On the Ryerson message board

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Members prefer pleasantries to porn. Seriously.

By Siri Agrell

In the midst of a city where talking to strangers on the subway or making eye contact on the street can brand you a social deviant, there is a disturbing polite new community emerging on the Web. 

The Ryerson message board, designed to answer students’ administrative questions, has evolved into a sort of online tea party. The raunchy innuendos or graphic sexual descriptions on which the internet built its reputation are absent. On the last unguarded frontier of human interaction, Ryerson students are forgoing locker-room talk for courteous banter and helpful advice. What has the Internet com to?

The 1,190 registered users of Ryerson’s student message board have proved that online chat groups are more than just a passing trend. They have also rejected the popular topics and lingo of on-line conversation, showing that the Web can be a forum for mature (or lame) discourse. They use the board’s various conversational strings to ask administrative questions, find out cool places to go, and meet up with other students who share similar interests.

Ryerson staff and faculty also exploit the board’s rational atmosphere. Because there has been surprisingly little inappropriate use of the board, they let it run relatively unmonitored, allowing students to answer each other’s questions rather than clog administrative phone lines.

“We don’t have a formal process for screening,” says Mathew Burpee of university advancement, who created the message board. “Because so far, we haven’t had any major problems. It’s mainly just common sense and expecting people to act responsibly. What goes on the board, and how people use it is really up to the students.”

There is an emerging online etiquette that message board users say protect the forum from being disrupted by inappropriate content. Happy face symbols and cute nicknames are as popular in the messages as unauthorized Anna Kournakova sites are on the rest of the Web.

Betty Rigler of student services monitors several of the Ryerson strings. She rarely interferes with messages because users chastise each other when something inappropriate is posted. “You often see a conversation start up that could take a nasty turn,” she says. “But it always works itself out. Students are very good at monitoring their own discussion. If someone posts something stupid, someone will immediately respond with, ‘What are you talking about? That’s out of line.'”

While the moderators are careful not to censor student’s opinions, they will sometimes move postings that are deemed inappropriate from their locations. “We had one student who was using the first-year discussion board to talk about what happened in Genoa (Italy) last summer. We decided that it had nothing to do with Ryerson or the problems of going into first year, so we moved it. Initially, students were upset, and said it was a violation of freedom of speech. But we weren’t saying he couldn’t talk about it, we just didn’t think this was the appropriate place, so we moved it to another section.”

The message board launched in the summer of 2000 by student services as a forum for first-year students to ask questions about the school. Advertised in brochures sent to incoming students, the board was an instant meeting ground for anxious high-school students eager to express excitement, concerns or dread.

“In my pre-Ryerson days I was quite obsessed with the school, so I looked at the Web site frequently,” said first-year journalism student Leigh Doyle via email. “I found the message board just by roaming through the main site and thought it was a great idea. It’s a convenient, non-intimidating way of connecting Ryerson hopefuls to one another and to put them in touch with current students. I was able to make friends before the first day.”

And friendship emerges as the major goal of the countless message strings. While some students use it as a free classified board, most initiate friendly and harmless conversations about homework, nightclubs and commuting tips.

The raciest topic of the board is a string called “Ryerson Hotties”. But an inspection of the posts reveals a lengthy debate on the definition of ‘hot’, and a serious lack of skin. A few people posted pictures of themselves, but there is no deviance into “Am I hot or not?” debates or attempts to pick up. A messager known as Saffy sums up the repressed tone of the site by informing readers that because Ryerson hotties attend university, “they’re probably intelligent too.” Talk about ruining the mood.

The Ryerson board defies stereotypes that the Web is a hotbed for raunch. Messagers are almost embarrassingly reverential, congratulating each other’s observations and defusing any conflict with a well placed emoticon – the expressive symbols improvised through regular computer characters.The messagers have embraced the new tools and style of the Internet language, sticking to short, choppy sentences punctuated with happy faces. The message board is not a place for waxing poetic or rambling on incoherently; messages are written in a casual shorthand that gets the point across in three lines or less.

Chris Jones, a third-year urban planning student, monitored the International Lounge message chain last year when he worked for student services. He believes students behave themselves online because it’s a university site. “You don’t really want to be saying anything racy or impolite on a site that’s affiliated with your school,” says Jones. “There’s probably concern that their teachers are reading it or something.”

Since its conception a little over a year ago, the board has been viewed almost 50,000 times. The height of its popularity was last summer, with incoming students desperately seeking advice on how to prepare for their university careers. Although postings are declining now that classes have started and people are meeting in person, there were will 4,512 page-views during September.

Wading through the pages of polite banter, a seasoned Internet junkie would shudder at the lack of controversy or conflict. The strings are helpful, informative and, for the most part, embarrassingly tame for university conversation.

Trinity, a member of the message board, embodies both the inherent potential and disappointing reality of the forum. She started the Ryerson Hotties chain in July, with the innocent inquiry, “I hear that Ryerson is filled with hotties…Is this true?” After a disappointing string of jokes and debate, she jumps in once again with this succinct summation of the board: “You guys suck. Pics DAMMIT!”

To read this and other Ryerson student opinions, visit:

www.ryerson.ca/boards/campus.html.

And try to step things up a bit.

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