Throwback: Whitney Stubbs

If you read our last issue, then you got to read an excerpt of teacher Whitney Stubb’s college essay. The rest of it is soon to follow:

Whitney Stubbs

HOW AOL INSTANT MESSENGER (AIM) HAS SO FRAGMENTED OUR GENERATION’S CONSCIOUSNESS, DISTORTED OUR WRITING SKILLS, WARPED OUR SOCIAL INTERACTIONS, AND SHORTENED OUR ATTENTION SPANS THAT…

…WHAT WAS I SAYING AGAIN?

When I was in the sixth grade, my technologically incompetent family took a chance and got America Online with a dial-up connection slower than the 405 at rush hour.  The Internet and its cunning spawn, Instant Messenger, arrived just in time to pervert my already questionable social skills before I was even halfway through middle school. Just in time to make me a part of the first generation to communicate as much online as I do in person. Okay—more.

I am a senior in college now, and my Ethernet cable

runs like an artery between me and my social world. Though I can positively identify AOL Instant Messenger as the thief who steals all my free time, I cannot bring myself to pull the plug. It’s as though I am constantly on-call—but for what? Meaningless chats with former friends I wouldn’t even want to see again in person.  Typed exchanges with my suitemate, who sits on the other side of an open door.  Late-night flirtations with long-distance exes that dead-end at three A.M.  My too-short days continue to be consumed.  At times of academic crisis, I beg friends to take the program off my laptop so that I can work distraction-free. No one would do it, of course, any sooner than she would slit my wrists for me. My dependence on the thing is too strong. At this point, to disconnect myself from Instant Messenger would be to commit social suicide.

THE REASON I REMAIN SKEPTICAL WHEN MY PARENTS SUGGEST THAT—OWING TO THE FACT THAT THEY WERE MY AGE ONCE TOO, YOU KNOW—THEY CAN SOMEHOW EMPATHIZE WITH MY EXPERIENCE:

For those of you without kids to tutor you in the ways of AOL Instant Messenger, here is the generous explanation of the medium that I gave my father the first time we conversed via AIM.

Accolons: greetings father.

[five minutes pass]

SamEStubbs: Hello? Who is this?

Accolons: dad, it’s whitney. don’t you recognize the screenname?

SamEStubbs: Are we e-mailing?

Accolons: no, dad, it’s instant messenger.

[extended silence]

Accolons: it’s like emailing, except it’s happening in real time. you’re sitting at your computer typing right now; i’m sitting at my computer typing right now too.

Accolons: it’s like being on the phone.

Accolons: only much slower, since you type about ten words a minute.

Accolons: come to think of it, maybe we shouldn’t talk over instant messenger. hang on. i’m calling you instead.

Over the good old telephone, I explain to my father that if he would just brush up on his typing skills, he’d be able to ‘touch base’ with my brother and me on a daily basis, casually, easily, long-distance-rate-free. He already has an America Online account that he uses regularly for e-mail.  He is proud of this achievement and confused that I am asking him to take yet another technological leap.  But, step by step, I guide my father through the process of setting up the ‘buddy list’ that AOL has already provided for him—a window usually docked in the upper-right-hand corner of the screen.  I tell him that by registering the screennames of everyone he knows who uses Instant Messenger—i.e., his two college-age kids—he will be able to see whenever we are ‘signed on’ at the same time. If two of us are online at once, we can send written messages to each other. Instantly.

“Want to try again, Dad?”

Accolons: are you there, father?

[three minutes pass]

Accolons: dad, i’m IMing you. like i told you. all you have to do is type back to me in the space below my message and hit “enter.”

SamEStubbs: Hello daughter.

[three more minutes pass]

SamEStubbs: I think I am getting the hang of this.

Accolons: you know what? nevermind.  i’m calling again.

I am a full-time college student—an English major at that—and yet I probably do eighty percent of my writing in unsaved IM conversations for an audience of one.  In school, I have been trained to write more or less grammatically and will attempt to do so, when pressed. But because of Instant Messenger, my understanding of written communication is forever warped, my thought-process scattered, my short-term memory shot. With the complete text of conversations laid out before me, I don’t have to remember what I said five minutes ago; I can always just scroll up. My attention span has adjusted itself accordingly, and not just in relation to AIM. My whole worldview has taken on a fragmented shape: hundreds of open windows, concurrent and overlapping. My consciousness is a cursor, clicking compulsively from one space to the next. And I really don’t think that I’m the only one.

I would like to see this shift in consciousness as my generation evolving, to believe that we are simply better equipped to process more stimuli, faster, than any generation before; but I am not actually certain that our conductive capacity is any higher than our parents’. Maybe we’re conducting information more efficiently, or maybe we’re just frying our circuits faster.

HOW TO FIND YOUR TRUE ONLINE SELF, WITHIN (OF COURSE) THE LIMITS OF WHAT IS SOCIALLY ACCEPTABLE AND TECHNICALLY AVAILABLE IN THE UNPREDICTABLE ECONOMY OF AOL SCREENNAMES:

To sixth-grade me, the chance to invent an AOL screenname is a socially sanctioned opportunity to do what I have dreamed of doing since age five: I can finally change my name.  Though, by middle school, most people have grown into their names or (at the very least) have come to terms with them, I still think of “Whitney Stubbs” as a kind of stranger—the kind of stranger I dislike in advance, based solely on her name. As a socially challenged, mythology-crazed twelve-year old, I fantasize about being re-christened something like Artemis or Jade.  But, as it turns out, a lot of people must suffer from similar fantasies; trying to formulate an original screenname, I find that all heroines, nymphs, goddesses (major and minor), fairies, etc.—as well as every derivative of the word “Phoenix”—are already taken by other, older AOL users. No two users can have the same online identity. And though I know that by adding a trailing digit or two, I could succeed in becoming Artemis12, I refuse to compromise. To me, numbers at the end of a screenname imply that you are only one of any number of, say, Phoenixes—derivative, redundant.  But when even the name of little-known Sir Accolon turns out to be taken, I lower my own creative standards and just add ‘s’: Accolons. The reference to Arthurian legend is so obscure that, for eight years, no one sees it as anything more than an empty signifier (at best), the name A.C. Colons (at worst). “Why do you have ‘colon’ in your screenname?” When people ask me now what it means, I lie that I’ve forgotten.

A large enough percentage of my friends have screennames composed of their real-life initials and birthdates to make me wonder whether my name-changing cravings are somehow abnormal. Certain people (whose real names I will not mention here) are either so comfortable with themselves or so unoriginal that they have settled for screennames like SamEStubbs or peterAchiarelli.  Many screennames, like my own, seem to be a compromise between what you wanted, what was available, and what (retrospectively) you can excuse only as “seemingly funny at the time.”

Dooooogs: i wanted Dogs

Dooooogs: but Doogs, Dooogs, and Doooogs were all taken

newagebhikku: in jack kerouac’s “dharma bums,” he spoke of himself as a “old time bhikku”…

newagebhikku: but i am not “old time” so…

RabidEmu: even though birds cant have rabies

RabidEmu: in sixth grade, it made me laugh to think of an emu foaming at the mouth

AwayatCamp81: I was just away at camp.

I find that users grow into their screennames the way teenagers grow into their noses. At some point, a screenname becomes a kind of face in itself: instantly recognizable, even from a distance, its one-of-a-kind curves, capitalizations, and spacing just so.  When conversing with a given screenname, I never consider that anyone but that name’s owner might be typing back to me.  Commandeering someone’s screenname strikes me as identity theft of the worst kind, comparable to skinning a person and wearing her face. That said:

HOW ONLINE IDENTITY MANAGES SOMEHOW TO TRANSCEND ANY GIVEN SCREENNAME, TRADEMARK FONT, FONT COLOR, BACKGROUND COLOR, ETC., AND HOW THE POTENTIAL FOR CREATIVE COMMUNICATION OVER AIM TURNS OUT TO BE NOT SO LIMITED AFTER ALL:

Jago7ff: hey Whit

Jago7ff: you around?

Accolons: o sorry, hey! wuz up??

Jago7ff: (raised eyebrow)

Accolons: ???

Jago7ff: you’re not Whitney…are you?

Accolons: what do you mean?? of course it’s me!

Jago7ff: no…Whitney doesn’t write ‘o.’ she writes ‘oh.’

Accolons: it was a typo

Jago7ff: but the punctuation’s all wrong too. she doesn’t use double question marks. or exclamation marks. ever.

Accolons: what are you talking about??

Accolons: i mean, about?

Jago7ff: she uses lots of ‘…’

Accolons: …

Jago7ff: who the hell is this?

You can almost always tell.  Even a close friend of mine can pass for Accolons for only about as long as modern A.I. can last in a Turing Test.  My instant messenger voice—signature font and color aside—is almost as idiosyncratic as my real one. In the same way that a month of AIM-use will make a sixth grader type at secretarial speed, enough time spent on instant messenger will bring out any person’s written “voice” more clearly than any number of writing exercises ever could.  My explanation: AIM is a social axis in the lives of most under-30s with internet access. Unlike the average academic exercise, it brings out an almost desperate urge to make oneself fully and completely understood—to make the words we set down in print stand in for facial expression, tone, gesture, body language, silences, and all.  Because the information conveyed via AIM actually matters to the average user, the program forces the kind of fluency in writing that having a Peruvian lover forces in Spanish.  In theory, it’s a pedagogical dream.

A DARN REALISTIC REPRESENTATION OF THE SCHIZOPHRENIC EXPERIENCE OF USING INSTANT MESSENGER, DESPITE THE OBVIOUS FACT THAT SAID REPRESENTATION IS SPATIALLY AND TEMPORALLY INACCURATE DUE TO THE INHERENT LIMITATIONS OF PRINT:

Instant messenger is the perfect medium for the Age of Attention Deficit Disorder.  If you don’t have said disorder, you will develop it the first time you attempt to juggle five AIM windows at once.  Within a minute of signing online, the assault begins, this time starting with your long-distance boyfriend:

peterAchiarelli: so how was “dinner” last night?

Accolons: you want to tell me why you have scare quotes around “dinner”?

SamEStubbs: Hi there, daughter. How’s it going?

Accolons: hey dad. i guess it’s going okay.

Lms581: hey you.

Accolons: hey laura. what’s up?

peterAchiarelli: well, your away message said that you were at “dinner” starting at around 7:00.

Lms581: umm…okay, i have two questions for you:

Accolons: okay…i did, in fact, go to dinner around seven…

peterAchiarelli: and then, when I checked around 2:00 AM, you were still at “dinner.”

SamEStubbs: Just OK? How are classes?

Lms581: first question: do you have dinner plans yet?

Accolons: well, after dinner, i went to the coffeehouse to work…

peterAchiarelli: the coffeehouse closes at midnight.

RyanXF: hey, can I borrow your car for like an hour?

Accolons: umm…i’m not even sure that i’ll be having dinner tonight…

Accolons: after it closed, i went to laura’s room to work.

peterAchiarelli: so i was just wondering who what kind of “dinner” you were having?

Lms581: oh okay. well…let me know if you decide to go.

Accolons: sure, just come get the keys anytime.

Lms581: second question: can i borrow your car real fast?

RyanXF: sweet! i’ll be right over. thanks so much.

peterAchiarelli: and with whom?

Accolons: dad, i’m really sorry, but now’s not the best time to talk.

Accolons: oh my god, i hate instant messenger.

Jago7ff: why??

Accolons: laura, i’m really sorry, but now’s not the best time to talk.

peterAchiarelli: hello?

Lms581: oh…well…umm…can i just come get the keys maybe?

Accolons: peter knows i didn’t come home last night.

SamEStubbs: OK, daughter. I’ll let you go.

Jago7ff: what?? how does he know that??

Accolons: i just told Ryan he could use the car. can i get back to you later?

peterAchiarelli: (hint: ignoring me will not put me in a better mood about this.)

Accolons: i’m so sorry, baby. i’m really not ignoring you. i’m just being bombarded.

SamEStubbs: I hope that everything’s OK with you.

Accolons: he knows because i didn’t take my away message down.

Lms581: okay, umm…i guess i’ll just…talk to you later?

Jago7ff: fuckfuckfuck!

peterAchiarelli: whatever. you know what? i’ll just talk to you later.

Accolons: no, wait! don’t go! i’m making them all go away…

SamEStubbs: Just let us know if there’s anything we can do to make your life less stressful.

Accolons: what the hell should i tell him??

Lms581: bye then.

Jago7ff: tell him you were working late or something…

Accolons: i’m here. i’m sorry. i was just working really late.

peterAchiarelli: and you expect me to believe this?

SamEStubbs: We love you, daughter. Study hard.

Jago7ff: what’s he saying?

peterAchiarelli: i’m out of here.

SamEStubbs: Bye!

Jago7ff: hello?

Accolons: …

RabidEmu: hey, can i borrow your car?

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: