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Duke winces as a private joke slips out of control

For nearly two weeks, many on the Duke University campus had been aware of a certain senior “thesis” that a recent graduate wrote, apparently as a private joke, about her sexual exploits with 13 student-athletes. Then the document went viral online, reports the New York Times—and students again found their school in the middle of a sex-related scandal and annoyed at the power of the internet to wreak havoc and tarnish images. The woman in question, Karen Owen, 22, who graduated this year from Duke, evaluated what she said were her sexual liaisons with 13 student-athletes during her years at the school, and she prepared a 42-page PowerPoint presentation, complete with pictures of her subjects and graphs ranking their performance. She forwarded this mock thesis in “horizontal academics” to a few friends, who forwarded it to their friends. After percolating within the Duke community for nearly a week, the report was published online by two related web sites, Jezebel and Deadspin. From there, it exploded onto the blogosphere. The fake thesis made its splash just as concern was raised anew about the power of the internet to invade privacy and, sometimes, destroy lives. Last month, at Rutgers University, a student surreptitiously recorded his male roommate’s encounter with another man; days later, the roommate killed himself, unleashing a national fury about cyber bullying. “All the world’s a stage in the internet age,” said Lee Rainie, the director of the Pew Internet and American Life Project. “This is just the latest of a long list of examples of how things that are often meant for small, private audiences have innumerable opportunities to become public events, because once they have left the creators’ screen, they can be shared, forwarded, and posted.”

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