Tackling the digital world’s blurred boundaries

Nov. 29, 2011, 3:02 a.m.
Tackling the digital world’s blurred boundaries
(Courtesy of Matt Ivester)

Stanford is a “wired” university, with Wi-Fi accessible almost anywhere on campus, computers in the lobbies of many buildings and smartphones commonly in students’ pockets. Information related to social networking and schoolwork alike flows constantly back and forth from “the cloud.” Have the lines between real life and virtual reality blurred?


Matt Ivester MBA ’12, who at age 23 founded the social network website JuicyCampus.com, thinks these two worlds have become one. With the tag line “Always Anonymous, Always Juicy,” the site he founded became so controversial that it was banned from several college campuses and investigated by two attorneys general. However, its effects show how powerful anonymity on the Web can be.


“Anonymity has the effect of magnifying the ego and putting fewer filters on what we do,” said communication professor David Voelker Ph.D. ’94.


In retrospect, Ivester said that the anonymity JuicyCampus.com offered contributed “to both the success and the eventual downfall of the company.”


Now 28 years old and in his second year at the Graduate School of Business, Ivester used his experience with JuicyCampus.com as background for his book “lol…OMG!” published Oct. 10, which advises college students on how to maintain their online reputations. Ivester suggests in his book that students should frequently Google search their name, set their profiles on private and cross-link positive content so it appears at the top of search engine results.


In person, Ivester stressed the need to make a good impression online because, he said, the Internet is now like a permanent record. While he agreed that college is a time to try new things on the road to self-discovery, in his book he warns students about the adverse consequences of publishing these moments online. Because first impressions are often made online, he said, it is crucial to manage one’s digital reputation.


“People often take the shortcut way of getting to know someone by just looking through the bullet points of their life on Facebook,” Ivester said.


As a result of the “primacy effect,” where people adhere to their first impressions, a quick glance at someone’s Facebook profile can have long-lasting consequences. According to Ivester, college admissions, tenant selection and online dating further intensify the pressure to maintain a clean online image. Job applicants, he said, are evaluated online as well as on paper: career development centers often analyze potential employees’ Internet activity and notify employers of possible problems relating to discrimination, violence or drug abuse.


Despite the lack of online privacy and the dangers associated with social media, Ivester emphasized the need to maintain a strong online presence, arguing that it provides efficient long-distance communication and allows users to create their own digital image.


And in any case, some, like Voelker, think that the nature of privacy itself is changing as a result of technological transformations.


“Digital citizenship,” or the concept of participating in societal debates via information technology, has also gained importance because, according to computer science professor Eric Roberts, the Internet cannot be censored because that might be a violation of the First Amendment and would be difficult to implement.


With such a high flow of unrestricted data on the Internet, Ivester hopes “to change behaviors by giving people the information they need to make the right decisions and be responsible,” especially here on the Farm.


“Stanford has the opportunity to take a leadership role in the national higher education scene regarding the challenges of digital citizenship,” he said.

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