Student forced to shut down FitFinder site

1 Jun 2010
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A UCL student has been forced to close down his social network for "bring the college into disrepute"

An enterprising computer science student creates a social network for his friends, and it takes off, spreading across dozens of universities.

That might sound like the story of Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg, but it’s actually the tale of University College London student Rich Martell – who has been forced by his university to shut down his creation FitFinder.

Promising to let you "witness the fitness," the FitFinder system let students from UCL and more than 50 other universities post a quick status update when they happened to notice someone attractive on campus. That message is shared to other members, with some people discovering a mutual crush and eventually meeting up.

I’ve been approached by a lot of investors, as you can imagine, wanting to take this forward

Martell started the site while studying for his finals, as he and his friends used to send each other text messages when they spotted someone they admired. “It’s essentially the same as passing notes around a classroom, but on a more modern scale,” he told the BBC.

The site attracted five million hits in the month since its launch, but despite its success UCL asked Martell to shut it down. After he refused, the university fined him £300 for “bringing the college into disrepute”. If he doesn’t pay up, he risks not being allowed to graduate.

"UCL does not approve of or condone this site," a spokeswoman said, although she admitted FitFinder didn't run on UCL's servers and therefore the university had "no jurisdiction over the site".

“The fine UCL has given me is kind of harsh,” he told the BBC, saying he thought the UCL should instead be encouraging entrepreneurship.

Asked by the BBC if FitFinder was down for good, he said: “No, definitely not. As soon as I can get assurances that my degree is safe.”

More than 6,400 people have signed a petition to bring the site back. “I’ve also been approached by a lot of investors, as you can imagine, wanting to take this forward,” said Martell, adding that FitFinder will be improved to better protect privacy first.

While some have suggested that the situation shows a success like Facebook couldn't happen here in the UK, it's worth noting that Zuckerberg was forced to shut down his first site, Facemash, by Harvard while a student there, but restarted it with huge success - and arguably a better name.

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