Flirting disreputably

Here’s an odd little story. A student of University College London, Rich Martell, has been fined for bringing the college into disrepute. And what did he do? He founded and developed a website called ‘fitfinder‘, which according to its home page is dedicated to ‘making Britain a better place to live’. Sounds terrible? Well actually, the primary purpose of the site was to allow students to flirt with each other. Or more precisely, the site suggested that readers might ‘Witness the Fitness in your area by instantly posting when you see some hot stuff.’ The idea was that users could identify people they had seen and wanted to flirt with, and then wait for a response.

The concept caught on, and soon had several million hits. Until UCL decided to fine Mr Martell and force him to take the whole thing down. And why? Because other universities had complained, and because some people had criticised it on equality grounds. So he has indeed taken the site down, sort of. The flirting is gone, but if you open the page you are now invited to sign a petition to bring it back. And I’m sure there’s a campaign on Facebook to restore it.

For myself, I’m not sure UCL got this right. Sure, I too might wonder about the concept behind it, but if we think that we can and should police the online initiatives that our students undertake we may run into trouble. It would have been far better to talk with Mr Martell and work with him to ensure that the site did not become a vehicle for exploitation, bullying or abuse; but just censoring his initiative and fining him seems to me to be getting it wrong. The internet is too anarchic for universities to be able to control what their students do there.

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5 Comments on “Flirting disreputably”

  1. kevin denny Says:

    I don’t understand this. Other than the fact that he was from UCL, how was the university linked? It all seems rather heavy handed.

  2. TJ McIntyre Says:

    The media coverage appears to be missing the point somewhat. Although not hosted on UCL servers, the site was UCL branded (the facebook page is titled “UCL Fit Finder”). A pre-controversy story in the Guardian makes it rather more clear – the intention was to have separately branded sites for each university. In those circumstances it’s understandable that UCL felt entitled to act – it’s not the case that his activities were entirely independent from his role as a student.

  3. kevin denny Says:

    If he had made clear that it wasn’t an official UCL site (& hadn’t used university branding/logos) then I think it should be fine. For example people set up lots of web sites/clubs that are related to an organisation in that it caters for people associated with it. For example fan clubs. So as long as there is a clear disclaimer I don’t see why he should have been stopped.

  4. TJ McIntyre Says:

    I agree. Having said that, it’s still quite a good result from his perspective: for the sake of a £300 fine he receives publicity money couldn’t buy while UCL looks slightly out of touch.

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