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Tuesday, January 25, 2005

 
The End of an Institution:

When you visit BenLadner.com today, the site is blank with a single message: "benladner.com is on hiatus until further notice". But let's be real; it's dead. It's been a shell of its former self for a while now. I'm not going to bash Jeff or Gunjan for making it what it became, but it was no longer the go-to website it was in its heyday a couple of years ago. But before we chronicle the end, let's go back for the younger ones who don't remember what has come before.

Thanks to the miracle of the Internet Wayback Machine, we can access BenLadner.com in its earlier forms. Here's the link: Go ahead!. BenLadner.com – the production of the always sketchy "American Political Society", whose only purpose was to lampoon AU and Ben Ladner, as the face of AU. It's chicken scratch, the lowly students flinging poop at the high-up administrators, with the 100 demands and minute General Assembly and Residence Hall Association coverage, and pictures of Ladner's car, and Ladner's house. And this was all made possible by one person.

With all apologies to Evan Tucker and his groveling at Ed O'Keefe's feet in an article this fall, to say that Ed was a driving force is utter bullshit. BenLadner.com is the utter personification of the ego of one very large Texan: Benjamin Wetmore. This isn't necessarily praise, but you needed a strong personality to be willing to put up a website with the university president's name, challenge The Eagle as a news source, and put up a list of 100 demands. Wetmore had that personality. He just needed the promotional outlet. Enter Tipper Gore.

On the 8th of April, 2002, Tipper Gore gives an incredibly boring speech in Bender Arena, in which she shows a lot of pictures. It would be all but forgotten if not for one Ben Wetmore wanting to videotape the event. Read his rambling take in the wee hours after what came to be known as "The Tipper Incident". Wetmore had the "media outlet", and the balls to use it; he went through the judicial system, was found guilty -- wait, no, sorry, RESPONSIBLE -- and Wetmore, already sitting here with an anti-AU administration bias, was hardened further in his stances. And he got on O'Reilly. And in the Washington Post.And all of a sudden, the website had promotion. Wetmore now had an audience.

I'd like to be able to say that the galvanization of BenLadner.com led to students forging together for a better AU. But then I'd be lying. The people who populated BenLadner.com were the student government geeks. And this was in the period in which the student government was beginning to feel the force of certain College Republicans (notably, Tim Meyer, Zach Constantino, Brad Vasoli, Scott Rosen), trying to force the small-government ideology onto the Student Confederation. In theory, they had a point. The imperial presidency of Ken Biberaj left students feeling aloof from their student government. And yet, they missed the boat completely. With a focus on clubs, AUTO, and user fees (not to mention the pointless crusade against the Women's Initiative), they didn't engage the students as a community. As such, they were marginalized from the students as a whole, but had enough power to kill the GA as a meaningful institution for at a minimum, 3 semesters, and one could argue that the effects of their acts are still being felt today.

With the polarization of the General Assembly, and the complete collapse of the Erin Taylor presidency (another topic entirely: great person, couldn't handle the administration and the SC infighting both working against her), so emerged the BenLadner.com message board. It seemed harmless. A poll on some dumb subject, and a comment board. Except that it was anonymous. Therefore, you could slander anyone without putting your name to the threat. And so began the politics of personal destruction in the Student Confederation. It was really juvenile stuff: "[Former SC Secretary Jason] Reimer eats poo." Nicknaming then-SC Comptroller Sarah Anderson "Jabba", because she was a little overweight. Occasionally people would put their name to comment, but it was completely lost in the name-calling and explicit sexual references. Look at any of the Web Archive links from Fall 2002 or Spring 2003, and look at the poll comments; that's all it is. And Wetmore knew this was getting him attention, and didn't stop it, in fact practically encouraged it with a sly "play nice" as the first comment of every poll.

It worked. The site was a 24-7 destination for the student government folks. I'm not going to remove myself from this; my roommate had been in the GA in the fall, and he and I would laugh at the cruelty and join in the commenting. I'm not proud of this (even my rare attempts to be the futile voice of reason). BenLadner.com had even caught the attention of The Eagle, which lampooned it in its annual April Fools' edition. BenLadner.com was a media representative to the ATV "debate" for SC President (although, then again, so was The American Journal, again, another story, but that, in hindsight, doesn't speak well for the productiveness of the debate).

Then, Ben Wetmore graduated.

Ed O'Keefe took over the site, and it moved into more real news. The message board was gone. Four freshmen (Sara, Sarah, Aditi, and Amelia – Full disclosure: floormates) took over a large chunk of the writing duties. The edge was still there in the content, but not so much in the stories. They'd still print every Op-Ed, but there were less of them. The Will Mount impeachment occurred, and they were on it, but all of a sudden, most of the lampoonable characters that had the message board a staple were gone. Then Ed went to London, and it continued to slip. The Eagle went online, providing another source for online news. I'll be honest, I was abroad this semester, so I couldn't chronicle much and I did find out about both Bob Dylan and the election of Polson through BenLadner.com.

Enter Fall 2004. A new redesign; much more professional. They won a complaint from Ben Ladner to keep the domain name. The articles were much more hard news (well, in AU terms). I was brought on to blog, I guess for the edge, and I'll take that as a compliment. But the news was much drabber, and there weren't characters to make the SC interesting. As I once told Evan Tucker, "If I wanted straight news, I'd read The Eagle." No one in the GA would have remembered the poo-flinging on the message board. Then comments came back on the news blurbs. And you got 90 comments on one post about the spring SC elections. The main theme: "Reimer eats poo."

And now it's "on hiatus". I don't expect it to come back, at least in any form. But today, let us remember it for the brief run of glory it had, thanks to the revolutionary spirit of Ben Wetmore, who was an asshole and proud of it.

EDIT 1/25: Minor edits. Some grammar, and a change of classification from "lawsuit" to "complaint".

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