Stanford’s 21st-Century Muckraker
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Because you never know when you’re looking at the next media mogul … or Matt Drudge.
By Nathan Siegel
Last fall, Stanford student Aaron Zelinger opened his inbox to find an email from something calling itself “Fountain Hopper.” FoHo, as the newsletter styled itself, turned out to be a high-minded gossip sheet filled with newsy items and knowing tips from around the campus, written in an irreverent and sometimes sensationalist style. The emails kept coming and Zelinger soon became a regular reader, though he did wonder how FoHo had gotten his email address in the first place. Presumably, so did a lot of Stanford students. Maybe even all of them.
Call it ingenuity or something less flattering — the Stanford administration terms it “spamming” — but FoHo founder Ilya Mouzykantskii acquired a big audience for his rabble-rousing newsletter almost overnight by just grabbing it for free. He says he blasted FoHo directly into the inboxes of almost all 7,000 undergraduates at Silicon Valley’s backyard university, no sign-up required, in what sounds like an audacious hack you might associate with the late Aaron Swartz. Mouzykantskii says he didn’t break any rules; Stanford notes that most student email addresses are public and that acquiring them from public university listings is kosher. In any event, it wasn’t Mouzykantskii’s last attention-getting act.
A college newsletter may not seem like much, particularly one that channels its inner Drudge with all-caps headlines in screaming red type and boldfaced pronouncements highlighted in yellow. And it’s not easy raising hell at a university like Stanford, whose students are plagued by “duck syndrome” (seemingly placid above water, churning away furiously below) and Fear of Not Starting Up. But while today’s college generation may not be conducting anti-war sit-ins or building apartheid shantytowns, Mouzykantskii is fomenting a different style of campus rebellion, one that extends well beyond gender-neutral rooms, sexual assault and other lefty causes.
FoHo’s biggest coup so far: a step-by-step guide that told students how to request their admission records under an obscure federal law. Roughly 1,000 people actually turned up to read their letters of recommendation and admissions-officer reports, Stanford says; the explosion of interest, which quickly spread to other universities, also forced the administration to start destroying sensitive admissions files on a more timely basis. “If you’re going to be some sort of check and balance on what the administration is doing, you need to stir stuff up now and then,” says the 21-year-old Mouzykantskii.
When I sit down with him over beers, it’s clear Mouzykantskii is no everyday slacker (Stanford doesn’t exactly let just anyone in). He speaks in sentences that often stray from where they start with a speed and force that makes him seem restless — as if, despite his age, time is running out. His medium-length, messy hair and unbuttoned collared shirt say part tortured genius, part engineer for name-your-startup.
Mouzykantskii says roughly 10,000 people read each biweekly issue of FoHo (named, by the way, after a tradition of student splash-dance parties in the fountains scattered amid Stanford’s classic Mediterranean architecture). There’s no way to verify his numbers, of course; it’s not like Mouzykantskii has anyone auditing his circulation. But the Cambridge, England-born student has the campus covered, from true crime — FoHo broke news on an alleged rape attempt that led to felony charges against a varsity athlete, and, with Vice, a grad student who allegedly poisoned her medical-school labmates — to what he considers abuses of power, such as Stanford’s crackdown on its famously anarchic marching band.
You can see why Stanford might not be a huge fan. A spokeswoman says the university “does not recognize the Fountain Hopper blog as a student media organization,” citing its anonymous nature (Mouzykantskii doesn’t put his name on the newsletter itself). She also says the blog has a reputation for being “factually inaccurate, loose with the facts and obscuring sources,” which the young writer denies.
Mouzykantskii, whose father is an academic turned digital advertising technology pioneer known as “Dr. Boris,” says he caught the reporting bug after his family moved back to Moscow. While ditching high school one day to attend the trial of former oligarch Mikhail Khodorkovsky, he met a New York Times correspondent. He pestered his way into an internship at the paper’s Moscow bureau, and on his way to Stanford, co-founded a popular “confessions” blog for incoming freshmen to chronicle their experiences.
Stanford’s campus newspaper, though, struck him as tame, so in his junior year he headed out on his own with an Internet email service and a couple of helpers. Mouzykantskii writes each FoHo issue with help from a small group of volunteers, but few other new media bells and whistles. That’s a little odd, “given its location at Stanford-Silicon Valley,” says Ted Glasser, a Stanford communications professor. “It’s so low-tech that it hasn’t figured out how to handle subscribers who unsubscribe and want to subscribe again.” (Mouzykantskii says that’s an anti-spam feature of his email service.) Next up: expansion. Mouzykantskii says he’s in discussions with people at approximately a dozen universities about spinning up FoHo clones.
Almost 30 years ago, a different Stanford student founded a publication to protest what he considered the university’s overweening political correctness. That was outspoken libertarian Peter Thiel, now one of the richest men in Silicon Valley and a co-founder of the Big Data startup Palantir Technologies. Mouzykantskii says he admires what Thiel has accomplished, but insists that FoHo isn’t trying to fill an ideological niche. “There are stupid things and reasonable things, and we advocate for reasonable things,” he says. “The fact that Stanford is so upset with what we’re doing means we’re doing something right.”
Video by Brian Benton.