Tag Archives: college

In Defense of Well-Read Internet Trolls*

10 May

I learned something yesterday: If you’re going to write a blog about as contentious and controversial a topic as the characterization of classic characters in American fiction (and do it with alliteration), you’ve really got to grow a thick skin.  Everyone has the right to disagree.  And that is something I will defend unto my last keystroke.  I, Isabela Morales, the Scattering’s sole author, do so swear.

See what I did there?  I used my name.  I did that because I personally believe that if I’m ashamed to put my John Hancock to something I publish, then it isn’t really worth publishing.  But hey, we can’t expect everyone to follow that rule.

Come now, does this look like the face of a “brutish faux intellectual” to you?

Anonymity is a valuable and important part of our online experience.  Why then do we, as a culture, tend to despise, denigrate, deride, and disdain people who post more-than-moderately critical comments without revealing their names?  I am here to say that I believe every would-be Internet troll has the right to write unnecessarily aggressive things about academic blog posts without inspiring offense on the part of the author.  Which is why I want to post this not-at-all-spiteful public letter of apology for forcing my objectionable prose on last night’s anonymous commenter.  You see–

In spring 2009 I was taking a course on American humor and satire at my now-alma mater the University of Alabama.  Every week, our professor assigned us brief writing assignments—analyzing either a chapter or character from the book we were reading as a class.  The essays from those classes that I’ve posted on the Scattering have consistently been some of my most popular for years now (maybe because they’re possibly the only useful things I’ve published here), and if anyone can explain why my paper on Mark Twain and religious satire has been translated into Spanish more than it’s been read in English, that would be kind of cool to know.

In any case—the last book we discussed that semester was Catch-22, the bleakly funny (anti-)war novel by Joseph Heller.  The short essay I posted from class was my comparison of leading man Yossarian and his glum number two, Dunbar.  I flatter myself that I provided a few good pieces of evidence to support my claim that Dunbar is Yossarian’s foil; and of course, like a good little college student, I used in-line parenthetical citations for all my quotes (this was before the history department converted me to CMOS).

This all seems like a very long time ago to me, but how easily we forget that the Internet is eternal: once on Google, always on Google.  And it would seem that someone found my little essay today and didn’t find it useful at all.  In fact, he/she seems kind of pissed off that it exists.  I hope, with this letter, written as a public post for completely non-self-indulgent reasons, I can assuage some of Anonymous’s worries.

Ahem.

Dear Anonymous,

I just wanted to let you know how very appreciative I am that you took the time to peruse my “ancient” blog posts until you found one worthy, or perhaps unworthy, as you would have it, of comment—and this especially because reading my character analysis of Dunbar in Catch-22 so clearly caused you great mental agitation and psychic pain.

As an avid reader myself, how acutely do I know the distress that comes when one is thrown into collision with unpalatable prose!  Please know that I extend to you my greatest admiration and, indeed, perhaps even awe, for setting yourself at the vanguard of the Internet’s blog writing style soldiery!  I don’t think that anyone who read the remarks you left on my post of 17 March 2009 could possibly imagine you as anything other but a white knight of wordpress—charging down the RSS feeds of book reviewers with the same courage and conviction that the chevaliers of old (dare I say, of olde?) charged down the jousting lists.

But because I fear that the weight of public opinion might come down against someone who hands down breathtaking accusations and criticism under the name “Anonymous,” I have decided to publish your comments more broadly—for the sake of showing every one of my readers just how much I care what they think about my writing style.

Despite this article being ancient, the following bothers me and so i’ll comment here. I hope you have relaxed your prose by now, but I’m not going to put myself out verifying.

“second only to Yossarian as a character introduced in the book” – this is annoying. Stop trying to sound pretentious when you simply mean “the second character introduced in the book.”

It doesn’t work and is appalling. Had several complaints leading up to this point, but after this sentence I stopped reading.

That being said, it’s your prerogative to write as you will. You simply come off brutish in your faux intellectualism.

Cheers

Me being pretentious in front of a picture of UA’s founding librarian, my role model in all things, including 19th-century prose.

Anonymous, I completely understand why you wouldn’t want to put yourself out verifying whether or not I have relaxed my prose by reading any more recent posts, considering how dreadfully my writing style irks you.  In fact, I must now regretfully inform you that my prose, if anything, has only grown more contrived, affected, and overblown in the last two years.  And now that I will be entering a doctoral program in history next fall, I can only sigh and resign myself to the fact that I will doubtless be swept away by the currents of stilted academic prose by the time I’m through.

Alas!  Alack!  I should probably leave it at that, to spare you any more agony, but there’s just one thing–

I wonder how you found this post to begin with?  Were you searching for essays about Catch-22 online?  Because if that’s the case, I would trouble you just one more time to ask whether the actual substance of the essay had any bearing on your research.  I hate to think that my grandiloquent diction is getting in the way of my ideas.

Oh, and if I can keep your attention for another moment (and I only make this extended reply because your browser history certainly does not include the search “cliffnotes catch 22”), I’d like to say something about that particular line that you quoted:

Educated people like you and me have probably come across the literary technique of “parallelism” before—you know, constructing your writing in such a way that the grammar of one phrase, say, echoes an earlier sentence.  That’s what I was going for what I started my sentence with “Second only to Yossarian in alleged insanity, Dunbar…” and ended it with “… is also second only to Yossarian as a character introduced in the book.”

Clearly, I failed in that.  Oh well, we all try these things when we’re young, don’t we?

And last of all—hopefully I haven’t taken up too much more of your time or left the taste of poor diction in your mouth, giving you that fuzzy feeling on your tongue that comes when you go to sleep without brushing—I’d like to say a few words about your word choice.

You are indeed a master wit!  I don’t think I’d ever be clever enough to call a complete stranger “pretentious” while myself using terms like brutish and faux intellectualism.  I can only surmise that you wanted to use satire to comment on an analysis of satire.

Which is why I love you, Anonymous.  And how I do love you for this.

Cheers! —IM

* If you can make it through my stilted prose and pretensions to some modicum of literacy, this, Dear Anonymous, is what we faux intellectuals like to call “satire.”  Or perhaps it’s just what my mom likes to call “passive aggressive.”  Why don’t you let me know.

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Happy Graduation! (and good luck getting a job)

7 May

I am convinced that there is no ruder question than What are you going to do with that major?  In the case of a newly-minted B.A. in history and American Studies, I get that question a lot (the answer: grad school!).  But it’s nice to know that just about everyone’s in the same boat this time of year.

Here’s a self-esteem deflating comic from XKCD explaining, in verse, why “Every Major’s Terrible.”  Feel free to sing along!

 

Personally, I don’t see anything disparaging in the lines about history majors — tenure is the holy grail, and teaching for 40 years is a consummation devoutly to be wished.  But that virology verse is hilarious.

My 3 Proudest Moments as a College Student (all of them exceptionally strange)

28 Apr

Like thousands of other twenty-somethings across the country, I’m graduating from college this spring.  In fact, I’m graduating this week.  It still hasn’t quite sunk in yet, though that might be due to the fact that I have 5+ years of grad school ahead of me.  Fun!

Team USA Quidditch at the University of Alabama, preparing to lose to Iceland.

I never went to a football game, stayed up no later than 10 pm on weeknights, and maintained my admittedly bizarre and anachronistic 19th-century teetotaling ethos the entire four years–but even so, I’m still going to miss being an undergraduate at the University of Alabama.  And maybe it is all that 19th century research, but I’m feeling a little sentimental.

In that vein, here is a list of my Top 3 Proudest Moments as a college student–all of them being very, very strange.

1. Reformation! The Musical

When I was in middle school, I was president of the Drama Club and performed in a number of musical productions.  I was so good that, in fifth grade, I was the understudy for the Artful Dodger in Oliver Twist.  In eighth grade, I was the understudy for Wendy in Peter Pan.

I was an awesome understudy.

It’s only logical, then, that I got my breakout starring role this year as Martin Luther in “Reformation! The Musical,” a short film I wrote, filmed, edited, and bankrolled myself .  I was amazed that so many of my friends actually agreed to participate.  We were equally amazed at how horrible the movie turned out to be.

Our tagline?  “The worst film in all of … history.”

 

Hey, you can’t say we didn’t have fun.

2. Team USA Quidditch at the World Cup

Way, way back in high school, I spearheaded the creation of a quidditch league at my school.  That’s right, quidditch.  We even got in the county newspaper, which would have been super awesome except that the reporter included the fact that the league was organized by a group of my friends and me passing notes in AP Calculus.  Our teacher was quite gracious about the revelation–maybe because it was already pretty obvious that I was never going to pass that AP exam.  As she told me before the test: “Let’s get this over with so you can use words for the rest of your life.”

They gave me differential equations to solve.  I wrote them palindromes.

Team F*cking USA with an American flag I made out of cardboard and colored paper.

Imagine my delight when an organization at UA hosted a massive quidditch tournament two years ago.  I eagerly got a team together (mostly composed of my Reformation! cast mates).  We lost.  But this year, this year, I was determined that we would win. Well, win one game anyway.  After all, we were Team F*cking USA.

It was a dramatic final five minutes.  The Snitch ran onto the quidditch pitch in a sweat, both Seekers (one of them my precious younger sister) in hot pursuit.  I was playing Beater, but had thrown my last bludger at an enemy player.  The other team’s Seeker was getting closer and closer to the tennis ball dangling from the back of the Snitch’s pants.  My sister, exhausted but still determined, having stripped out of her sweatpants into pink running shorts right on the field, was only a few steps behind.  I shouted to my team’s other Beater: “Aim for the Seeker!”  She had a bludger in her hands and, in one last desperate act, pelted the enemy Seeker in the balls.  He doubled over in pain, and my sister caught the Snitch.

I had never loved her so much as I did that moment, and I doubt I ever shall again.

3. Senior History Honors Thesis

About three weeks ago I defended my senior history Honors thesis, a microhistory of youngest daughter of a white cotton planter and enslaved African American woman in Reconstruction-era Alabama.  I’d give more details, but I think this could turn into a dissertation and I’m terrified of my story getting scooped before I have a chance to publish.  There’s a reason they call academia the School of Hard Knocks.

Don’t they?

3 (Way Cooler) Alternate Explanations for Grant Cochran’s Resignation

24 Sep

Facebook and Twitter were on fire when I woke up today, after the University of Alabama’s campus paper the Crimson-White broke the shocking, shocking, oh so shocking news that UA’s SGA president, Grant Cochran, has resigned.

Wait… what?

UA students are weaned on ghost stories of “The Machine,” the shadowy Greek organization that supposedly holds the Student Government Association in the palm of its hand, rigging elections and keeping independents from winning major offices.  A nobody like me, for example, can be appointed Ambassador to the Libraries probably only because nobody else applied.  I’m so bottom-tier, I get left off email lists.

Which means I really don’t know what I’m talking about.  BUT, I do think that if something this dramatic had to happen, it should at least be for reasons less mundane than what the CW reported at 3:27 am–that “SGA President Grant Cochran has resigned amid allegations that irregularities occurred in the selections process for the SGA’s First Year Council, a freshman leadership forum within the student government.”

Come on people–booted from office because of freshmen?  How terribly banal.  In the interest of totally unfounded conspiracy theories, here are my 3 Way More Interesting Explanations for El Presidente’s Resignation:

1. The Illuminati

Everyone knows that Alabama’s practically the buckle on the Bible belt.  The shiny, happy, hymn-singing buckle.  But what you probably don’t know is that the Illuminati have a strong presence in campus affairs as well.

That’s right.  Albino, self-flagellating monks a la DaVinci Code forced UA’s SGA President to resign.  Probably, they pressured him into putting their Catholic First-Year Council applicants at the top of the list, thus furthering their hegemonic control over campus politics.  I would suggest the Homecoming Queen watch out.  She’s next.

2. British Alien Malleteers

No list of conspiracy theories could possibly hope to be complete without positing something, anything, about extraterrestrial life.  But I don’t mean just any aliens.  I mean a creature like that British sci-fi show alien Doctor Who.  There’s a reason so many Malleteers walk s0 jauntily around campus in their TARDIS shirts–and it’s not just because they’re fans of the show.  That would be lame.

It’s because they know it’s based in reality, and that the Day of Judgment has come.

I’ve been doing some close reading of the Mallet gospel, that mystical piece of 1970s literature called “The Book of Marvin.”  Let’s look at Chapter One:

3. And the Priests raised their voices in a great wail, saying, “O Mallet, why hast Thou abandoned us? Where be the Strength of Mallet, which saveth the seat of Power, which dismayeth the Greek, which shunneth the way of conformity, which maketh us to be honored above all Men?”

5. And Mallet said, “Yea, my Priests do suffer grievous pain, at the hand of the Greek and the cockroach, of the administrator and the Department of Health.”

6.”Lo, I shall send down a new Spirit, who shall have all Power over the enemies of the Priests of the Spirit Mallet; and he shall be called Marvin.”

7. “And He shall have dominion over the fowl of the air and the beast of the field, and the Greek and the jock shall He lay low; then will the Priests of the Spirit Mallet be honored above all Men.”

Obv, that speaks for itself.  The writers of the Book of Marvin propesied THIS VERY DAY.  The Greek has been laid low–at the hands of a spirit “sent down” from space.  A spirit named Marvin.

Naturally, keeping people from seeing the connection between Marvin and the popular tv series based on his spacetime adventures, is why we talk about Doctor Who instead of the true name, Doctor Marvin.

3. Vampire Takeover

It seems curious to me that this news story was released at 3:27 am… until I considered who exactly was doing the releasing.  Quite clearly, vampires–strictly nocturnal, remember–have taken over the campus media.  If you recall, earlier in the year the CW ran a large number of articles and opinion pieces on the policies (or lack thereof) regarding student organization seating.  The point of all this was doubtless an attempt to distract from the real drama going down this football season:

Vampire attacks.

If students could be kept riled up over the unfairness of block seating, letters to the editor about blood-sucking monsters attacking fans could be kept out of the papers.  Those people you see passed-out drunk tailgating might not be drunk after all.  They might be half drained of blood, struggling for life and their humanity as hundreds of mindless students and alumni carouse all around them.

Hey, why do you think we call it the Crimson Tide?

#historymajornotes Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God; Anne Bradstreet needs some lovin’

20 Sep

This is not an online comic.  Once, I had dreams of fame for my Protestant Reformation doodles, but I gave that up when it quickly became apparent that:

1. I can’t draw.  And

2. Protestant Reformation comics kind of have a limited audience.  (For the record, when I told my Reformation/Counter-reformation professor that I thought he looked like Johann Froben, he thought it was hilarious.)

But I still draw things in the margin of my notes, and I’m just conceited enough to put them online for the world.

Today, in the American lit class that feels like a history class (because the literature we’re reading is pretty much a bunch of Puritans griping about how hard it is to save people’s souls), the prof informed our class that, quote: “When I was your age, I thought Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God would be a really cool name for an indie rock band.”  Probably not what Johnny Edwards had in mind.  And cool, of course, is used in a very loose sense.

I’m an atheist, and that sermon still provoked some serious existential dread.  Let me share a passage:

If you cry to God to pity you, he will be so far from pitying you in your doleful case, or showing you the least regard or favour, that instead of that, he will only tread you under foot.

And though he will know that you cannot bear the weight of omnipotence treading upon you, yet he will not regard that, but he will crush you under his feet without mercy; he will crush out your blood, and make it fly, and it shall be sprinkled on his garments, so as to stain all his raiment.

So… what happened to “Jesus loves you”?  Anyone?  Anyone?  Buehler?

Meanwhile (and by meanwhile I mean mid-17th century), Goody Bradstreet the poet’s missing her husband, absent upon public employment.  The prof says it’s as close to Puritan erotica as you’re going to get:

… My Sun is gone so far in’s zodiac,
Whom whilst I ‘joyed, nor storms, nor frost I felt,
His warmth such frigid colds did cause to melt.
My chilled limbs now numbed lie forlorn;
Return; return, sweet Sol, from Capricorn;
In this dead time, alas, what can I more
Than view those fruits which through thy heat I bore?
Which sweet contentment yield me for a space,
True living pictures of their father’s face.
O strange effect! now thou art southward gone,
I weary grow the tedious day so long;
But when thou northward to me shalt return,
I wish my Sun may never set, but burn
Within the Cancer of my glowing breast,
The welcome house of him my dearest guest …

Which is all nice and sweet, but we know what she’s really saying is:

Gangster Thomas Cromwell #historymajorlife

3 Sep

So!

A friend of mine recently introduced me to the awesome tumblr of history major memes: Fuck Yeah, History Major Heraldic Beast.  Just figured I’d share one of my own creation:

T-Crom grew up on the wrong side of Putney, yo.  He ain’t never been nothin’ but a gangsta.

***

Earlier this summer I reluctantly sent out a mass email to some great indie authors, telling them that I’d be scaling back my science fiction reviews for the simple reason that HISTORY HAS TAKEN OVER MY LIFE.  And it’s true.  Grad school apps are looming oppressively, the senior thesis is infiltrating my dreams, and the sheer amount of reading for classes is almost more than my nearsighted eyes can handle.  But I miss the blog, so I’m saying to hell with niche audiences–I’m going to write about indie science fiction, and mainstream science fiction, and all sorts of history major things that nobody wants to hear about purely because I can and I want to.

Ayn Rand wrote science fiction?

8 Jun

Let’s drive some traffic to the good ol’ University of Alabama campus newspaper.  Today, my first-ever print column was published in the Crimson White.  Soon, Tuscaloosa will be the science fiction consumption capital of the world, American Studies profs will be teaching classes on Atlas Shrugged, and everyone will be reading off of Kindles.

It’s nice to be a tastemaker.

Click for the full column: "Ayn Rand wrote science fiction?"

G is for Grande

16 Apr

I started chortling in class yesterday during a lecture on Ignatius Loyola’s mystical theology.  My professor, who already thinks I’m strange since I interned at the Ayn Rand Institute last summer and have a habit of tearing up during lectures in which heretics and other historical figures are executed, looked at me sharply.

“Morales!  What’s so amusing?”

I explained that, many years ago, I was told that the Bene Gesserit of Frank Herbert’s Dune series had been based off the Jesuit order, and that I’d been thinking of that the whole time I was reading The Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius Loyola. Dr. M—- asked me to elaborate.

After explaining that the Jesuits evolved into a far-future all-female religious order that controls education throughout the universe, masterminds a creepy eugenics program (until the Worm Who Is God comes around), literally has a collective consciousness, and plants the seeds of religious messianism everywhere they go, everyone in the class (including my professor) was laughing, and Morales got some extra weird points.

In any case, the unusual jocularity the above incident unleashed carried over through the rest of the period, during which everything about Ignatius Loyola seemed absolutely hilarious to absolutely everyone.  I believe I must be a miracle-worker, as Loyola’s Spiritual Exercises are almost as terrifying as Calvin’s Institutes of the Christian Church.  And we all know how much Calvin frightens me.

I really have no desire to get into epistemology today, but briefly: Iggy (that’s what all the cool History majors call him) embodies an interesting paradox in Counter-Reformation theology.  He was influenced by the contemporary currents of Spanish mysticism, emphasizing a personal piety and deep emotional connection with God, but was also very, very, very institutional.  Personal prayer did not imply an unnecessary Catholic Church.  Example:

If we wish to be sure that we are right in all things, we should always be ready to accept this principle: I will believe that the white I see is black, if the hierarchical Church so defines it.

In this way, he imbibed mystical ideas without taking the Protestant route toward private interpretation of Scripture.  But then, unlike Luther, Calvin, and co., he was an ex-military man (the Exercises abound with references to being a spiritual “knight”) and highly valued order and discipline.

That’s the theme of the Exercises‘s first week in the “Particular Examination of Conscience” (and the spark for more outrageous hilarity in Dr. M—-‘s class).  He begins with a chart that looks something like this:

G

G

G

G

G
G
G

[I feel like this is becoming one of this dreadful “Read to the Bottom!” emails.  Alas.]

The idea is that each “G” stands for a day of the week.  On Sunday, the largest G, the person making the exercises chooses a particular sin.  Dr. M—-‘s example: being late to class (said as he skewered the young man in front of me with a glance.  For months this semester, I wasn’t even sure why the young man in front of me even bothered coming to class, considering he was always late, blocked my view of the whiteboard, and spent the entire period “taking notes” on his laptop… otherwise known as visiting Facebook and Star Trek forums.  But then I saw him set up GarageBand to record the lecture, and everything fell into place.)

Each day, then, the young trekkie in front of me would tally up how many times he was late to class on Sunday, then Monday, then Tuesday, and so on.  The Gs get smaller each day because a truly disciplined spiritual knight would be improving throughout the week.

All very logical, and possibly the inspiration for Benjamin Franklin’s outrageous moral perfection chart some centuries later.

The only thing that bothered our class was the question of what–for the love of God–the “G” stood for.

Dr. M—- suggested giorno, the Italian word for day; but of course Loyola wrote in Spanish.  Italian and Spanish have many cognates but this, unfortunately, is not one of them.  We racked our minds but couldn’t think of anything else.  Dr. M—- and I chortled like co-conspirators.

Indeed, I determined I would find out, if I had to tear apart the entire Internet to do it.

Getting back to my dorm, I wondered if perhaps G stood for God.  Maybe in the original Spanish, the letter had been D for Dios, and the translators changed it.  With this happy thought in mind, I began to comb Spanish Jesuit websites for the original text.  No good.  The original Spanish had “G” too, and seemingly no reason for it.  I despaired that this was to be forever a divine mystery in my mind, tormenting and mocking me.  I would never sing the alphabet song with fondness ever again.

But then I found another copy of the Spanish text online, and–miracle of miracles!– it included the annotation that G is for Grande (Spanish for big, or large).  This actually makes perfect sense, since the sins are to be larger on the first day than the second, seventh.

Thus I have written this post for the other despairing students out there who wonder what the heck was going through dear Iggy’s mind (too much self-flagellation that day, I suppose).  And to make things even easier, I’ll include some phrases said students might search:

Ignatius Loyola Spiritual Exercises “G”

What does “G” stand for in the Spiritual Exercises?

Particular Examination of Conscience “G”

Friggin confusing directions Loyola

Hopefully, this will be of help.

Home Sweet Homepage: Growing Up in Cyberspace

2 Nov

“Have you ever played the Wikipedia game?”

After an exasperating few seconds struggling to articulate her mental picture of the Internet — “I can’t fit it into my head!” she protested — college sophomore Nicole Hugo landed upon one of her favorite exercises in procrastination as a suitable analogy for the greater World Wide Web.  To play, she explained, you need only think of a topic, any topic, and attempt to wind your way through the hyperlinked labyrinth of Wikipedia’s three-million-odd articles until reaching, at long last, a page dealing with the subject you’d originally chosen.  The “Wikipedia game,” she claimed, is the Internet writ small: “You can start off one place and end up where you want to go because everything is so interconnected.”

An effortless activity for Nicole, who rated herself a modest 10.5 in Internet proficiency (on a scale of 1 to 10), the analogy suggests an interesting topological conception of the Internet — for cyber-navigators like Hugo, information retrieval is so simple as to be a game; the challenge lies in exploring the geography, covering the terrain from point A to point B in the most creative way possible (her example: from roadrunners to Japanese anime).  In the minds of these college-age students, raised to treat it less as a tool than an environment, the Internet has become a “place” — one they find as comfortable and natural as the world outside the computer monitor.

Leah Jacobs, perhaps the only member of the Millennial Generation to express the wish that the Internet had never been invented, is not one of those students.

“I was always behind on the Internet,” she confessed — “This is embarrassing, but if I heard a song I liked on the radio, I would go on the iTunes search engine and try to guess the name of the song until something came up; I didn’t know I could go on Google and just type in a couple lyrics and press enter.  I only realized this the other day.”

Leah, who sees the Internet predominantly as an instrument of time wasting (at one point she compared Facebook to a drug addiction), approved of the utility of only a select few Internet features: email and Mapquest, in particular, though she still prefers Rand McNally.  While she originally rated herself a 7 in Internet competence, about an hour after the interview Leah must have had second thoughts; she emailed me back with the suggestion that I change her self-evaluation to a 4.  Perhaps the drop to a below-average ranking has something to do with her shaky command of Digital Age jargon, in which she’s not quite fluent: over the course of our conversation Leah groped for the term “flash drive” — “those little things that you put in the USB and save stuff to and take them somewhere else?” — and, when referring to websites she frequents, commonly cited the full URL (“dot com” and all).

Leah attributes her limited proficiency online to a long series of technological deficiencies in the Jacobs household: “It’s definitely how I was brought up — I was a sheltered child,” she said, adding that her family’s falling “behind” extended beyond computers.  As Leah remembers: “It was this big exciting thing when we got one cell phone… until we realized we couldn’t call each other.”

Though she was, like most millennials, exposed to computers very young, these early experiences served mainly to establish the utilitarian view of the Internet she holds today — while her “mom was obsessed with buying computer games,” they were strictly educational programs, and online activity involved nothing but email until high school.  “I think of the Internet as a tool to help me do work,” she said; “Other than that, it’s better to actually do things with people, to see them and talk to them.”

That sentiment was echoed by another Internet detractor, Dana Cooper, who spends her time online in similarly practical pursuits: homework, research, email.  This too reflects a pattern forged in childhood: while Dana learned to type before she could spell her own last name, her earliest memories of the Internet emphasize the academic uses she puts it to today.  “I remember being eight years old, looking up stuff online to do a project for science, on manatees,” she laughed, “And I did it all on my own, like I knew how to look stuff up online” — ten years later, the pride in her voice is still audible.

But Dana, if more adept than Leah at what she termed “the tricks of the trade,” still deplores the amount of time her classmates spend on the Internet.  “I think it’s embarrassing,” she said, citing a recent visit to a friend’s house as an example of the excessive lengths her peers will go to in pursuit of the perfect social networking profile — “She was putting up her pictures online, and fixing them and changing them and cropping them here or there, and I felt like, you can find out way too much stuff about people.  It’s invasive.”

From here, Dana begins to diverge from Leah’s functionalism: while Jacobs considers face-to-face communication the only true form of human contact, Dana indicates that the Internet does provide a setting for real social interaction, even if she isn’t a participant.  “Sometimes I do feel like an outsider,” she lamented; “If I go on some site and see what other people are writing, it’s kind of strange, like, why am I reading this if I’m not a part of it?”

For Dana, reading the posts of an online forum, the comments on someone’s YouTube account, or the wall posts between individuals over Facebook is akin to eavesdropping — the content a person generates online, in this view, is an accurate reflection of the flesh-and-blood human being behind the HTML.  To Dana, you are who you are online, and she, without a virtual identity (even one as cropped and edited as her friend’s), is less than an outsider: “If the Internet was real life,” she mused, “I would be non-existent!”

Nicole Hugo and Britta Kilkenny, another college sophomore and Internet true believer, elaborated on this idea — “Everything I post is true,” Nicole said of her Facebook profile, “So I guess it is does show who I am, or at least who I think I am”; Britta agreed, speculating that “someone could get a pretty good idea” of her personality and daily life if she updated her status more often.

What Dana termed “invasive,” Nicole and Britta see as a means of accurately representing themselves in a new medium, online.  And for Nicole, even something as short and presumably impersonal as a YouTube video comment can extend meaningful human contact — because she sees content that may not include so much as the creator’s name as representing an actual person, Hugo tries always to be encouraging and supportive: “These are usually people that I really enjoy, that I subscribe to, and I think they appreciate it when you write something positive.”  Compare this to Leah, for whom “people” exist only in physical space.

But in cyberspace (at least for Nicole, Britta, and Dana), manifestation as a tangible, carbon-based life form isn’t necessary; one’s virtual identity, perhaps a thing of words alone, is just as real and just as capable of social interaction.  The germs of this mindset as well may have been planted in early childhood — when asked what website they most remember visiting during their first days of Internet travels, all but Leah answered without hesitation: “Neopets.”

Launched in 1999, Neopets was something of an early online community for kids; set on the virtual planet of Neopia, members chose their own pets from a wide selection of chimerical animals and then proceeded to feed, clothe, and entertain them.  Discussing Neopets, Dana’s description highlighted both the independent nature of her early Internet use as well as the sense that the website was more a virtual environment than a game: “You could have your own pet, and it was yours, and you cared for it.  Then I could make money and have all my own material possessions, but on the Internet, you know?”  Britta, too, agreed that “it was pretty intense,” recalling that the website allowed for messaging among “neofriends” and even “battles” between the pets of complete strangers, an online cognate of the then-popular Pokemon card game.

Though she played as well, Nicole Hugo found Neopets rather too tame for her tastes — her online communication with others, even with strangers, proved more direct: chat rooms.

“Now that I think about it, that was probably extra sketch,” she said of these first, daring forays into the online social environment — nevertheless, a fourth-grade girl in 1999 could hardly expect to maintain her reputation without participating in at least one Backstreet Boys chat room.  A self-described “bad kid,” Nicole very early developed a cool confidence on the Internet.  “Because we didn’t have a babysitter,” she explained, free time was spent on the computer in her father’s office; this informal, private practice — “click-click-click, that’s all I knew how to do” — gave Nicole the basic skills she needed to manipulate a mouse, keyboard, and search engine in order to pursue her personal interests as a ravenous fangirl.

It’s no coincidence that Nicole and Britta, who at a young age began to see the Internet as a medium for social interaction, today treat websites like Facebook and YouTube as settings for communication as comfortable and personal as any face-to-face conversation.  Dana too, a Neopets veteran, sees the Internet as a “place,” an environment with its own geography — “Everyone talks about how big the Internet is, and I know, because I can go on for hours and hours and still feel like I’ve never gotten into the core of it.”

Her use of the word “big” here, interestingly, refers neither to popularity nor extension across a physical expanse of space: Dana references the simply overwhelming number of websites, a dense virtual world she can’t penetrate because, without a Facebook profile or other virtual identity, she remains on the periphery, “non-existent.”  And while Dana can’t reach the “core” of the Internet, Leah Jacobs — who described her family as “technologically deprived” — seems constantly out of her depth, floundering with search engines and information retrieval processes digital natives like Nicole Hugo consider so familiar as to constitute a game.

Ultimately, these four millennials represent a continuum in their treatment of the Internet — from a practical tool and nothing more, to a virtual environment in which real human interaction can occur.  The determinant?  Who cut their teeth on mousepads and keyboards, and who had to settle for pacifiers.

 

This is a slightly re-tooled version of a paper I recently wrote for an American Studies course.  The research is original, though names of interviewees have been changed to protect their identities (especially that of “Leah” who really doesn’t trust the Internet).  Feel free to use my research—just cite your sources.  Because remember, kids: plagiarism will send you straight to the Gates of Hell with the inefficient, the indifferent, and Pope Celestine V.  Or so says Dante.