The Unofficial Guide to Yale

Yale Wiki_illustration_TaoTao Holmes
Photo by Tao Tao Holmes.

“It all begins with information and it not getting where it needs to go,” Casey Watts ’12 says, as he peers at me over the lid of his open computer. To Watts — a lanky, partly pink-haired Yale graduate — “information” means everything from how to double-swipe for lunch to where to find the cheapest alcohol in New Haven. In short, he means everything on YaleWiki, a site whose slogan is “The Unofficial Guide to Yale.”

In the fall of 2011, Watts, a current sousaphonist and former clarinetist in the Yale Precision Marching Band, compiled useful information that band members had emailed to freshmen in previous years. He posted all of it in a public Google Doc entitled “So Many Useful Things about Yale,” and later, with perhaps a little more zeal, “EverythingUseful.” Over the following winter break, Watts, an assistant manager of the Student Technology Collaborative (STC), shifted the information to different types of wikis, but struggled to find a customizable, ad-free format. Only in February 2012, when Leandro Leviste ’15, an EverythingUseful user, contacted him about working together, did he start to create an expansive, multipage reference tool.

“Collaboration is huge in my book,” Watts says. “I’m a fierce advocate, but I can’t write a whole wiki.”  Adam Bray ’07, an STC assistant manager who had already planned to start a Yale wiki after coming across Columbia University’s wiki, helped set up the software and restrict editing rights to Yale students. Other friends jumped in along the way. Project members often met in Watts’ suite for hours to brainstorm, resulting in a site that includes both practical information, like the hours of local coffee shops — clearly displayed in a downloadable Google map — and a smattering of random facts, such as the history of infamous squirrel conduct in Yale dorms.

“When we had free time, we just wrote and wrote and wrote,” Leviste says. The organizers also sent out questionnaires to freshman counselors and graduating seniors in which they asked questions such as, “what are the most common mistakes you see freshmen make?” and “what is your advice for living with roommates?” Though most of the articles are purely informational, a freshman counselor tone pervades some of the more advice-based ones. “Making the Most of Yale,” by Taneja Young ’12, which several of the staff members noted is one of YaleWiki’s best pages, contains saccharine lines like, “You will feel most alive if you chase your dream.”  But it also balances them with humorous snark: “If your dream is to be a princess or a dictator, you may have a difficult time actualizing this reality and therefore become disillusioned.”

Watts and others insist that the bulk of the wiki’s content is not directed only at freshmen, but Leviste is a major proponent of an offshoot project: a freshman handbook. “[The wiki] is like a tree with all these branches and all these articles all over the place, but the handbook would be even more centralized,” he says. With the help of the Freshman Class Council and others, Leviste has already drafted 20 pages of the handbook, which he hopes to distribute to the incoming freshman class.

Leviste’s plan raises questions about the appropriate content of any unofficial college guide. “Yale doesn’t appreciate having its name associated with anything it hasn’t approved,” Watts says. The site’s inclusion of Directed Studies’ colloquial name, “Directed Suicide,” or one user’s mention of “horror stories of people trusting their academic futures with spotty advice from [freshman counselors]” will probably be left out of the handbook, to avoid bewildering new students. The publicization of Yale’s secrets or students’ blunt talk might raise administrators’ red flags.

While this might be the case, the site’s creators have no way of knowing who is actually looking at the wiki. YaleWiki has more than 20,000 views, but that’s not an indicator of exactly how many people have seen it, and who they are. It’s clear that individuals from other schools have caught on, at least according to Davis Nguyen ’15, one of the YaleWiki staffers and the vice president of communications for the Ivy Council, a student collective. Nguyen advocated for YaleWiki last November during the Ivy Leadership Summit at Dartmouth. Since then, student government representatives from Harvard, Princeton and Brown have contacted him and other YaleWiki members with questions about the setup and security of college wikis.

Back at Yale, the wiki staffers say they rely on students to alter the advice sections of the site to better reflect the consensus and expand existing stubs. Though there are many detailed pages, like “Computer Stuff Yale Pays For” and “Late-Night Food,” many others listed on the home page are woefully incomplete. The section called “How to have a great date” on the “Dating and Sexual Culture” page only has the bolded headers: “How to ask a girl on a date (for guys),” “Girl likes pie,” “Guy likes guy” and “Girl likes hurl.” After the initial flurry of activity last spring, the staffers seem to have lost some momentum, though they still update the pages on occasion. Whether the site will fall into disuse or become the next Yale internet fad is unknown.

However, the creators of the site have not stopped dreaming about sharing information in better ways. Watts’ latest projects include creating an app that allows multiple people to take notes on a PowerPoint at once, and a wiki for the student-run HAVEN Free Clinic. And as for the future of the Wiki? Watts says he has shared most of the information he originally wanted to, and that now it’s up to viewers to step in and add their knowledge. Erin Michet ’13, another staffer, likened YaleWiki to a palimpsest, a manuscript that is scraped off and written on again. The site, she says, will always reflect the Yale community: “A wiki is an amorphous thing, and if this stays around long enough, it’s going to change and it’s going to take on different forms.”