Overheard at Yale is the most far-reaching student-run forum on campus. I would argue it’s also the most influential. As the one place at this school that is open to all students, the 10,000-strong Facebook group has an immense presence. It has become our premier soapbox, our outlet for anger and frustration, our tool to gauge the campus climate.
And yet: the group description markets itself as “an open forum for all the crazy, random and downright strange things we overhear on a daily basis at Yale.” The majority of the posts are jokes — some about rogue professors, some about Sasha Pup, many about sex and sleep and the lack thereof.
Most pressingly, context is of little importance, as the group’s purpose is to share explicitly out-of-context, “overheard” conversations and announcements.
In this environment, the broaching of sensitive topics — race, sexuality, mental health, politics — is not only incongruous but also downright harmful. It’s natural that students seek a large platform to share their views, but doing so on Overheard damages our ability to understand campus sentiment and form our own opinions.
The discussion of meaningful issues on Overheard is largely monopolized by a small number of contributors. I won’t name names because I don’t need to. You already know who leans which way, who likes to pick fights for the sake of it, who gets likes for positions entirely unpalatable to you. These commenters speak for large swathes of the community, regardless of whether or not they have the authority. We huddle around them as faux megaphones, allowing them to broadcast diluted versions of our opinions rather than commenting ourselves.
Think about the pro- and anti-Christakis comments on Overheard from last year. Scroll back, or simply search “Christakis” in Overheard, and you’ll find that they generally landed hard on one side of the issue. Rather than a platform for discussion, Overheard became a platform for divisiveness. We came to view our campus as irrevocably gridlocked.
Most people I talked to in person, however, fell somewhere in the middle of the Christakis spectrum, moderate in their views and measured in their speech. Overheard not only contributed to the clichéd “silent majority” — it served to silence the moderate minority.
The role of Facebook likes is important as well. We hate to admit that we love likes, but who amongst us doesn’t check at least twice in the next hour whether our new profile picture has cleared double (triple?!) digits. Often, likes are interpreted as more than an ego boost — they are a public validation of a viewpoint. Overheard suffers from the sheer mass of likes flying around. A comment with a hundred likes is automatically “relevant” and representative. Never mind that one hundred likers are less than one percent of the Overheard population.
And it’s titillating to see our peers mudslinging and name-calling in a real-time feed. The clickbait nature of Overheard is by design — an ex-moderator described to me his role in marketing terms. His goal was to curate the forum so that students checked Overheard more than any other Facebook group. As soon as new posts went up, he reviewed them not only to ensure they fit Overheard’s rules but also to ensure there was always interesting content at the top of the feed. Due to his efforts, Yalies are much more likely to click on an Overheard Facebook notification than, say, a “Class of 2018” notification.
This isn’t a public sphere — our Facebook moderators aren’t designed to be debate moderators. The selection of the current moderators was remarkably undemocratic. Ex-moderator Tyler Blackmon ’16, the founder of Overheard, sent out an application in January that included questions such as “What types of posts do you think should be taken down from Overheard at Yale?” According to his post, Blackmon was the only person who reviewed the applications and decided the new leadership. A benevolent dictatorship at best.
The power imbalance came to a head last November, when moderators were frantically removing content in an effort to manage tensions. After a slew of anti-administrator vitriol, Blackmon himself made a post: “I’ve just bumped an admin from this page temporarily because of perceptions of erratic censorship … I recognize I will inevitably take heat no matter whether I choose to let things stay or take them down.”
Blackmon’s role as a moderator was unenviable, and it seems he handled it with as much class and fairness as possible. Yet the entire saga is illustrative of the inherently inappropriate nature of Overheard as a platform for “debate.”
Overheard at Yale has an oversize influence on our lives. It is important that we recognize the limitations of the group and do not rush to evaluate ourselves and our campus based on its content. Let’s keep our debates to more appropriate forums and maintain Overheard as the home of sex, sleep and Sasha Pup.
Mrinal Kumar is a junior in Silliman College. His column runs on alternate Tuesdays. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org .