Blogging the Ivy League’s Follies

One weekend in October, we ruined a kid’s life.

We didn’t mean to. Well, more like we didn’t expect to. At 4 p.m. on a Friday, we posted to our blog a video that a Yale senior had included in his investment bank applications—a ludicrous sequence that, if you believe what you see, shows off his 495-pound bench press, 120 mile per hour tennis serve, motivational schlock, and ballroom dance moves. As other blogs piled on, word spread fast—and faster still when we reported on his shady consulting firm, fake charity, and partially plagiarized book about the Holocaust. All that Aleksey Vayner had wanted was a job at Goldman Sachs. Instead, by Monday, he became the most scrutinized student celebrity since Kaavya Viswanathan ’08 “internalized” another author’s novels.

We launched our web site, IvyGate, last July on the premise that the students of the Ivy League are ridiculous enough to deserve, well, ridicule. If Page Six and The Chronicle of Higher Education had a one-night stand, we’d be their illegitimate daughter.

When it comes to college students acting like fools, Vayner was just the beginning. This year alone, there was the candidate for class president at Princeton accused of setting a squirrel on fire; the University of Pennsylvania grad student found to be commuting to class from prison; the Skull and Bonesman arrested for burning an American flag still attached to a New Haven home. For the sake of all the moms and dads reading this, we won’t even get into kitchen sex at Brown, testes flambé at Cornell, or one fine arts major’s vision of anal rosary beads—let’s just say our tipline stayed hot.

Indeed, all was bountiful in Ivy blog land. But! Every time we posted an embarrassing photo, named a name, or otherwise sentenced a 19-year-old to eternal Googleability, our shriveled little blogger conscience piped up: Maybe it’s not okay to bust on students. Do they deserve the sort of scrutiny the media gives, y’know…grown-ups?

Of course not. But it’s also time that we stopped treating school like Las Vegas, as if what happens at college stays at college. The undergraduate years, the theory goes, are for making mistakes—hooking up with your suitemate, say, or majoring in philosophy—with limited consequences. There’s good reason for this exceptionalism: If everything that happened in college were suddenly in the public domain, students would feel less free to take risks—although it’s debatable whether getting trashed and uploading your drunken rendition of “Fat-Bottomed Girls” to YouTube is the sort of risk schools want to encourage. Subjecting everyone involved in a student government scandal or newspaper plagiarism case to the same treatment as Tom DeLay or Jayson Blair would stunt growth more than thalidomide. Better to let students screw up privately now instead of publicly later.

But the walls around the college experience are crumbling. Between Facebook and YouTube and whatever those crazy twenty-something billionaires think of next, student life is only getting more transparent. There’s no such thing as a purely on-campus issue anymore, now that online discussion threads like Harvard’s BoredatLamont or Brown’s Daily Jolt have elevated anonymous libel to a fully searchable art form. Every time a kid loses an internship because an employer found annotated bong-rip pics on a MySpace page, students clamor that their privacy has been invaded. At IvyGate, we deal with fallout all the time. But what are bloggers and journalists supposed to do when it’s the students themselves who put the material online in the first place, and when, nine times out of 10, it’s their fellow students who cheerfully tell us where to find it? What should we publish, and what should we hold?

For actual celebrities, the decision is easy: A sighting of Lou Dobbs ’67 in Harvard Yard (“looking puffy, greasy, and lumpy all at once…lighting a cigarette as if it might be his last”) is just plain blogworthy. Same goes for students who inject themselves into the public arena. When a Columbia student and Marine reservist started debating campus military recruiting on FOX News, for example, he became fair game; when it emerged in March that he’d acted under the nom de porn Rod Majors in such films as “Glory Holes of Fame 3” and “Touched by an Anal,” fairer yet.

But when it comes to students going about their own business, there’s stuff we regret. In November, for example, a passed-over Crimson staffer sent to his peers a 1,200-word resignation e-mail so livid we ran it under the headline “Unpromoted Crimson Editor Burns Bridges, Collects Ashes, Re-Burns Them; Then Packs Ash Ashes Into Payload Of Nuclear Warhead And Hurls Into Sun.” Did we serve readers by reminding them that behind this august broadsheet is a staff just as fallible as any? Absolutely. But we also ran the kid’s full name, an inclusion that added no humor or news value and only resulted in there being a Google hit for “[his name] AND tool.” So keeping names out is one way we can keep college blogging civilized. But that may not be much consolation to the hardworking staffs of Harvard-Radcliffe TV and the Harvard College Democrats, whose homemade videos were described by IvyGate commenters as “TORTURE” and a “poo nugget,” respectively. You don’t need a name to go ad hominem.

Every time we try to encourage decorum, or at least accountability, we’re reminded that this medium is by nature carnivorous, and getting faster and more unfeeling with each passing news cycle. It’s up to us—and the other campus blogs, more of which launch every day—to insist on standards, no matter how sophomoric the subject matter. To give fair comment to the people we write about. To respect Google’s lidless eye. To bear in mind our own college screw-ups as we castigate others.

In other words, to rip responsibly. Oh, and to post as many videos as possible of guys lighting their genitals on fire. You really have to check that one out.

Chris Beam and Nick Summers edit the blog IvyGate.