Imagined Community: An Editor Gets [email protected]
Written by Bwog Staff
[email protected] provides a unique way of connecting people based purely on their thoughts,” said “Jae Daemon,” who maintains [email protected] and is the pseudonym of the site’s founder, Jonathan Pappas, CC ’06.
In 2006, Pappas created the site, when, late one night in Butler, he was bored. By 2009 it had opened branches across the Ivy League, gained popularity, and received venture capital (losing it once VC-mandated changes caused traffic to plunge). The board, known at many schools as a place for students to solicit hookups in the library stacks, gossip, and loose racial epithets, was infamous—and highly trafficked.
After going offline in 2009 for murky reasons, [email protected] returned in 2011 with a new feature that introduced a pseudonymous element—“personalities”—to a board that had formerly maintained strict anonymity. Personalities allow users to form identities, just like a user profile on any online forum. As Jae put it, “Personalities have injected an extra dimension of humanity that [email protected] has never really seen before,” thereby “creat[ing] a sense of community in a way that only pseudo-identity can accomplish.”
I contacted some of the site’s most prolific personalities to talk to them about the site. Many highly involved members of [email protected] typed out what they thought their multi-faceted, text-based community means. Those who agreed to meet in person—and most of those whom I contacted did—spoke very freely about what was, for some, their closest group of friends. (I regret that I lack the space to include everyone I talked with, because each experienced a different [email protected]) Though an outsider, I became familiar with some of the little mythologies that every circle of friends develops (which is admittedly easier to do when many of the constitutive events are searchable). I became comfortable with their collective voice, a more intelligent sort of 4chan-speak that is strongly influenced by social anxiety, privilege, gender, and pretension—Columbian concerns
[email protected] is a world unto itself, which, by lurking on the board and in their chatroom, I came to understand better. Eventually, I realized what I was doing: studying, and possibly stalking, a group of friends. I wondered if what I was doing was okay; if it would be justifiable to learn the conventions, inside jokes, and gossip of another clique that congregates primarily at 1020 and only secondarily online, on Facebook? I wondered where the line lay between observer and participant in a community that you need only register an account to join, but that supports a wide spectrum of investment.
Through [email protected], students from across Columbia—from different schools, social circles, sensibilities, genders, and ethnicities—gather in a way they never would in reality. To name only a few that I met: a premedical student, an editor of another major campus publication, an engineer, a writer. Some visit the site to solicit emotional support from a group of willing listeners. Others are searching for a group of friends. Still others log on to to take part in a candid and vicious meta-commentary on Columbia culture free from the University’s culture of politeness and political correctness.
Some personalities consider [email protected] “an island of misfit toys.” Geordi La Forge, who is SEAS and requested that I not share his year, has dealt with depression and anxiety, and taken a gap year. “As a freshman,” he said in person, “I was scared to call Nightline because my voice is very recognizable, and I thought someone would recognize me. But through that site I felt safe.”
Today, he’s comfortable enough to meet other [email protected] personalities offline, and offer emotional support to his despairing anonymous users. “There have been many times that people have been suicidal on that site,” he said, and he’s spent hours backing them off of the edge.
Another personality, Anonivixen, GS, uses the site as an alternative connection to Columbia. Because of financial problems, she has had to take time off, and cannot live in Morningside Heights. “My entire GS friend group was gone, and I’m grateful that I had reached out to [email protected] because those are the people I still talk to,” she said.
Trying the site on a lark, she explained, “I ended up meeting people, hooking up with a few people, making friends.” Not that the site has always been friendly. As the longest-standing personality, she’s observed a major generational change: “Back then [last semester] it wasn’t as acceptable to openly meet people. Also, you had a lot of anons looking to hook up.”
Now, the site is far less anonymous, any mentions of hookups in the stacks are guaranteed to be ironic, and its users have moved into the real world. Late last year one personality was picked up by CAVA at her apartment after one of the first [email protected] meetups.
In addition to other meetups in Butler, dorms, and 1020, the site has started to act in, rather than just comment on, Columbia culture. On October 27, [email protected] members posted fliers opposing the Operation Ivy League frats regaining their houses on. On November 20 at noon, one user left a bottle of urine marked “COCONUT WATER” on Alma Mater’s pedestal, where Robert of the infamous open letter to Bwog had hoped to meet Kristine.
I asked Anonivixen what she, a student of color, thinks about the questionably racist and sexist comments on [email protected] She’s conflicted. On one hand, she believes her time on the Internet desensitized her. “When I was in high school and had significantly less self-esteem, I used to cam-whore,” she confessed. “From there I heard so many nasty things, it’s kind of warped my brain.”
On the other hand, she explained, “It speaks volumes about a people, who can even get the joke, ‘Die cis scum.’ Set aside the Internet part of it. Think how much you have to know, how much about cultural sensitivity, and the queer community, to even be able to make fun of it.”
This aspect of the site—its rhetoric, which is widely considered objectionable—is what first drew one Feminist Fatale, BC ’13, to [email protected] Her personality name, she explained, is only “a little ironic.” “I am a feminist,” she said, “but I do like to challenge people with the idea of what a feminist is.” Fem Fat, as she’s called for short on the site, arrived at the site last year, and found her passionate feminist arguments poorly received (“I’d been reading a lot of feminist theory,” she said). Once familiar with the site, she realized she’d been taking it too seriously. Every argument must be nested in irony and inside jokes, and every statement is both serious and not-serious. To be bested by another user is to “get one’s jimmies rustled,” and made upset enough to post seriously.
As a feminist of color, Feminist Fatale explained, “I’m comfortable with [email protected] to the point that I understand where the joke is coming from.” However, she noted that ironizing issues of gender and privilege “is a double-edge sword.” Frequent jokes on the theme of “checking your [x] privilege” have “the effect of bringing the issue up, but also defusing it.”
Does serious discussion take place on [email protected], I ask her? Without missing a beat, she replied, “Yeah, it totally does, and sometimes I’m the cause of it. I try to post things that make people think, and even with the trolls it still happens—not that she’s innocent, or wholly critical, of trolling. When I asked her about the two Bwog “shitposts”—when [email protected] users rush a Bwog comment thread and flood it with their own inside jokes—she giggled. “Oh yeah! Shitposting is fun. I posted a comment about sexism on the Halloween costumes, and it was satirical, but also my beliefs.”
Unlike many [email protected] personalities, Fem Fat has a busy social calendar off the board—indeed, as we walked through the Diana looking for a seat, she waved at or hugged at least three friends. But when she used to talk about [email protected] with her friends, she explained, they didn’t understand it. “Where [email protected] is a refuge for some, it is also just one form of expression for others,” she added, though she does recognize the service the site provided Geordi. brg, a personality who wrote to me via [email protected] private message more colorfully described that expression: “Get on here, flash your virtual titties, whip out your virtual cock, and post with zero inhibition while maintaining anonymity. It’s not really complicated at all.”
Anonymous users who oppose this semester’s more communal direction would rather keep the site a late-night Facebook-alternative—more like it is on Dartmouth’s more active [email protected], where fraternity gossip and “hottest 2016 girl” power rankings are common—rather than a more humane board dominated by a few power users, who, as Jae predicted, prevail over the anons in enacting their vision of the site. Jae wrote: “See Geordi Laforge [sic]. I love this guy. Strong personality.”
Jae, for his part, claims to be agnostic as to what sort of community each school should form. “[T]he cultures develop on their own. It is the same platform for everyone. I am just a service provider allowing it to exist.”
—Additional research by Luca Marzorati