The Wesleyan Anonymous Confession Board, or “ACB,” as it is referred to with both fondness and repulsion, serves as the Id for the Wesleyan campus – an anonymous online site where students can ignore their homework, vent sexual frustration, anxieties, pet peeves, or post random memes. The posts can be hilarious, vitriolic, sad or sweet, and Internet anonymity can bring out the best and worst in people.
The Wesleyan ACB is the most trafficked of approximately 500 schools in the CollegeACB network. Perhaps even more shocking is the fact that Peter Frank ’12 oversees the entire CollegeACB website from his Fauver dorm room.
When Juicy Campus, a competitor website, folded after losing profitability and threats of lawsuits, Frank saw an opportunity to expand the website. He contacted Juicy Campus’ founder Matt Ivester, who personally emailed him and agreed upon a five-figure deal to have all of Juicy Campus’ traffic redirected to CollegeACB. CollegeACB’s traffic increased from 60,000 hits a day to half a million overnight.
“Ivester quoted me a price for two months of traffic and I went for it,” Frank said. “I was up until 4 a.m. that night adding schools; I added around 500 new boards.”
Frank paid for the deal himself, using funds he acquired from his business, Sumdae LLC. He started the business in 2005, his sophomore year of high school.
“I started [Sumdae LLC] by registering domain names for seven dollars a piece and trying to sell them to end users,” Frank said. “I’ve since started buying and selling names in the aftermarket, names that are already owned. My ‘best’ name is…www.texts.com, where we offer international text messages for 10 cents a piece.”
Frank now spends about five to six hours a day running CollegeACB, up from the one to two hours per week he spent before the Juicy Campus deal. He doesn’t read normal posts on the site, only the ones that have complaints, and he removes posts that are spam. If a post has a certain number of complaints, it is automatically deleted. His hallmate and hometown acquaintance Philip Hall-Partyka ‘12 now helps moderate the site, and Frank gets technical assistance from Eli Fox-Epstein ’11.
Frank has only been in control of the website for the three months. CollegeACB was passed onto him by Aaron Larner ’08, who founded the site a year ago with his high school friend Andrew Mann, a 2008 graduate of Johns Hopkins University.
“As I recall, Aaron came up with the idea,” Mann said. “It was inspired largely by the Wesleyan ACB, which he saw as a very good idea but under an inferior format (LiveJournal) …We also thought that since the Wesleyan ACB and the Oberlin confessionals were so popular, there was no reason other schools wouldn’t want a similar board. We didn’t want to replace the Wesleyan ACB at first, so the first site was the JHU version, JHUConfessions.com.”
Larner said the site began as a weekend project when he was visiting Johns Hopkins in January 2008. He was interested in web development and decided it would be a fun thing to start. He created the JHU confessions website and Larner and Mann put up posters around their campus. The site was largely inactive for a few months, and then spiked in popularity. Larner and Mann created duplicate websites for schools where they had friends—Dickinson College, Haverford College, and Denison University. When the sites went to new schools, they would often start with low traffic and then intermittently explode in popularity. The original sites, as well as those at Wesleyan and Bryn Mawr, remained the only ones that were regularly used.
“Each had their own domain name, then I realized it would get kind of expensive, so we decided to combine it all under one name,” Larner said. “It was still a crude version at those schools. I spent a month over the summer working on a new, nicer-looking, better-functioning site before I tried to convince the Wesleyan students to use it. We announced the Wesleyan site at the beginning of this school year.”
Larner and Mann wrote a program to have all the posts on the old LiveJournal ACB appear on the CollegeACB site, and made improvements, such as adding a search function, organizing the posts into threads, and adding a private message feature. They also wrote a code for a “crush list”, reminiscent of the more elaborate, formerly popular “WesMatch”. In the “crush list”, users can write the name of a crush, and if two users write each other, their crushes are revealed to each other.
According to the site’s founders, they discovered they didn’t have time to run the site in the “real world”, fully develop it or make improvements. Furthermore, Mann said that the worries over potential lawsuits and ethical questions made the site less enjoyable to run. In order to find a successor, they posted a message on top of the CollegeACB page asking students who were interested in running the site to contact them.
“We didn’t get very many people offering to help out, only a couple,” Larner said. “There weren’t any real criteria; we picked Peter just kind of from the feel of the e-mails we exchanged with him.”
Mann cited Frank’s web site experience and plans for the site as the reason he picked him. He and Larner helped Frank with the servers during the transition and retained a small percentage in the ownership of the site in case it makes any profit. Larner is now a software developer for Epic Systems and Mann is a graduate student in the Astronomy and Astrophysics Program at the University of Hawaii. They no longer manage the site, though they keep in occasional contact with Frank. Frank has been responsible for the growth and changes made to the site, as well as the Juicy Campus deal.
“I kind of have mixed feelings about it,” Larner said. “I’m really glad people are using something I wrote, [but] I’ve looked at some of the boards that have been picked up from, I assume, the Juicy Campus traffic, and there are a lot of the negative posts I was worried about. I think they are even worse because the traffic is coming from [Juicy Campus], and that was the norm there; I’m hoping Peter will change that attitude.”
Juicy Campus was never popular at Wesleyan because of the ACB, but at other schools the gossip on the site reached alarming levels. The website arguably encouraged gossip, failing to remove posts that received complaints, despite saying it would.
“A lot of people were slandered and a lot of people’s reputations went down the drain,” said Henry Liu, a junior at Brown University. “I have friends that were named as the ‘biggest sluts on campus’, and were labeled as giving really good head; it was very immature and I don’t think any good can come of it. At first we would go on the site and say ‘look at this’, but then people realized the consequences of it.”
Frank hopes to draw a distinction between Juicy Campus and College ACB, and wants to encourage a higher level of discourse. He said that Wesleyan and Johns Hopkins’ boards remain the most highly trafficked, but are relatively tame because the novelty of an anonymous board has won off. According to Frank, there are more problems with slanderous posts at the schools that have been newly added, and whose traffic originates from Juicy Campus.
Although the ACB can devolve into cruel gossip, Frank believes it serves as a sounding board for students and a unique opportunity for people to open up and have provocative and meaningful dialogue. President Michael Roth, however, believes the site has transformed the culture of free speech.
“It seems to have a conventional nastiness that sometimes they’re not even really mean, they’re just nasty in tone…which I think is a part of the genre of posting anonymously,” Roth said. “It’s an unfortunate change…it’s part of the culture that I don’t quite understand but I find disturbing.”
The majority of students who frequent the board seem to take a light view towards even the most slanderous gossip. On the contrary, this is why they find it entertaining.
“I think it’s kind of harmless and funny,” said Becca Mandel ’09. “It’s easy to be really mean when you’re anonymous.”
Frank plans to continue improving the site—adding new features and smoothing out the occasional technical difficulties that occur. He has not made any plans for when the two-month temporary traffic purchase expires, but said he doubts Matt Ivester will receive any better offers. He plans to eventually add a limited amount of advertisements, but he stresses that it will have less than Juicy Campus’ cluttered website and feature more local Middletown businesses’ ads.
Currently he does not receive much revenue from CollegeACB, but the website has little overhead (Juicy Campus has paid employees and a legal team). He has received some media attention, as well as offers from people looking to buy the site, including one person who offered to visit him in Middletown. He has declined all the business offers, and said he will be very cautious about entering into a business deal with someone who will not uphold the integrity of the site, or betray its anonymity. Ultimately, the website has “stickiness,” as it is called in the business world – users feel a sense of community and loyalty, and they keep coming back.
“If I work on the site with the angle of making money, it’s not going to do well,” Frank said. “But if I create a service that’s needed, wanting the money takes care of itself.”