I’m anonymously famous on the Internet. Perhaps you’ve seen my work.
I took my comprehensive exams in the spring of 1995. For those of you who have lives and have never been to graduate school, comprehensive exams are where your department tries to get you to learn everything that has ever been found out about your subject before they set you loose to find out something else about your subject. They’re the department’s way of making sure that you really want to get your doctorate.
They’re also one of the most miserable experiences you can have in this world without having to listen to a eulogy or the “let’s just be friends” speech.
But out of misery comes creativity – that’s what the English majors always told me, anyway. And when I was finished with my comps I realized that I had acquired a set of defining characteristics, things that set me apart from the non-graduate-student world.
I now actually have a preference between microfilm and microfiche, for example.
I have sent personal letters with footnotes explaining things in further detail and citing sources.
And, sad to say, I now understand jokes about Michel Foucoult, even if I still can’t spell the man’s name.
So I wrote these characteristics down onto a couple of lists and I sent them out into the world via the magic of the internet. This was the early days of the internet, so “magic” meant “Usenet groups,” but they were fun things once you figured out how to navigate around in them.
The first list took all of three days to come back to me, shorn of my name.
A friend of mine in the department received it as a funny and liked it, so he forwarded it along to the entire department. “Have you seen this?” he asked.
What could I say? “Yes.”
The second list took over a week to get the same result. By then people must have been jaded.
It has been nearly sixteen years now, and these lists are still floating around the internet. Last time I checked they were up on over a hundred websites in one form or another, almost all of them without attribution.
These lists have traveled the country. They’ve seen the world. According to a friend who saw them posted on a door, they even made it into the Philosophy Department of Harvard University, which is better than I ever did. A select few were incorporated into a t-shirt put out by the graduate students at Brigham Young University a while back. They promised they’d send me one, but in the way of things that sort of got forgotten. I don’t suppose I’ll ever get that shirt now – those graduate students will have all gotten their degrees by now and moved on to other concerns. I’d have worn it, too.
The lists have even hit the big time.
When I graduated with my PhD in 2002, the university president began her commencement speech by quoting from an article that had recently appeared in the Washington Post. I turned to the guy sitting next to me on stage. “Hey!” I said. “I wrote that!”
I later received a nice apology from the Post reporter.
This week a friend of mine forwarded me a link to an article in The Economist, in which I discovered that my work has been elevated to the status of folklore – something that apparently has always existed in the collective unconscious of the internet and can be cited as such.
There’s even a Facebook group dedicated to graduate student life that has the entire collection up in their Information box.
These lists have changed along the way. Other people have added things to them, things I can only wish I had written – there were only 37 items on my original lists, and I’ve seen collections with over a hundred items on them. One of the lists has become anthologized, combined into a larger work filled with the writings of people as anonymously famous as I am. Not many people have ever bothered to correct the original spelling error in “Foucoult” though.
That’s okay. There are better things to spend your brain cells on than Michel Foucault.
It used to bother me that my words were gadding about the internet all alone without me beside them, but eventually I got over it. I kind of enjoy the anonymous fame these days. It feels good to see the lists out and about. If someone tries to copyright them or claim them as their own then I do get annoyed – I’ve had that discussion with a couple of people. But otherwise, it’s nice to know that people still find that the lists speak to them.
In the eighteenth century, writers would often intentionally remove their names from their work before publishing it. That way people would focus on the words themselves rather than on who said them. Alexander Hamilton and James Madison could rely on their reputation for authority, but Publius had to have something to say.
So I live happily with my anonymous fame. There are no autograph seekers. I do not employ large men wearing sunglasses to protect my person. Such men are costly and would no doubt eat up whatever profit I might make from a more conventional sort of fame. I like the fact that there are people who think I had something worth saying, even if they don’t know who said it.
That’s not such a bad thing, after all.