Yale bloggers redefine the public and private

Yalies tumblin in the blogosphere.

Full stop. Post. Where are these words going?

For Elizabeth Henry ’14, author of the blog “Southern Belle At Yale,” her words were meant to go back to her home state of Mississippi, so that her parents, friends, relatives and teachers could hear about her college experience at Yale, as few people around her knew more about the school than what one could glean from “Gossip Girl.” But fast forward a few semesters, and “Southern Belle at Yale” is clearly not only read by Henry’s hometown, but also by many of her peers, many of whom she hasn’t ever met and might not understand the blog’s original intent.

“I honestly wasn’t sure anyone but my mom and the ladies from my church would read it,” Henry said. “It is hard for me to believe that it is so well-known.”

Yet Henry’s experience with blogging at Yale begs a larger question: When we send our words into the vast expanses of the Internet, what becomes of them?

Blogs from Yale almost inevitably reach an audience beyond what was asked for — Henry mentioned that a lot of her visitors are random people who had Googled something about Yale. Naturally, these blogs attract people and feedback that weren’t anticipated.

Heidi Guzman ’14, who runs a Tumblr, started a blog last winter in an attempt to show people outside of Yale what her Yale experience has been like as a student of color. Yet just the simple Yale tag on a Tumblr post has led to a slew of followers and questions that Guzman did not expect.

“I get [questions about how to get into Yale] a lot,” Guzman said. “Those questions get annoying after awhile — it’s like I have more to offer Tumblr than the fact that I got into Yale!”

When the Yale name gathers attention for a blog predominantly not about Yale, it can be vexing for the blogger. This is a familiar experience for Carolyn Lipka ’14, who mostly blogs about fashion and bad reality television on her Tumblr, yet has also identified as a Yale student. Like Guzman, Lipka also receives “a ton of questions about Yale.” Lipka is a staff reporter for the News.

“I don’t want to think my online identity is defined by the fact that I’m a Yale student,” Lipka said, “although I’m sure that it contributes to the people who choose to follow me.”

The issue of the unintended audience runs further than visitors who don’t appreciate the blog — or the blogger — for its intentions.

There are two kinds of stranger: the stranger living thousands of miles away and the stranger in your residential college. Both of these strangers want to read about your Saturday night antics, but only one will take it personally. At a school as relatively small as Yale, bloggers all agree that there might be more of an interest in following a fellow Yalie just because he or she is a Yalie. On some level, uninvited Yale readership represents a strange kind of privacy breach. It might seem counterintuitive, but the closer one is to the blogger, the easier it is to judge the blog.

For Larissa Pham ’14, whose public Tumblr has over 1,000 followers, keeping her blog shaded from Yalies she does not know is especially important.

“I don’t really advertise my blog at Yale because it’s more personal and that proved to be problematic in high school,” Pham said. “I write about my thoughts and life so there’s a safety in anonymity.”

But Pham, like other bloggers at Yale, knows that keeping a public blog private is impossible. Students talk to other students, and eventually the blog reaches an audience that one doesn’t purposefully write for. Bloggers must subsequently assume responsibility and accept praise and criticism for all that is written.

Bloggers at Yale generally agree that there isn’t a blogging culture per se.

For Vlad Chituc ’12, blogging culture isn’t something he thinks about, despite following a few Yale blogs, writing for his own blog and contributing to another.

“It’s not that I don’t care or don’t dig the ‘scene’ or whatever, it’s just nothing I’ve ever been aware of,” Chituc said.

Ultimately, a quick survey of the blogs reveals that across private and public spheres, vast ranges of subjects and different blogging platforms yields that blogs are too dissimilar for there to be a “scene.” Some blogs are just simply pictures and links, such as a blog run by Demetra Hufnagel ’14, who collects small tidbits that are aesthetically appealing to her on her Tumblr. Hufnagel also believes that Yale blogs are both too few and too diverse to become a culture.

“I only know of maybe three or four other blogs that are maintained by Yalies,” Hufnagel said. “They certainly run the gamut of possible subjects and themes.”

Hufnagel remarked, “It’s fascinating to see how different students, some of whom I have never even met, can have vastly divergent experiences at the same institution.”

But for the most talked-about of blogs, such as Henry’s “Southern Belle at Yale,” criticism and hype create a culture of their own on Yale’s campus.

“Someone told me that the first time her picture was on my blog, she got a couple emails from people saying ‘Omg you’re on Southern Belle at Yale,’ ” Henry said.

Yet Henry, who writes from a conservative point of view, must also face the inevitable criticism of those from the other side of the political spectrum, even though her blog is mainly a retelling of her activities and adventures at Yale. Chituc also notes that if anything, unproductive comment sections on Yale blogs and other publications form their own subculture.

“I’ve had a few blog posts get some moderate attention, and there are some thoughtful responses,” Chituc said. “But most of the comments are just kind of irrelevant or stupid.”

In the end, blogging at Yale is, in short, a strange environment that crosses lines between private and public, self-indulgent and thoughtful — which often times, as evidenced, leads to a less-than-ideal experience. Perhaps it’s time to reevaluate, and many bloggers agree.

“When we stop writing for an audience,” Lipka said, “only then are we able to produce content worth reading.”

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