The faces of Skidmore Unofficial: With graduation looming, anonymous bloggers expose themselves

Posted by Julia Leef

It was September 2008, and Alex Mendelsohn '11 had just come up with an idea for a website. A friend at Trinity College had started a successful Anonymous Confession Board, called TrinTalk, and Mendelsohn wanted to create one for Skidmore. Unable to do it himself, he approached his roommate, Jeremiah Budin '11, and good friend Kevin Sweeting '11 about building the site. Together, the three started a forum and a blog, where they could comment on campus news and events, and with that the infamous www.SkidmoreUnofficial.com was born.

For the past two and half years, Skidmore Unofficial promoted various campus events and provided commentary on what is going on around the school. Dissatisfied with the college's online publications — which were aimed almost exclusively at alumni — and the sporadic coverage of college events by local newspapers, the founders saw a need for an online student-run news source unaffiliated with the college that would alert students to campus happenings.

"If you're paying $50,000 dollars a year and you're not exploiting every opportunity the college gives you," said Sweeting, "you're messing up, because you should be exploiting the college for all it's worth."

Sweeting, the site's executive editor, Mendelsohn, the site's editor-in-chief and publisher and Budin, the site's only staff writer, began writing several snarky posts a week, mostly about beer, concerts, lectures and the absurdity of campus-wide e-mails. Toward the end of his sophomore year, Sweeting took over the primary writing responsibilities and has remained the site's primary contributor ever since. He now writes around 800 words a day and looks through about 75 e-mails a week concerning suggestions for articles and events to promote.

"Running the website essentially demands that I know everything going on campus, which I is guess is kind of cool" Sweeting said. "I don't get bored."

In the past few years, Mendelsohn has relinquished writing and editing duties, but still acts as the site's publisher, working with a whopping budget of $45 dollars each year. He also works to promote the website around campus.

Budin, the grammarian of the group, writes comedy pieces on the website and is the only person who has his name publicly attached to Skidmore Unofficial.

"I wanted fame. I was hoping to get laid," he joked. Budin writes an average of two articles a week and first started writing when Mendelsohn gave him a piece to edit, and he thought he could rewrite it with his humor. His pieces contribute to the satirical tone of the website.

"The blog is fun and it makes us more into the school and what's going on," Budin said.

Sweeting said that at first he chose to remain anonymous out of embarrassment, but now mostly does it to avoid talking to people about the site. Sweeting says that even now he isn't sure how to response to feedback about the site, positive or negative.

"Once it started to become successful, I thought the anonymous thing was more fun," he said, adding that he "isn't exactly comfortable being known as the kid who blogs about Skidmore all the time."

Some of their favorite accomplishments, the founders said, were the print edition guides they wrote, particularly their Freshman Orientation Guide, which they wrote to generate new interest after temporarily shutting down the website while Sweeting went abroad to Copenhagen in the spring of 2010. The guide, which features an alphabetical, five-part list of everything a freshman would ostensibly need to know about the college, was followed the next semester by the site's Guide to Binge Drinking, a publication that nearly got the founders into trouble after a deluge of drinking-related controversies began to surround the college shortly after the guide's release in early January.

Several weeks after the Guide To Binge Drinking's debut, Sweeting received an email on his personal Skidmore.edu account from Rochelle Calhoun, dean of student affairs, requesting a meeting concerning the recently published guide. Although she was at first worried that the guide have been insensitively released to mock the circumstances surrounding Alexander Grant's death, after a quick explanation by Sweeting, Calhoun withdrew her worry. She even offered some suggestions on how to improve the humor on the website.

"We were a little scared of her, but we're not anymore," Budin said.

"Her job is really, really rough, especially this year . . . but she's doing a pretty good job running stuff" Sweeting said.

Calhoun was not the first college administrator to contact Unofficial's editors. In February 2009, Sweeting and Mendelsohn met with Dan Forbush, executive director of communications, for lunch regarding an article they wrote about the college's shrinking endowment.

"We met him in The Spa and he didn't buy us lunch, which was a bummer," Sweeting joked, saying that while Forbush did correct two of their calculations, he felt that the meeting was more about the college telling the founders that "we know who you are."

One of the website's early controversial aspects was the Anonymous Confession Board, which was discontinued spring 2011. Originally intended as a place for students to post confessions about relationships or themselves under the safety of anonymity, the Anonymous Confession Board devolved into a forum students used to insult other students. The founders characterized the anonymous postings as "generally really stupid, vapid stuff."

According to Budin, there had been trepidation about the ACB from the beginning. "You can be completely honest if you're anonymous," he said, "but also not accountable."

Mendelsohn said that it was difficult to maintain the rules of the ACB, and so they eventually decided to shut it down, despite the fact that it brought a lot of traffic to the website.

But it seems that Skidmore Unofficial doesn't need the ACB to get a lot of traffic. The website has gone from an average of 200-300 views a day in its first few months to anywhere between 1000 to 1200 hits on a weekday and 650-750 on the weekends. The website received the most traffic, about 1700 hits a day, when AOL news mentioned the website's Freshman Orientation Guide in a news article.

"It is miraculous that actual news sources read our website," Sweeting said. "We've gotten mentions from the Albany Times Union, The Glens Falls Post Star and countless Capital Region news blogs. I'm always surprised when Pulitzer Prize winning newspapers source us."

Sweeting said that one of his favorite things to do is to go to parties, stand in the kitchen and try to get strangers to badmouth Skidmore Unofficial. He also mentioned that when the ACB was still running, he could "pretty easily" recognize when people would respond to their own posts and have conversations with themselves.

"I saw a lot of people argue back and forth with themselves about whether someone was hot or not, stuff that is pretty disheartening," Sweeting said.

Budin added that they used to do a lot of "good detective work" to figure out who posted what.

With all three of the founders graduating this year the future of the site is unknown. None of the students will continue writing for the site after they graduate, and although they have been considering handing over the virtual reins to someone else, they aren't exactly sure about how they feel about doing that.

"I don't think people really understand what running the site involves," Sweeting said. "I spend a lot of time staring at screens." He continued cautiously, saying that someone else writing Skidmore Unofficial would feel different. "It's essentially my website, a kind of weird cult of personality thing," he said.

All three students encourage other students to start their own school-related website or blog, adding that they are surprised more students haven't already. "If people have thoughts, they should start blogs," Budin said. "Blogging is fun."

When asked if they would do any blogging in the future, the founders responded that they would like to. "Anyone would want to do what we do professionally, Sweeting said. "I bang around on my keyboard in my underwear and make jokes all day."

Regardless of their impending retirement, the founders will continue to keep Skidmore Unofficial running until their graduation in May. Students will probably spot Sweeting, who recently spilled a mug of coffee on his laptop, updating the website in the library. He expects that the next couple of articles will reflect upon his past four years at Skidmore.

"We kid because we care," he said.

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