From Tenor to Tenure: Maccabeats, RateMyProfessors, and our Type-First, Think-Later Mentality
I will plainly admit that I’ve spent a considerable amount of time perusing the comment sections of the Maccabeats’ various YouTube videos – though as a member of the group, I’d hope that such an admission be met with a smidgen of understanding. To virtuous humility I lay no claim; this compulsive habit stems in part from a healthy dose of flagrant self-importance.
But not entirely. For many in the group, these perusals provide unexpectedly gratifying insight into the impact that our somewhat silly videos have made on a wide cross-section of people. Some of the stories of inspiration recounted in those brief comments achieve instant tear-jerker status: Jewish children roaming the halls of their overwhelmingly non-Jewish public schools with newfound pride in their heritage, men laying tefillin for the first since their bar-mitzvahs, women lighting candles once more in their homes on the Sabbath eve.
Comments of an entirely different tone, however, have found their way onto these webpages as well, littering an otherwise feel-good vibe with an unfortunate dose of negativity. I refer not to the downright obscene, nor to the unabashedly bigoted, which to me have always registered in my mind as laughable at best. The sort of person compelled to let off that sort of steam on a Jewish a cappella video about latke-flipping is simply not worth my time or concern.
The comments which have succeeded in “getting to me” have always been less extreme and more personal in nature. I mean, I get it. As far as easy targets go, an all-male singing group from Yeshiva University prancing about in colored boxes ranks up there. And I know that the positive outpouring which we’ve received far outweighs the occasional “diss” on my auto-tuned vocals or ridiculous space-suit. Let the haters hate, right?
But I’d be lying if I said they never got to me. Being the butt of any joke always stings, if only a little. More importantly, though, I’ve often wondered about the sort of people that leave these comments, those who dish the “diss” behind the impenetrable veil of internet anonymity. Are they sad? Are they bored? Do they know me personally? (I’m sure at least some of them do.) And as strange as this may seem, I’ve sometimes longed for the opportunity to actually confront these people, if only to clue them in on one thing: we actually read these!
Truth is, I once got the chance. After the release of our Purim video, as I scanned Facebook between classes, I came across a particularly hurtful and entirely unfounded comment about the guys in our group. In one of those creepy Facebook instances, the poster and I weren’t “friends” – I had no clue who she was - but because we had a mutual friend, I had the ability to see and comment on her particularly derisive post. And so I did. I’ll leave out the details.
Frankly, her reaction came as no surprise to me. She hadn’t really meant it, of course. It was a spurt-of-the-moment sort of thing, intended more for a quick laugh than as any sort of genuine comment on the Maccabeats themselves. And, of course, she hadn’t expected any of us to see it! She hurriedly offered her apologies, and I readily accepted them. But I took the opportunity to remind her that, unbeknownst to her, her comment did have an effect on someone, and I expressed hopes that she would be more careful next time. I have no doubt she will.
I’ve since considered my decision to confront this poor young woman – maybe I’d gone a bit too far. But I do think that in this “technological age” which everyone loves talking about all the time, the power and danger of the “comment” or “post” can be overlooked. On the one hand, the sort of global conversation hosted by the internet and facilitated by its incomparable reach continues to serve as a powerfully constructive and truly world-changing tool. But it is a tool that can easily be abused in unfathomably harmful ways. In just one disturbing manifestation of this, online bullying has become a serious problem which tragically has begun to claim the lives of people – children, especially – at a rapidly increasing rate. I believe the cause of this frightful trend is basic: many people fail to properly and thoroughly consider the stuff they write on the internet. Attention to detail and overall sensitivity are largely ignored. We have become a type-first, think-later technological society, a truth only exacerbated by the fact that the comments we make appear behind a veil of anonymity.
Chill out, buddy. That’s what you’re probably saying if you’ve gotten this far. And you’re right – ultimately, I shouldn’t dress up in an orange jump suit and post a video of it on the internet if I’m not mentally prepared for a jab or two. But I think that somewhere in between these harmless jabs and the sort of unthinkably mean comments that cause kids to take their own lives, there exists a middle ground to which we, as college students, should be a little more sensitive.
A few weeks ago I visited a past professor of mine to shoot the breeze and just check in. This professor is one of my all-time favorites, and I enjoy the increasingly rare opportunity to stop by and catch up. Towards the end of our conversation, the professor brought to my attention something that he had thought about recently.
This professor was concerned about a comment a past student had left on website where students may evaluate their professors. I had, of course, heard about this tool. I remember looking up my own professors before my first semester and vowing never to use it again. My highest-rated professor turned out to be my least favorite, and my lowest-rated my favorite. It became immediately apparent that this site serves as a vent for students unhappy with their final grades, a sort of online therapy. But my professor couldn’t brush off this particular comment so easily. This professor was concerned because someone had a left a particularly nasty comment about one of the courses which I, incidentally, had attended. I reassured this professor that the class had been one of my favorites in college—and I wasn’t lying. It stands out as a course which will forever inform the way I look at the world, and I’ve drawn on it countless times since. But my assurances didn’t really fix anything, as this was more than just about my professor’s ego. He explained that as nationally recognized scholars, professors are “Googled” regularly, both by fellow scholars and by students, to look at their work. Understandably, professors do not want less-than-flattering comments to be the first items that appear on an online search, as they could have serious consequences for their careers.
Wow, I thought. This isn’t a game. This is someone’s livelihood! This is someone’s life! Again, I tried to imagine the person that left this comment. By now I’m sure he had put this course in his rearview, long consoled over the less-than-perfect grade that may have sheared a few points off his precious GPA. Yet, in the heat of his initial distress, he felt compelled to exact retribution on this silly site. But I wondered if he knew about the potential effect he could have on another human being – a former teacher of his, no less – whether he might feel a bit of remorse, whether he might have reconsidered if given the chance.
The bottom line: comments on the internet aren’t innocuous little tidbits which ultimately evaporate into the abyss of the World Wide Web. They exist forever, in a very real and tangible way for people to read, for people to consider, and most importantly, for people to be affected by. I’m not advocating a return to the age of handwritten letters, but I do think it behooves all of us to take a deep breath before hitting the “enter” button, to take just another moment or two of pause, and to consider the awesome power inherent in each and every comment we make.