Nowhere to hide

By KARA BASKIN  |  April 25, 2008

While Beam was based at Columbia (and the current editors are at Princeton), students from all the Ivies are able to report tips and anonymously chime in on campus pseudo-scandals. The current soap opera playing out in cyberspace involves the public break-up of an attractive gay Yale couple, one beloved, one deemed “obsessive.” It has all the makings of a made-for-TV-movie: character assassination, heartbreak, beauty. But just who are these people?

In some cases, Beam sees it as his mission to target “hyper-confident braggarts who lack self-awareness and end up getting nailed for it.” Beam didn’t set out to rip on vulnerable people, he says, but some students inject themselves into campus life — making themselves subject to scrutiny, just like stars in Hollywood.

“I’d say on a lot of campuses, there is this sort of — there are people who clearly want to be big men on campus,” says Beam. “The idea of campus celebrity has always been around, and this makes it slightly more public.”

Indeed. The site gets more than 10,000 unique visits a day from current students, “recent alumni bored at work,” and simple Middle Americans curious about the trials and travails of the educationally privileged.

It’s a frothy peek into an elite world, engineered by the very people it portrays. “If you broaden the scope too much, you lose the caché,” Beam says. “You need to have some sort of collective set of references that are going to work; we’re trying to create types and characters that people are gong to recognize.” Indeed, if the blog expanded, it would lose an element of delicious schadenfreude: college is a time to make mistakes, and even smart kids fuck up, too.

Chen, the authoress of Sex and the Ivy, agrees. On her blog, she chronicles her sexploits and dates, but she also writes thoughtfully about what it means to be young and navigating the landscape of love and intimacy for the first time. She is an intellectualized Carrie Bradshaw with less money and more self-awareness.

“The funny thing is, I don’t really know if the blog would even be relevant if I didn’t go to Harvard,” says Chen. “I get a lot of attention for it from people outside of Harvard, because the thought of people talking about sex and the Ivy League is strange.” And just as she’s made celebrities out of some of her boyfriends (some are okay with it; some can’t deal), Chen has become a campus celebrity herself, with an ardent following of visitors who want to see photos of her boyfriends. She also has her share of haters.

“I know I have a lot of detractors — a lot of people who wonder, ‘Why is this girl getting any attention?’ The truth is, I’m not doing anything extraordinary. None of what I write about is unique to me, its common experiences.

“If I hadn’t stumbled on this B-list Internet scene, I don’t think I’d be so sure of myself. I’m more comfortable in my own skin than I’ve ever been.”

The blog has complicated Chen’s life; while she’s gotten plenty of high-profile writing assignments — and even book offers — out of it, she’s also received some backlash from people who wonder why she’s getting so much attention for writing about something as banal as sex.

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