“Man,” wrote Oscar Wilde, “is least himself when he talks in his own person. Give him a mask, and he will tell you the truth.”
In February 2008, The Daily Princetonian redesigned its Web site to allow anonymous commenting on all articles. The goal, according to current Prince editor-in-chief Matt Westmoreland ’10, was to foster debate and dialogue on campus. Today, the comment pages draw 20 percent of all traffic to the Web site, Westmoreland said.
These discussion boards have given rise to a new online community. Some might consider it a shadow student body of sorts. Princeton, unfiltered.
“I think, on one hand, people are more willing to say what they truly believe when they don’t have to do it with their name attached,” Westmoreland said. “On the other hand, I think people under the cover of anonymity are willing to say completely outlandish statements that even they know to be false.”
It’s unclear which dynamic is more at play in discussions like the one that followed an Oct. 30 article about staff layoffs. Many of the initial commenters largely supported the staffing cuts. One wrote, “It’s good, once in a while, ridding the university of the most inefficient workers. Long-term, we’re all better off.”
“Only people who aren’t worth their pay are in danger,” read another post. “If they aren’t worth their pay, then why should the university operate at a loss in keeping them?”
The next commenters criticized the initial responses as callous. The discussion then spiraled in several different directions, one argument morphing into another over five pages of posts.
Points of contention included high administrative pay, the role of empathy in economics, and the question of whether or not students at the University were “rich, spoiled brats.” The commenters failed to reach a firm consensus on any of these topics.
This discussion was tame, however, compared to those that reliably crop up around a few hot-button issues. Grade deflation is a perennial favorite subject; religion, sexual morality, affirmative action, and eating clubs also set the boards on fire.
The Prince’s enthusiastic embrace of commenting has set it apart from peer-school newspapers like the Yale Daily News. The Prince gives prominent placement on its home page to the newest postings, and unlike the Daily News, it does not approve comments before they show up on the discussion threads.
One Prince staff member monitors the comments to remove inappropriate posts, however. Westmoreland said that offensive language or personal attacks were the surest guarantees of a comment’s removal.
But many strongly worded opinions still can be found on the discussion threads. A posting on an article on the experience of lower-income students at Princeton said: “Wow, let’s all cry about some people who don’t have as much money as others. ‘Boo hoo.’”
Westmoreland said that there was value in displaying even extreme viewpoints.
“There are comments that upset a lot of people and are pretty controversial that we leave up,” he said. “Just because you happen to disagree with what someone says, and just because they’re saying it in a ... perhaps vulgar way, that’s not justification [alone] for taking down what someone’s opinion on a topic is.”
Sparking what might the most vitriolic thread to date, in October Prince reviewer Kiran Gollakota ’13 panned the latest album released by the once-popular Backstreet Boys. Little did Gollakota know that the ’90s boy band still enjoyed a large following in South America. “You are a looooooser a really loooser thee backstreet boys are the best of the best,” said one poster. A Chilean fan took a more conciliatory stance, however: “I hope they give you the opportunity to continue writing, otherwise I think you’ll starve.”
Within Whitman College castle walls, first-year Princetonians are taking on the financial realm. The class is “Hedge Funds: Their Purpose, Strategies, and Social Value,” a freshman seminar led by visiting lecturer Jean-Christophe de Swaan. As students came to a session armed with investment proposals, one joked, “I’m ready to make millions right now.”
Say what you will about Tigers entering finance — the class is not meant to breed i-bankers. “It’s a liberal arts approach to the topic,” de Swaan explained. He said his students’ discussions are part of a nationwide debate over regulation of financial institutions.
Brian Reiser ’13 said he took the class out of interest in the recent economic crisis: “Everyone was talking about ‘Oh, bank failure!’ ‘Oh, subprime mortgages!’”
De Swaan mixes academic inquiry with real-world exploration. Experts from the Société Génerale (a major European financial group) and Citigroup share their insights in person or via conference call. Readings range from academic articles to McKinsey reports and clippings from The Economist.
The seminar draws on de Swaan’s background as a principal at Sansar Capital, an Asia-focused asset-management firm. In a recent class, a projection of data from bloomberg.com at the front of the class showed the latest ups and downs of the S&P 500.
Over a chalkboard sketch of two neighborhoods in Hong Kong, de Swaan told the story of an investment analysis in which he got things “completely wrong.” In focusing on what he missed, de Swaan said later, he hopes to give the class a taste not only of what he learned but how he grew as an investor.
Casual banter turned to current realities. When Jingwen Du ’13 said she planned to spend fall break in Nevada, de Swaan replied, “When you go to Vegas, you should think about whether you go long or short!” The class then segued into a discussion of investment strategy (“selling short” or “going long”) and a recent slowdown of investment in Sin City.For Reiser, the course has illuminated a nebulous but key part of the financial landscape. Although hedge funds have limited investors, he said, they often are at one end of a chain of capital that affects average individuals. Without knowledge of how things work, he says, “People are sort of throwing their money into the dark.”