Three Garden Clubs
*“The very word culture meant ‘place tilled’ in Middle English, and the same word goes back to Latin colere, ‘to inhabit, care for, till, worship’ and cultus, ‘A cult, espe- cially a religious one.’ To be cultural, to have a culture, is to inhabit a place sufciently intensive to cultivate it—to be responsible for it, to respond to it, to attend to it caringly,”*
– Edward S. Casey, via the Wikipedia article on “Culture”
Garden of Collective Knowledge
Somewhere in your neighborhood lives a lonely nerd with a big old brain and a big old monitor and no one to see in his spare time. This is the kind of guy who felt his identity ossify when he picked the username that suited him just right – the one that would stick – and created his first account with it. He likes the experience of logging into any given site, feeling his fingers migrate of their own accord to those familiar keys to tap out his well-loved moniker and the dopamine rush when the software recognizes him. Once inside, his otherwise unstable sense of self calcifies into a solid eggshell of persona. The shell does not encase his soft and fleshy body but instead wraps around the window of his web browser, bringing him enough protection from the trolls and the flamers that he might step out into the wide world of the world wide web and offer something of himself to it and procure some small satisfaction in return. There are other people there and he doesn’t have to deal with their bodies. Bodies are a lot for him: they require facial expressions and gestures and tones of voice and socially appropriate words that flow free on the spot. People reduced to text on the screen – bite-sized chunks of interaction and maybe intimacy – are a more comfortable alternative.
I’ve edited Wikipedia once and only once: last spring I found myself scrolling through the Advocate’s page, which has a long list of the organization’s one-hundred and fifty-one past presidents. The list was missing the 2016 president. He’s the kind of guy who would rather die than be added to a public list of old powerful white men who attained collegiate power; therefore, I was trying to figure out how to add him. “Does anyone else think that the ‘past president’ page should just be turned into ‘notable past presidents’ and only those who have a page of their own should be included?” someone wrote in 2011 on the talk page, “This seems like self-promotion by the club” (as if writing down a bunch of dead white men’s names qualies as advertising, which, to be fair, I’m not entirely sure it doesn’t).
Last week I wound up back on the page looking over its editing history, trying to gure out who the hell spends time updating a page about an undergraduate literary magazine. Someone does: it’s gone through about twenty edits in the past year. We clicked around a bit. If you haven’t created a Wikipedia account your IP address gets slapped on the records of your edits in lieu of a username, so it’s easy to figure out where you’re from. In the past year editors have hailed from the University of Wisconsin; Gaithers- berg, Maryland; and Brookline. One username – 22hayden22 – looked like it could be someone I knew, so I clicked on the profile. It was blank, so we clicked on the talk page, a virtual bulletin board where other users can leave messages. There was one note.
“Hello, and welcome to Wikipedia! I appreciate the work you are doing on our page about The Harvard Advocate. Please always feel free to get in touch with me at my user talk page any time that you have any questions about editing here. --Tryptofish (talk)”
This other user – Tryptofish – has been consistently adding edits to the Advocate page since 2008. He was the one who came up with the idea of hiding the list of past presidents unless a user clicks the “show” button. Months ago Tryptofish had posted on the talkpage requesting that anyone adding to the list of notable alums on the page (“students, I’m pretty sure,” he’d said) cite their sources and 22hayden22 had responded. The post on 22hayden22’s page followed shortly.
You have to wonder why this Tryptofish guy feels personal responsibility for welcoming unknown users lightly editing extremely marginal articles to Wikipedia, as if the space is somehow his to offer. He described the page not as “The Harvard Advocate page” but as “our page”: “our” as in the Wikipedia community of which he considers himself a part. We are Wikipedia, Tryptofish seems to feel.
Tryptofish joined Wikipedia in August 2008. He began by performing extensive edits on the “Crucifixion” page. Next, he added a box to his profile indicating that he had a PhD in Biochemistry. Since then he’s made more than forty-four thousand contributions to articles on topics ranging from “Inward-rectier potassium ion channel” and “Aquascaping” to “Urination” and “Homosexual Transsexual.”
A quick google takes me to a thread on a site called “Wikipedia Review.” The whole point of the site is to provide a forum for Wikipedians to vent about editorial conicts “without the possibility of censorship by the Wikimedia Foundation[’s] openly-undemocratic administration.” On this particular thread users are discussing a conict between Tryptosh and another user, Crum375. Tryptofish is lauded for “slowly whittling away a lot of the POV” on an article about PETA despite “baiting and pushy behavior by some of the other editors” like Crum. POV, short for point-of-view, refers to subjective or biased information – the mortal enemy of the true Wikipedian. Crum had started stubbornly defending edits he made on the article about PETA, edits which had been removed for their lack of objectivity. When the argument, in which Tryptofish has been quite vocal, stopped going his way, he allegedly began to mount an argument to get the wiki’s administrators to take mediatory action against Tryptosh. In the face of the potential injustice of an undeserved ban, “Tryptosh has been a model of decorum and civility,” writes one Wikipedia Review user. “Sad.”
Smells like politics. A different article about Trypofish’s work mediating an editorial conict on the Monsanto page takes me to a site called “Wikipediocracy.” Wikipediocracy’s mission is to “shine the light of scrutiny into the dark crevices of Wikipedia,” where editors have supposedly “been left battle-scarred after troubling personal encounters with the world’s most popular encyclopedia.” It’s clear that Wikipedia isn’t always a happy place where friendly folks post welcoming messages on each other’s talk pages and contribute their own humble understandings of the world to the grandest reference work the web has known. Wikipediocracy makes it sound like the site is full of white knights and dark horses, renegade factions trying to cloak their one-sided opinions in the expectation of objectivity associated with the Wikipedia name and valiant heroes stem- ming the rot. More moderate Wikipedians seem to feel everyone at least has the site’s best interests at heart. In any case, editors clearly feel there’s something weighty at stake.
The thread on the Crum375 debacle devolves into a lamentation of the so-called “asymmetry of wikipower,” or the steep hierarchy of the site’s administration. It has two branches – professional and amateur. The former is called the Wikimedia Foundation, or WMF, which has about 280 paid employees who run the site and set up all those pleas for donations. Though Wikipedia Review has its doubts about WMF’s integrity, the Foundation supposedly never touches content or intervenes in the editorial politics. There’s a hard line between the employees who craft the framework of the site and han-dle its money and the hyper-zealous hobby editors who work on a volunteer basis to fill in the blanks of WMF’s product. The unappable WMF people sit quietly in an ofce somewhere wearing ill-fitting suits while editors in pajamas kick and scream.
The anonymous volunteer side of Wikipedia has its own internal hierarchy – the most experienced editors are promoted to various administrative positions which give them the coveted Powers of Moderation, such as the ability to ban other users or to access the IP address of any given anonymous user, and hence a piece of the user’s actual identity. Wikipedia holds annual elections for the “Arbitration Committee,” or ArbCom, which is responsible for “conducting arbitration to resolve serious disputes between editors of the encyclopedia,” such as overriding editorial decisions and dishing out discipline. The elections themselves seem to create said serious disputes: election ArbCom is the mark of a true Wikipedia elite. A lot of people want the honor and afrmation of holding of the position, and many more have strong opinions about which users deserve this kind of power.
Many thousands of words have been written on voting processes, in which the editorial community at large – every registered user who’s made at least a small handful of edits – is eligible to participate. Tryptofish himself has a personal page where he provides heavily-disclaimed analysis of the electoral system and the pros and cons of each can- didate for the 2016 ArbCom election.“Editors are real people, and users with advanced permissions need to treat editors with exibility, not like algorithms,” writes Tryptofish on a talk page. Jimbo Wales, WMF Chair Emeritus and the site’s so-called “Benevolent Dictator for Life,” reserves the right to intervene with ArbCom election outcomes, but largely the editors are left to tussle amongst themselves. At one point an Arbitrator got written up in the New York Times for having resigned from ArbCom on the basis of hav- ing lied about his academic and professional qualifications, despite the site’s anonymity.
Past think pieces about Wikipedia tend to focus on the shift from individualistic knowledge – the academic building a world around himself – to collective, crowd-sourced, diffused forms, where no one in particular gets credit and objectivity is generated by the editorial work of the masses, who can eliminate the discrepancies of subjectivity with their numbers. Wikipedia compresses the polyphony of individual voices into a single frequency to make the Ultimate Reference Source. It promises near-absolute inclusivity in the production and distribution of information. Even Jimbo buys into the weird Utopian rhetoric: “Commerce is fine,” he writes on the donations page, “Advertising is not evil. But it doesn’t belong here. Not in Wikipedia.”
These pieces tend to ignore the site’s dark underbelly. For me the politics attest to something else, which is possibly even more troubling: the site is undeniably a source of social fulllment for its users. There’s reputation on the line. The ongoing skirmishes between vandals and heroes are “essential to Wikipedia because it allows the hierarchy of established users to give new, less-talented writers and ‘editors’ a means of in-game reputational development,” writes someone on Wikipedia Review. Wiki-squires need chances to prove themselves. The forum has sub-categories for individual editors who have become frequent topic of discussion, created after it became clear that “a select few Wikipedia personalities were being discussed far more than others.” The so-called game has prizes: respect and fame, or animosity and infamy.
Likewise, Wikipediocracy compares the wiki “to [a] waterhole in the animal world – [it] attract[s] species of editors with opposing agendas who have to somehow coexist, despite the tensions between them, in order to access the social resource that Wikipedia represents to them.” Meanwhile the Review and Wikipediocracy and I take turns play- ing David Attenborough. But the point is clear: users get to know each other. No one wants their work to exist in a vacuum: editors are here because it’s a venue for building reputations and relationships. You care about the cause and then you start to care about the people and the culture and how you fit within it.
This is the simple answer to the question of why individuals with busy lives (many of whom have PhDs) are so highly motivated to spend so much of their time on anonymous editorial work: virtual social capital. Like a church’s congregation, the community finds common ground in the worship of a shared ideal – in this case collective knowledge – and also provides occasions for personal pats on the back, like election to ArbCom or praise for good editorial work. It depends simultaneously on the subversion of its members’ individuality to generate objective content and on facilitating personal recognition to coax emotional investment. This reductive framework of capitalist incentivization suggests that users are being psychologically duped: virtual social capital has no tangible real-world value. I imagine the WMF people grin slyly at one another as Jimbo touches the tips of each of his pairs of fingers together in turn. Somehow it feels too dead-eyed and utilitarian. I believe there’s more to it.
Wikipedia has an article “Wikipedia Is A Community.” The page was created in 2007 by a user named “Alexandria” who has since defected. Her user page – I’m assuming Alexandria is one of the 12.64% of Wikipedians who are women – has a single sentence, which reads: “I could go on some rant about how this place has gone to hell, but I won’t. Enjoy your drama kids, I want none of it anymore.” The very editor who cared enough to consecrate the social side of the site with its own article was swallowed by its relentless political undercurrents.
We associate the anonymity of these online spaces with social arson: Give people a mask and the whole social contract is up. I think it’s more complicated. Fierce debates catalyze better content. Users’ emotional investment in their own reputations turns differences of critical opinion into personal attacks, but also prompts commitment to
good editorial work in the first place. To me these undercurrents are a testament to the devotion users feel to this community. Anything to protect it and, failing that, to protect one’s place within it.
In a testament to the soundness of the community it vouches for, the article was adopted and eshed out by other hands. The page has Wikipedia’s characteristic hierarchical topic structure, including categories like: “Practical reasons for community” and “A healthy addiction.” The page reads:
“We realize that while we’re technically supposed to be only an encyclopedia, and that while technically we’re supposed to be all professional and such, we realize that if that ever happened, we’d break our addiction to our community and our friends, and the site would fail.”
There is a sense that the site’s social element is somehow indulgent: relationships between editors, Wikipediocracy claims, are frowned upon as they threaten the impartiality of edits. The article disagrees: you can’t not get to know your collaborators. Without the impetus of social obligation, without emotional investment, the project will collapse.
The work of a Wikipedian is primarily the glamourless rote pruning that keeps the garden of knowledge looking effortlessly prim: the vast majority of edits are small fixes to content that breaks the rules or could be more cogent, which editors call “gnoming.” Everyone has a common devotion to the glamourless weeding that keeps the site intel- lectually inhabitable. It’s a climate of caring. Somewhere in the midst of all the shared responsibility people started to feel things about each other.
My high school’s required course on Research Methods tried drill the long screw of skepticism about Wikipedia’s reliability and authority as a reference source into my head but couldn’t get it through my thick skull. I am still partially convinced that the many, many anonymous users who edit Wikipedia are in fact three wizened and highly credentialed Experts in a dark chamber at the top of an ivory tower, churning out an ab- solutely objective and accurate guide to the world. Alternatively the information might be compiled by a giant and brilliant computer which is sometimes a little bit buggy. But under no means is this major reference work powered by the feeling of community.
“Wikipedia is a Community” provides a cogent regurgitation of the site’s ideology: “We are the ones who must accurately and without undue bias describe existence, itself, as everyone experiences it, while being sure to avoid the temptation of simply siding with that which one point of view thinks it should be or worse: that which another
group thinks it absolutely must be,” reads the page. “It is important that you take care of the common good and not edit disruptively or recklessly.”
We – Tryptofish and Alexandria and I, should I choose to edit – are supplicants to the ideal of this unbiased description of existence. We are the first line of defense against ignorance. We are the place the masses first turn to begin to see the world about them. We are the eyes and ears of the internet-connected world. We are not only a website but a site: digging through the substrata of page revisions grants unprecedented access to a high-resolution time-lapse cache of each notable discovery, event, birth, and death of the past fteen years. The most minute update in our knowledge of the most peripheral of topics has been recorded in this great ledger sheet of communal understanding.
Editors, day in and day out, devote energy to the often dry work of maintaining the integrity of the ultimate catalog of objective understanding like monks copying out the scripture. I’m not saying that Wikipedians are religious fanatics; not all of them believe that the god of Collective Knowledge will save mankind from ignorance and bias. The main thing is that the intellectual gardening provides a simple kind of relief from isola- tion and banality. It offers the chance to feel included in the shared pursuit of an ideal. Maybe, if an editor does good work, he will garner the community’s regard. Despite its anonymity and virtual location, the community is no less real. We take the chances we get to escape our personal ideological vacuums. We’re all looking to feel a little less small.
Garden of Common Arcana
At thirteen, I was highly susceptible to cult indoctrination. Like many rising ninth-graders, I went to and then came home from a camp. This was one of those camps where they mail the top 10% of state standardized test takers an invitation to take the SAT at age eleven and then, scores pending, to apply for their “very competitive” “accelerat- ed” “college-preparatory” courses. I’m giving it the alias CAMP – Center for Ambitious Maniacs’ Progeny – because these places exist primarily to assuage the nervous antics of college-conscientious mothers and secondarily to give college students mediocre sum- mer jobs. I was a sucker for brochures.
The state of the camp when I arrived seemed to suggest a long-past coup which had not exactly favored the adults. A pseudo-cult of forty kids had total cultural control. They called themselves the Alcove, so-named for the small round part of the dining hall that was their dominion at all meals. They were the clear and cohesive social center of the ve-hundred-student camp, and they were calling all the shots. It sounds a bit like some kind of high school popularity contest-type social dystopia but, see, these were not normal shots getting called. The Alcove controlled all the music at camp dances, but the playlist perpetually included a lot of Peter Gabriel and B-52s and New Order (quick
reminder that we were eighth graders and this was the late 00s). They insisted time be provided for the so-called “Afterdance” which was an extended sing-along where thirteen- through sixteen-year-olds belted out such numbers as “Cows are freaky when they look at you.” The Alcove got the required Sunday social activities ofcially renamed “Mandatory Fun,” and then, the next year, got them eliminated altogether. Though any remotely sexual contact was strictly banned, members were perpetually making out with each other in public (Nice to meet you! Are you sad? Let’s kiss for a bit!) and getting away with it.
At first I watched the Alcove from afar. I was fascinated by my own intimidation: at thirteen I put serious energy into cultivating normalcy and was chronically insecure about my failure to do so. It was unclear how people so weird could have so much social gravity. I was used to (if not fluent in) the logic of Abercrombie and Fitch and 808s & Heartbreak. I recognized that analogous rules existed here – stringent rules – but they were beyond recognition, free of mainstream rhyme and reason.
The Alcove’s absolute concentrated weirdness seemed to promise radical freedom from my social failings in middle school, but at a potential price. There was a ticker in my head perpetually keeping track of my Coolness Points. I had always assumed the pretty girls at school were the ones metering them out and broadcasting my worth to the world. When I went away to CAMP, I felt, one of these pretty girls would make a call to her CAMP equivalent and let that person know my deal, and that person would disseminate that information amongst the CAMP community. But was that person in the Alcove? I couldn’t imagine the pretty girls of school on the line with the Alcove elite. Maybe instead they’d deployed someone to lurk in the shadows and keep tabs on me in lieu of anyone competent to do it here. If the Alcove liked me and included me, would it count towards or against my total social capital?
On day three I had a flash of uncharacteristic social abandon. I took my tray with my shitty quesadillas and chocolate milk and stepped over the clear line where the tile ended and the carpet began – the line which divided the Alcove from the rest of the dining hall. The Alcove is a small circular space lled with standing-height tables. The members sat on the floor. Everyone seemed to be wearing at least one article of clothing not proper to their apparent gender, and anywhere from two to fteen lanyards of various colors. There was a lanyard for each year they had proudly attended CAMP plus, as I later learned, those bequeathed to them by old Alcovians. I lowered myself to carpet-lev- el on the periphery of a clump of Alcovians. They seemed to be speaking a language a little bit different from mine. Their network of inside jokes had grown so dense and rich that its opaque vocabulary punctuated each sentence at least two or three times. I ate self-consciously. Halfway through my second quesadilla I got noticed.
“Hello! Who are you?”
“Is this your squirrel year?”
“What?” I asked. He explained: A squirrel is a newcomer, so yes, you are one of those.
There are many other words to learn. A “nomore” is a sixteen-year-old and will be too old for CAMP next year: I am fourteen and thereby a twomore. “Blammo” is a multi- week round-the-clock game that involves plastic spoons, and it starts tomorrow, and yes, I should play. It’s clear that knowing the terminology, here, is the real line between who is in and who is out. No one needed to make a list of Alcove members. If you meet someone new you know in a sentence. I was learning a lot already.
There were also bits of the cultural lexicon which you cannot learn on the spot and will have to pretend to understand for now if you want to feel like a part of the group. I had never seen the Rocky Horror Picture Show, and this was a problem. I wasn’t familiar with the work of Orson Scott Card, and this was a problem. It takes about a month to learn the rules of Silent Football properly, and I had two-and-a-half weeks left at CAMP. I had never noticed the glaring omissions in my cultural repertoire.
I did my absolute best to appear assimilated and mostly failed, but people were warm to me. They would explain patiently with bright eyes, nostalgic for their own weeks as a squirrel when all of this was fresh and thrilling. I went for long walks with the oldest and best respected members, who for some reason wanted know how I am feeling and what I was thinking about things. They liked to share small tidbits of their own multi-year impressions and critiques of the dense cultural ber of Alcove life. I felt important and welcome on these walks.
The rst dance was scheduled for the Friday of the rst week. There were whispers of anticipation: dances, here, were no small deal. Someone explained the Canon to me: there are a set of sacred songs which have been played for the last hour of every dance since the 80s. They are divided into a hierarchy ranging from the High Holy songs to those included only unofcially; at the dance they’re played in reverse order of holiness so that the ultimate song is always the unspeakably sacred Don McLean’s “American Pie.”
The Alcove held down the center of the gymnasium closest to the speakers. They showed up late and didn’t move much until the Canon hit, and then did they ever move. Everyone knew every lyric: I blushed a lot and avoided eye contact because I didn’t (and wound up spending most of the next week memorizing them on my iPod touch). Different songs had different rules: “Dr. Mario” had a particular dance. “James Brown is Dead” involved people twirling glowsticks like poi. When “Mr. Brightside” played, Alcovians of both genders kissed platonically. When they came over to kiss me their mouths tasted sweet like how I thought being liked and included would taste. When “American Pie” came on we moved to the edges of the gymnasium and made way for the position-holders.
The position holders are the cult’s elders, the most immersed and fanatical and respected senior members. There are maybe a dozen positions of varying importance, almost all named for the minor characters peppering the lyrics of “American Pie.” For example, when Don McLean croons that “the jester sang for the king and queen / in a coat he borrowed from James Dean” the Alcovians who hold the (minor) positions of King and Queen stand before the serenading Jester. The Jester is the oldest position, and like many positions has associated relics – in this case a coat and jester cap passed from one holder to the next. Soon James Dean, appointed by the Jester, materializes holding the Jester’s coat and helps him get it on, which is always a challenge – the coat is stiff and tiny and the movement must be fluid. The choreography is tight but holding a position is an honor. Everyone has practiced.
The last morning of the summer everyone goes up to the quad in the damp post-dawn with their bathrobes and pillows for what’s effectively CAMP graduation. Every senior position-holder gives a speech, and then hands off his position and its associated artifacts to the next generation of culturally inundated senior CAMPers. This ritualization of the passing of the torch reies the continuity of traditions. The positions are not owned by any individual, it says. None of this is. Positions are here to provide continuity from one generation to the next.
They also offer a small morsel of personal recognition: you scratch the culture’s back and it will scratch yours. As a young CAMPer I coveted the positions. We sometimes made a game of the politics, speculating who would get what each year. Here was a tangible mark of personal worth amidst the emotional wasteland of early high school. Getting a position was like having some ultimate social authority put his hand on your shoulder and say you are valuable and valued, you understand the culture and are understood by it. The Alcove immortalized itself by explicitly bestowing social capital on the best caretakers of its traditions. It worked: everyone came back year after year.
I have to wonder how this stuff got started. It’s a lot harder to build social solidarity around radical quirk than around the pre-packaged kitsch of goths or preppies: you have to create, implement, and perpetuate unknown social codes without precedent. Creating lasting culture in a space with rapid turnover (even the kids who attend every possible year are perpetually aging out on a three- or four-year cycle) is an interesting project. People need to be indoctrinated quickly and thoroughly to keep traditions go-
ing. The mantle hardly has time to rest on any particular pair of shoulders. Up until now we’ve been considering culture as a tool for incentivization, something with an aim. But what if we think about it as a thing in itself: rather than discussing why it exists, I want to consider how it comes into existence and stays in circulation. CAMP culture, like any organism, had no real goal except to survive. Over the years it came to employ an assortment of mechanisms, like the last morning ritual, to ensure the genetic material which codes for its values survived and spread.
CAMPers have had this down to a science for decades. The Alcove is the most recent incarnation of a series of core culture-bearing societies: before them came The Land of the Large Round Tables (which had, since 1993, occupied a now-closed room at the far opposite end of the dining hall). LLRT had coexisted with something even older, a group mysteriously called Digiclan, until the two rival cohorts merged in 1998, ulti- mately metamorphosing into the Alcove circa 2000. Many of the positions, relics, songs, and terms are pre-Alcovian.
By 2000, with the birth of the Alcove, the culture had congealed into its own entity, dependent on individual CAMPers only to the degree that a cell needs to take in nutri- ents and expel excrement to go about its processes. Particular personalities added their own air and content: new positions, fresh songs consecrated in the Canon. But the culture’s backbone – a particular core-group lunch spot, the Afterdance, an extensive cultural lexicon, the passing down of positions – remained – and remains – the same.
I didn’t notice the crucial commonality between nearly all of the best-respected Alcovians until CAMP was over. Everyone who mattered lived in the New York area. After CAMP ended there were reunions almost weekly for the remainder of the summer: everyone would go sit in big circles in Central Park and keep doing what we’d done at camp. None of it ever ended for these kids: CAMP friends were their primary friend group year-round. Some of the New York crew had long ago aged out: there were college kids still hitting up the reunions.
NYC is an eight-hour drive from my hometown. I had lost the ability to form sentences around words that were not part of the insular and impenetrable CAMP vocabulary. Most of the time when a kid comes home from a camp there are a lot of tears. I sobbed until I triggered my gag reflex and then dry heaved for a solid hour.
My immune system was not equipped to fight off a cultural virus. I was saturated with social values that were no longer relevant to my surroundings: my self-esteem was dependent on ghosts. Alcove culture had entirely supplanted the previously unshakable paradigm of middle school normalcy. CAMP values were managing the part of my brain that generated self-esteem. They had lodged themselves there and now, of course, I would take them to the grave. I was appalled at the notion of having to physically occupy a space where no one had heard “American Pie” and being expected to assimilate back into the bland normalcy of midwestern high school.
My big mistake was thinking that I didn’t have to. I started making multi-hour phone calls to various CAMP friends every night under the guise of taking my dog for a long, long walk. Those of us who lived too far away for reunions learned to lean on each other. As I understood it, we were all nursing an addiction to the sweetest inclusion we’d ever known. It was never enough, but at least we could give each other a little bit of a x just by touching the call button. After a week and a half my parents were close to hiring someone to deprogram me.
In 2004, what had previously been oral history was reified in wiki form. I revisited the site while researching this piece: If you look through the wiki you find posts by the 1996 cohort of CAMPers. “CAMP isn’t just a smattering of geniuses or a blissful community; it’s the part of life that makes the whole thing worth living,” reads one page. “You are CAMP, and CAMP will always be yours.” I learned some new things. There’s a term – “neverwas” – for individuals who “belatedly learned of the program and fell in love with the culture and traditions” despite never having actually attended. There’s a story about the time in 1988 when staff refused to play the Canon and campers subsequently refused to leave the gymnasium until staff conceded. In 1995 Digiclan and LLRT had extensive deliberations which led to the concretization of the official Canon. There’s a note to parents about how to manage a child experiencing post-CAMP withdrawal: “due to the incident-based nature of CAMP Withdrawal, it is likely to be medically accepted as a form of minor depression.” I found my own user page, almost incomprehensible due to the density of Alcove jargon I have since forgotten.
Some CAMPers used to feel that the wiki was sacrilege, damaging the integrity of the community’s boundaries and the reducing the potency of the oral tradition. It’s not quite Wikipedia – there’s a small militia of enthusiastic gardeners, but the wiki is primarily a supplement to broader CAMP culture. It’s a virtually-located, organic and continually re-generated scripture for a culture that exists apart from it. And yet one of the site ad- mins – someone I had met briey at a post-CAMP reunion – still edits the wiki multiple times per week, nine years after aging out. The position lists are still fully updated, and when I click through some of the usernames on the Recent Changes page many of them are current CAMPers, planning to attend in summer 2017. The Alcove’s still alive and well, perpetuating itself without me.
Nobody likes this: we don’t like that we as individuals are not the culture. We want to matter and not to be forgotten. Mostly we feel we will move forward stained by its character and do not want to be the only one marked – worse, we are afraid we will go on needing it. Needs always look as if they’ll never change or go away. There is nothing more banal and unattering than a need that sticks around unreciprocated. But there’s always that sour-sharp knot in your chest when you register that your own need took its leave when you stopped paying it mind and that CAMP could need you or not, what the heck. The inevitability of mutual letting-go is touchingly impersonal, and if we’re lucky it happens fast. Eventually we are all just, at best, lines on the list of position holders on a wiki.
Garden of Transmigration
At worst it could be heartbreak in eternal return. To last, a culture has to maintain a balance between giving individual attention and keeping detached autonomy. It should individuals the personal attention they need to make sure they take care of it, but it should also maintain enough independence from particular personalities to move on and incorporate a fresh generation. At its most effective, it avoids the Sisyphean helix of falling for then watching go through covert indifference. It’s ruthless but a culture isn’t human. It needs to be entirely impersonal while feeling fully personal. If you look hard enough at the cold underbelly of your culture, you’ll go blind.
Two weeks out, when CAMP was still fresh, a friend pointed me to another online resource that existed for people like me. There was a forum called PCAMPD, which stood for Post-CAMP Depression. Like CAMP itself, it had a core crew of respected regulars. Sadly very few of them were Alcovians I’d known personally – many of them had aged out before I arrived or attended a different session. Soon it was clear that PCAMPD was kind of its own community. The PCAMPD regulars I knew had largely been socially tangential at CAMP itself, but here their proles were marked with special badges denoting their elite status. When they posted, dozens of us replied. Of course, everyone shared that same familiar Alcove vocabulary. Almost all of the PCAMPDers lived far from New York and its reunions as well, which may be why they weren’t in the Alcove inner circle. In the process of mourning their cultural isolation they seemed to have successfully shifted the site of their emotional attachment from CAMP itself onto PCAMPD. Virtually located and always in season, the forum and its denizens were ac- cessible when CAMP and NYC were not.
I soon discovered the private chatroom where a lot of the PCAMPD kids hung out around the clock. There were maybe fifteen regulars and I quickly became one of them. We knew each other primarily by username but functionally spent hours a day in each other’s textual presence. On any given evening ten or twelve of us would stay up late playing Never Have I Ever and sharing the gossip on mutual friends. Sometimes we would log off the chatroom and open up a website called Omegle, the predecessor to the notorious Chatroulette. Omegle would randomly form pairs of anonymous strangers out of the hundreds of users online at any given moment and place them in a private chatroom together. If you didn’t like your stranger, you could end the conversation and open a new one with someone else. We would all go online at once and keep requesting new strangers until we found each other in the haystack of anonymity. It was a surprisingly intimate activity, like running into a good friend on the streets of a large city. There was affection in the practice of forcing our way through the noise of random computation to find someone familiar.
Six months after CAMP had ended a bunch of us from the chatroom met up in Boston. It was uncomfortable. Aural communication eluded us. I tried to facilitate conversation but the lively and talkative friends I’d made online did not seem to actually in- habit these gangly teenage bodies. (I hadn’t realized that I’d been forming assumptions about the physical appearances of the bodies behind the usernames, but I had been, and in all cases I had been wrong). Maybe the awkwardness shouldn’t have bothered me – the meat of our friendships wasn’t located in the physical world – but in-person contact had been the phantom endpoint of chatroom connections all along, at least for me. I’d inserted myself here to supplant the pain of my geographical seclusion and it had worked by making me forget the physical world by subverting it to the virtual. These kids I’d gotten to know had been totally swallowed by their online lives a while back. I got scared. I’d learned how to store my subjectivity in a username, to feel an avatar’s feelings, to inhabit a screen. I feared that if I forgot the cadences and body language of in-person connection I might never get them back. I didn’t return to the chatroom after that.
In the early spring I decided not to return to CAMP. Without PCAMPD I had enough distance to recognize that the values by which I’d lived were only important because they bound me tightly to the people who shared them, both online and in person. In the dining hall on the rst day my obsession with the culture had come from the abstract sex-appeal of ritual. Within a week, as it became personal, the traditions had become the physical manifestation of my obsession with feeling connected to the people around me. The values that had given me a taste of belonging – the staunch commitment to a specic brand of radical quirk – were keeping me from any chance of getting that feeling back. By March I had shaken them just loose enough to be remotely present and at least partially at ease in my normal life at my normal school with my normal friends. I would have had two more summers, but also two more years of total isolation. CAMP didn’t need me and I didn’t want to need CAMP, but mostly I was just stunned and overwhelmed that I apparently now had the volition to choose the values against which I would measure myself. I never did get to hold a position. Though I can no longer quite empathize with the part of me that coveted them, I still feel like I cheated a past self out of something dear to her.
I was there for three weeks but for about two years afterwards about half of my close friendships (both on the internet and in real life) came from the broader CAMP community. I’m not really in touch with any of them anymore: most have since gone to and graduated college. I have mostly forgotten but some of them haven’t: I still see Facebook posts between old Alcovians. Some of the couples who got together during my time there are still dating, six years later. There are still reunions.
One of those PCAMPD kids did rematerialize last summer. He and I had exchanged over five-thousand text messages in the months following CAMP and then lost touch entirely. He was going to be in town the night of my 21st birthday party at the Advocate’s headquarters, so I tossed him an invite. He made an appearance, but we didn’t really talk. Someone told me he took a lot of nitrous oxide and passed out. I haven’t seen him since.
While researching this feature I found out that PCAMPD had died. It passed in 2013, two years after I stopped using it. The site creator, who had aged out in 2009 after the single session I’d attended, had started a thread: “It’s time to break radio silence and address the fact that, like all single-generation CAMP communities, PCAMPD has fallen out of use,” he wrote. I read a note of incredulity into his tone. The thread was populated by the same group of regulars I remembered from my time on the site almost ve years earlier, incredulously debating whether or not to take the site down. “I always assumed that as the original group of members went off to college and stopped posting regularly, later generations would continue to join and keep the forum alive,” an old acquaintance wrote. I had assumed so as well: the site had implicitly promised that these feelings of ours were universal and eternal. Someone would be there to care for our traditions once we no longer cared, and until then, the site facilitated our caring by reminding us that other people cared too.
As it was the community had undergone a kind of cytokinesis. The genetic material of CAMP’s culture had replicated, offering up a copy for PCAMPD’s utilization, and then the communities themselves had split entirely in two. PCAMPD now consisted mainly of people ve or six years too old to attend, some of which were still employed as TAs or RAs but socially insulated from the current version of the culture.
“All of us have moved on,” wrote the site creator on the funeral thread. Old regulars remembered how the PCAMPD community had supported them far beyond CAMP itself, throughout the transition from high school to college to professional life. For all our fears of being forgotten, superseded, the culture continued to make room for us in some capacity until we ceased making room for it. We’re older now and we know how this goes. Those of us who successfully moved on from CAMP and then from PCAMPD have learned through trial and error how to let go of communities. I like to think we can slide into spaces and fall out of them again without the friction of having inadvertently used them as armatures for identity.
It is easy to spend hundreds of hours reading Wikipedia with no knowledge of the fierce and stratied community behind its content. It was equally natural for all of PCAMPD to forget the dear old forum for long enough to push it past resuscitation. Some sites contain pockets of social intensity, hotspots of cultural action, while others bear the marks of worlds since dismantled, now-defunct spaces that served as affective habitats for years of users’ lives.
In the physical world societies have long enough lifespans that the chance of catch- ing one’s own culture on its own deathbed are not so high. On the internet these lifespans condensed. Wikipedia is younger than I am. For now, it’s a stable behemoth of an empire, an army of fierce gardeners devoted to an ideology of preventing the slightest disrepair. PCAMPD was created in August 2006 and lived seven rich years until it was unable to culturally stretch to incorporate the new generation it needed to maintain its rites. Its best gardeners watched it get swallowed by the fog of their own inattention.
These short-lived virtual cultures crop up and build codes and customs at rapid speeds and eventually collapse under the weight of their own rituals like especially heavy stars. It’s a pretty thought: the online world contains innite miniature pockets of social potential into which one might insert oneself when immediate reality won’t provide. These communities are virtually located but emotionally real. The web is a vast network of perpetually inchoate mini-cultures, any of which might be a home if we know where to look and learn how to act.
In 2015, two years after the funeral, someone came back to PCAMPD: “oh my god this forum has imploded,” they wrote. “Came on here for the rst time in months. There are pages and pages and pages and pages worth of spam.” One of the old users replied: “I’m weeding.”
After we moved on, the forum decayed into the virtual equivalent of an abandoned asylum. Here is a space which clearly bears the markings of past habitation and care: moldy box springs, closets of dusty cleaning supplies, toothbrushes. But the paint can’t hold onto the walls, grass is growing out of the foundation, caterpillars metamorphose in the crumbling drywall. Parasites creep in: vines that sneak up and strangle trees, the kind of plants that go where they please and take what they can get. The tight protective seal of the windows and walls gives way to the wind and the rain. The remnants of past habitability and the stains of impending cultural decay clarify each other’s contours.
So much of human culture is carving out a space for ourselves by pushing back against the natural processes of decay: “destruction here is the realization of a tendency inherent in the deepest layer of existence of the destroyed,” writes Georg Simmel. Our world is constituted through resistance. Sweep the floor. Repair the wall. Pull the fallen tree out of the crushed roof and replace the rotten beams with fresh ones. This rebellion is reinforced through social obligation: make the lawn look nice so the neighbors don’t think you’re synthesizing meth in your basement. Keep your hands clean so you don’t spread germs. Hold the walls of civilization against invasion.
I tried to ask how small or virtual or idiosyncratic cultures are born and where they go to die. The more pertinent question: What do they need from us and we from them? And most of all: how much of ourselves should we give them? The internet is plagued by the ora of spam. Wikis and forums, left alone, are prone to decay at the hands of trolls and bots. Death, in the context of the web, is effected by those shady gures we imagine in basements around the world coding the worms that take advantage of neglect, of a culture’s failure to devise mechanisms to self-perpetuate. They nd the cracks in our abandoned rewalls and overrun the virtual spaces we once carefully cultivated.
But nature is also at play in their inverse, in the way that an independent and self-per- petuating culture organically emerges out of the soil of a fertile social environment. We are here to plant the bulbs and pull the weeds until we cannot do so anymore, and then we step back with our hands open. We yield our fruits.