “attention whore.” You wouldn’t suspect it if you knew me -- I’m modest enough in real life. I guess all of my “LOOK AT ME!!” energy since adolescence has been redirected to the online world.
Whatever the cause, I frequently get super immersed in Internet forums and almost always become a “personality.” A “regular,” a “big-name poster”... if you’ve been involved in an online community on any level, you know what I mean.
With this notoriety often comes a loss of anonymity -- sometimes I tell trusted posters my identity, and sometimes the crazy ones figure it out themselves based on the pictures and information I’ve shared. And when my identity becomes public knowledge in a particular community, I don’t always leave or even lie low; I just shrug and keep going. I am a textbook case of how NOT to use the Internet, OK? Pretty much the poster child of a millennial who should not own a computer for her own good.
So obviously it was in pretty poor judgment that I posted nude pictures on Reddit and in very poor judgment that I basically led the folks at an online community -- one on which my identity was fairly common knowledge -- to those pictures. I guess I wanted to tease them a little, and I figured that even if they did correctly identify my pics, it’d just be speculation (my face wasn’t in the photos) so what was the worst that could happen?
In retrospect, tons of bad stuff could’ve happened, and what did happen probably wasn’t even the worst. Some psycho submitted a picture to a site called CampusGossip.com along with my full name, college, and class year.
(I’m okay with mentioning CampusGossip by name, despite not wanting to promote it in any way, because it looks like the site’s been down for over a month.)
The culprit bragged about his handiwork, so I found out about it within a few days of when it went up. My hands trembled as I confirmed that a post containing a picture of my tits did, in fact, come up as the third result on Google when I searched my full name and school name. The site owner, who adds commentary to each submission before putting it up, had captioned the pic with something to the effect of, “Would you hit it?”
I took a look at the rest of the website. It was terrifying. Every post had a picture -- usually of a girl or a group of girls, but there was a fair amount of gossip about men, too -- accompanied by the student’s name, their college, the webmaster’s commentary, and whatever note the submitter had included with the pic.
Some were concise: “[Name] is a fat slut who gave herpes to half of the football team” or “[Name] is a cheating asshole with a small dick.” Others were deranged, multi-paragraph rants covering coeds’ appearances (“needs a diet and a face lift”), lifestyles (“runs around doing coke and getting railed in the ass”), and sexual histories (“I heard she whored around in high school too”).
Most of the names in the posts were full names. Not all of the photos were pornographic -- many were simply lifted from the subject’s Facebook -- but some posts included censored naked photos with a note that the original pics could be found in the “raw” section of the website (a members-only pornographic section). My photo was nude but my nipples were covered by my hands, so I was spared from being a part of the “raw” collection (ew).
I sent a brief e-mail nicely requesting that the website delete the post. I heard back late that night. The (obviously form) letter began:
We want to first sincerely apologize if you are offended by anything that has been submitted by our users to CampusGossip.com. However, removal of gossip (which includes videos, photos, comments, captions, text, etc) is not something that we remove unless you are a VIP Club Member. To sign up as a VIP Club Member please visit:
Once we receive your registration for our (Gold) or (Platinum) VIP Club Membership we will remove any gossip that involves you. Normally Gold VIP Memberships take 5-7 days for removal, and Platinum VIP Memberships receive removal within 24 hours (GUARANTEED). Please send us the links for the posts that you would like removed to Support@CampusGossip.com immediately after signing up for our VIP Club at the link provided above, so that we know which posts to remove right away.
Oh, fuck. I began to understand their business model.
The e-mail then launched into this disgustingly condescending post-script explaining that it totally wouldn’t be worthwhile to pursue legal action because it’d cost too much money and probably wouldn’t work anyway. (The site owner once gloated in an interview that the site had never been sued because, "Does a college kid really want to spend that kind much [sic] money?" True -- and it’s not exactly the kind of thing you can ask your parents for help with.)
Oh, well. I was more relieved than annoyed; at least there was a way out! I clicked on the “VIP page” link and was greeted with this:
Great front, right? Based on that page, it kinda looks like VIP membership is about T-shirts and events! I doubt either one of those exists at all; I’m guessing the only people who sign up are the ones whose photos are on the site. I sighed and filled in my name, e-mail address, and school.
“Want a T-shirt?” the form mocked me.
I checked “Yes,” because why the hell not, and moved on to the next page.
Holy. Shit. $130 for next-day removal and $80 for deletion which "normally"(?) takes 5-7 days?!? I stared at the page in shock. I showed my roommate, who’d been following along with the whole thing. She said that if it were her, she’d pay.
But I had already made up my mind. Fuck no, I was not going to give that slimy website $80 of my money. I refused on principle. The site was clearly preying on vulnerable young adults terrified for their reputations, not just on campus but in the professional world. Nobody wants a potential employer’s first impression to be a leaked sext or an allegation that they slept with their TAs for grades.
I was lucky -- my name is pretty common, and my employment prospects were secure regardless. I could stand to refuse to pay out of spite. But not everyone could!
Plus, while I had my own carelessness to blame, most of the kids on the site hadn’t had any role whatsoever in their public humiliation. They were featured only because of the cruelty of their classmates. The website exists to encourage and profit off of this nasty behavior.
This all happened over a year ago and I never changed my mind about paying up. CampusGossip got more bizarre before its mysterious disappearance. It launched an “affiliates” program: you could sign up to be a regular submitter of content about people at your school, and you would get a cut of the money every time someone paid to have their information removed. IS THIS REAL LIFE.
What’s really scary is that CampusGossip is far from unique. There are other, almost identical gossip sites -- which I won’t name because I don’t want to give them any web traffic -- offering content removal for a price. There’s also a super disturbing trend of websites which, instead of user-submitted gossip, post people’s mugshots. Yes, mugshots.
They write scripts to crawl (public) police databases of arrest records, then post everything on their page; affiliated “mugshot removal” sites charge people up hundreds of dollars to remove content. Understandably, people really, really don’t want a mugshot to come up when someone Googles their name.
You may be wondering about the legality of these schemes. I’m no expert, but I’ve done a lot of research and talked to lawyer friends, and the gist of it is that there’s a ton of gray area and very little precedent in this area of law. Like basically everything ever, it comes down to nuances.
Some aspects of CampusGossip are almost certainly illegal, but the overall model of these sites (posting embarrassing content and charging for deletion) has so far been deemed acceptable. I use the term “quasi-extorted” in the title of the article because this type of thing has never been legally declared extortion. But people are gradually coming at these websites from all sorts of creative angles, and it’ll be interesting to see how they fare.
I’ll finish by clarifying that I’m all about the First Amendment and am not a fan of the emerging censorship of the Internet. So, to be clear, if people want to spend all day posting mean and/or false and/or embarrassing stuff about me online, that’s cool. They’re just exercising their right to free speech, albeit in the nastiest way possible.
But CampusGossip and similar websites are not about free speech. They are about intimidation, implicit threats, and putting young people in compromising positions just to offer them a way out -- for a price. They’re about planting fear and humiliation, then profiting off of it.