University Wi-Fi blocks student hookup website
The student-created site, awildnight.com, allows people with a University email address to sign up and name up to five fellow students or community members they would like to get to “know more intimately” on the night of W.I.L.D. Students register with the site and rank their target matches with the assurance that their name and choices remain confidential except to alert any other users who reciprocate interest.
It has been inaccessible from all University-managed Internet since Oct. 2, a day after senior Matt Re reached out to administrators to suggest the website similar to Tinder was particularly worrisome given the alcohol culture around the school’s biggest event of the semester.
The University only takes actions like blocking websites once every several years and only in exceptional circumstances, according to Jill Friedman, vice chancellor for public affairs. But the move highlights concerns with balancing free speech and protecting students, something of particular concern since the fallout of last semester’s Bear’s Den incident.
Re, who found out about the website from members of Social Programming Board, took limiting access to aWILDnight as a personal initiative. While SPB president and junior Emma Tyler said the group is supportive of Re’s effort in getting the site removed, she added that SPB was not formally involved.
“A website that is promoting…getting cozy or intimate with someone, specifically on the day of W.I.L.D., is not something that I think is becoming of a Wash. U. student,” Re said. “Specifically targeting the day of W.I.L.D. is just asking for people to wake up on Saturday and say…‘What just happened?’”
“If someone wanted to use a third-party application like Tinder, which is what [aWILDnight] was modeling, then that’s fine,” Re added.
Two sophomores in the School of Engineering got the idea for the site from a Dartmouth University “Last Chances” Listserv from last spring in which students in the class of 2013 could list other students they would want to hook up with before graduation if the interest was reciprocated. The website took a day and a half to code and spread throughout Greek Life on Sept. 29 before quickly spreading to the student body.
On Oct. 1, Re emailed the school’s Office of Public Affairs and campus life with concerns that the site promoted sexual assault. Administrators communicated back and forth and decided the site violated both the school’s trademark and its social media policy, which gives the school the right to remove content “threatening” or “harassing” to the community.
“We support free speech and dialogue but not at the expense of something that poses a threat,” Sharon Stahl, vice chancellor for students, said. “We take student concerns very seriously.”
One of the students who created the site, speaking under condition of anonymity, said he was not notified by the University before being blocked, finding out only when he was unable to access the site. He said he emailed network services but received no reply.
“You could make a similar argument about other social media sites, and they have not been blocked…the main point is that it only connects two consenting people,” he said. “I very much appreciate the concern and worry about increasing sexual assault, but I do not think aWILDnight promotes that or would increase it.”
The site is specifically designed so not even its administrators can see who is matched up, though they will see the number of matches made when they run the script.
Registration declined significantly after the site was blocked before picking up slightly after a post on the “Wash U Confessions” Facebook group, where students suggested the options of accessing the site via a smartphone with Wi-Fi turned off or proxy server.
As of Wednesday night, aWILDnight had just fewer than 300 registered users. The administrators plan to notify students who have found matches sometime Friday before 4 p.m. with an email revealing the highest-rated match.
The school’s computer use policy was put in place in 1997. Schools nationwide are currently struggling to make policy reflect the dangers of online media without infringing on free speech, Neil Richards, professor at the School of Law, said.
“New digital technologies raise as many questions as they answer, and it’s important for universities to discuss what the new rules should be, whether for free speech or what is appropriate,” Richards said.
“On the one hand, universities have to be committed to free speech and free access to ideas and information and communication from the Internet. On the other, universities have a moral and legal obligation to the safety of their students,” he added.
Re hopes the school ultimately re-evaluates its web policy to standardize a response to similarly threatening websites so that students are not the ones leading efforts to remove access to objectionable material.
“I don’t want Student Union to come off as a censor,” Re said.
Despite the controversy, at least one of the site’s creators maintains that it is a good idea.
“We would have not made it if we did not think people would enjoy it,” the student said.