Professor Rath said we could write about anything this week, right? So, in keeping with some of last week’s and this week’s class themes, I’d like to tell you a story from my undergraduate years that resonated with me as I was reading texts for class. I think mostly that this experience displayed to me the extreme power of the internet and technological developments within it, but it also made me think about the real impacts seemingly inconsequential things can have on an individual’s life and future. I’d love to hear your thoughts!
When I was a sophomore at Boston College, I had an extremely nice and good-natured roommate. We’ll call her Geraldine. Her story at Boston College is no secret, and one click of the mouse almost resulted in her transferring schools and moving out of state. Yes, it was that bad.
In 2007, Geraldine was dating an older guy who would semi-frequently drive up to Boston from New York City to visit her. Being that we lived in a suite with 6 other girls, Geraldine’s boyfriend was looking to find an apartment so he could spend less time crashing on our couch in the common room (or, actually, so I could spend less time crashing on the couch in the common room). Geraldine decided that she wanted to help her boyfriend find a place to stay in the Chestnut Hill/Boston suburbs area. She drafted an email asking if anyone knew of a place that her boyfriend could stay (for free–he was a little tight on money) every other weekend of every other month, a place that included internet and his own room, among a few other things. A little bit of a strange request, yes, but there have been crazier things posted on craigslist. (Although I’ve scoured my past emails, I’ve been unable to locate her original email. Alas, the search continues!) Later, she told me that she had initially planned to send the email to just a few friends to see if anyone could help out, but then she got a different idea.
She decided to really get the word out to the BC community to see if anyone was willing to let her boyfriend stay at their place. Geraldine got a hold of 13 different listservs and sent her email to almost the entire Boston College community. Her request was a bit odd, yes, but I never would have thought that students would latch on to this event and make it something bigger than its initial intention.
How wrong I was. You’d think that in an age where we are constantly barraged by mass media in so many forms, one piece of spam-ish mail would instantly be deleted. Not in this case. A girl named Caitlin made the choice to exacerbate the situation using a function that we probably all have a love-hate relationship with: the reply-all. This first reply-all triggered a massive campus-wide debacle. Thousands of BC students all over campus stopped what they were doing and hovered over computer screens, waiting for the next exciting/humorous/mundane/completely inappropriate email to hit their screen by those brave enough (or technologically challenged enough) to click the “reply-all” button. Popular forwards included attempts at humorous responses to Geraldine’s original email, links to pornographic websites, and of course, the old “take me off this listserv.” The BC server was flooded with thousands of emails, until it eventually crashed. The campus was buzzing with anger and laughter.
This event happened during a time when many people (some people) with Blackberrys (Blackberries?) still paid for data per email received. You can imagine the ecstatic responses of those who woke up to thousands of emails, whose devices wouldn’t stop the new notifications all night. Apparently, some people had Blackberrys that crashed from this event. You don’t want to mess with a BC student’s Blackberry! Heh…
The fun didn’t stop there. Beyond the emails, there was an intense student response targeted at Geraldine specifically. Students chanted in the quad demanding that Geraldine be “brought to justice.” Geraldine received a number of threats from fellow students, and the police came by our suite twice the evening she sent the email. Facebook groups surfaced including one’s such as “Geraldine K’s Boyfriend Should Live in a Homeless Shelter” and “The Geradline Fan Club.” People even made t-shirts that said “I was listserved by Geraldine.” I kid you not. People were making profits off of this. Some students even created Youtube videos pretending to be the infamous “Peter” (the boyfriend), taking Geraldine’s last name and added it to her boyfriend’s first name in attempts to emasculate him. (You can check out the youtube “Peter Teacher Speaks” here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tBI8NX7391E&list=FLQZn-HOLxc8Q2VtY6m5V6Nw&index=1) (Sorry, for some reason the blog won’t let me insert a hyperlink!)
Geraldine went to sleep every night at around 8pm. (Weird, for a college student, right?) Anyway, she clicked send on that email, and promptly went to bed. All of this crazy activity around campus occurred while she was asleep. I didn’t want to wake her or worry her, so I just left her a note that said, “Don’t worry! Everything will be fine!” When Geraldine woke up, she had over 200 Facebook friend requests and about a billion pieces of hate-mail. When she went to class that day, she saw projected on the screen in lecture hall that her professor’s email had crashed too.
Boston College didn’t know what to do in this situation. Was there some kind of disciplinary measure that needed to be taken? How did she even get a hold of these listservs in the first place? Who gets punished? Someone must be held responsible! While Geraldine didn’t really suffer from any kind of disciplinary action (they found no “malice” in her email), the administration did give consequences to those who send out pornographic or offensive material in their reply-alls.
The BC Heights covered the event a few times, and interviewed Geraldine.
Geraldine later described her thinking as such: “When I started typing this e-mail, I thought I could use the listserv to choose individual people I wanted to send the e-mail to within the list. When I realized I couldn’t do that, I redrafted the e-mail, but only to my direct contacts. But I was really tired, and sent the wrong e-mail. I had no idea what kind of backlash that would have.” You can check out the original Heights article here: http://www.bcheights.com/2.6176/listserv-debacle-floods-inboxes-1.907507 (Worth a read if you’re interested!)
I have to say that she really did handle this situation well. Not surprisingly, she chose to study abroad for the next semester…
Months down the road, we still saw consequences to her actions. Later, the Boston College Heights magazine endorsed my Geraldine as “Person of the Year.” http://newspapers.bc.edu/cgi-bin/bostonsh?a=d&d=bcheights20080401.2.3&e=——-en-20–1–txt-IN—– College Humor even picked up on this one: http://www.collegehumor.com/link/3245166/beware-the-dangers-of-listserve
What might incidents like this one show us about how communities respond to new and unexpected potentials of technology? What are the concrete effects that these incidents have in real time and space on people? I doubt–no–I know that Geraldine had no idea about the scale of the consequences that she would face from her email request. (She’s a nice girl, really.) I think the response(s) of a community to an event like this can say a lot about that community. For example, what does this event say about the student body (the make-up/attitudes/values) at Boston College? I have to wonder if there would have been as much of an event if the original email had been sent by a male, or if she had less of a catchy name. I don’t know. This gets me thinking about the role of race, class, gender, sexuality and all that American Studies-ish stuff, and the impact that is can have on the producers and receivers of knowledge, as well as those implicated in this technological space. And really, this whole thing makes me wonder about something else. Given all the tech-savvyness, all the brainpower, all of the time, effort, and money that was put into making things “funny” about Geraldine’s mistake and her situation, I have to wonder if all of those things could have gone into a cause that contributed to making something better in the world instead. I mean, I know I must sound fluffy and idealistic, but the Boston College community has got to mobilize their energy around something better than trying to ruin a girl’s life for an inconsequential email she sent. Or maybe it was a great victory in seeing the creative capacity of BC students on a Wednesday evening? What do you think?
To be added: More direct connections to the reading. (Sorry, I got a bit carried away in my narrating of this event. It was truly a very exciting time.)