by by Richard Whitman

December 11th, 2009: “Today, I just read every BrownFML, finishing at 5:30 in the morning. I have an Orgo exam at 9. FML.”
December 13th, 2009: “Today, while I was using the men’s bathroom outside the quiet room, I accidentally stepped in a wad of jizz tissues. This is the closest I’ve gotten to action in weeks. FML.”

Brown FML went live on December 8th, right at the cusp of reading period. Within a matter of days, the campus was noticeably abuzz with this new medium for viral news stories and cheeky, ribald vignettes. Brown FML became one of the largest and most trafficked FML site of any college, with up to 70 submissions on a given day. Of course, not all of them were published.
“I got so many ‘I blew my load in the library,’” says the sole Brown moderator, who has a pile of about 30 jizz-related FMLs and who has asked to remain anonymous.

Other popular topics include roommate anecdotes and Orgo, writing normally relegated to the Rock bathroom walls now digitized and archived in cyberspace. The underlying brilliance of FML is the combination of two major comedy doctrines: misery loves company, and laughter is the best medicine.

Last semester, on Halloween night, Harvard freshman Jonah Varon launched the College FML mainframe that now supports over 40 different FML communities, a procrastination portal for students from Yale to UCSD to Brown. “I thought, if it took off at Harvard, why wouldn’t it take off elsewhere,” says Varon.

College FML doesn’t take off everywhere. So it seems interesting that Brown took to it with particular affinity. Someone will approach Varon about creating an FML for her college, and he will set her up as the moderator. But sometimes, it falls flat. What makes or breaks a college FML? Varon notes that successful college FMLs capture “a feel of the dynamics of the community,” though he is quick to add that it’s only a piece of the puzzle.

U R the CSS to my HTML
While the FML forum has no underlying agenda, both Varon and the Brown moderator notice overarching trends. The comments invited by FMLs contain real advice and empathy—and are incidentally the funniest part of the site. On the original FML, the comments are click-to-view. Varon decided to expand the comments by default, emphasizing the potential to foster helpful and meaningful interaction among the readers. “What is of value in a larger sense about this whole idea,” says Varon, “is that it provides a way for people to communicate in a way they didn’t have before. They have real problems, excessive drinking—not that that’s an inherent problem—people posting about real issues in their lives and they get support through the comments…. It fills a role in the community.”

“A lot of times people will go to a college FML site, and if [they] don’t really understand what is going on,” Varon explains, it looks like “a bunch of whiny college students complaining…. What do these people have to complain about, they’re going to a good college [...] but that’s a misunderstanding of what the site is trying to do.”

Of course, FML is limited as a support group. Though anonymity enables the brazen honesty and vulnerability that makes the site worth reading, there is no personal accountability. So while, “I have not made a single friend while at Brown. I am a junior. FML” is met with comments full of solace, it is also tempered by an astute observation: “it’s very easy for commenters [sic] to say ‘oh I’ll be your friend!’ or ‘oh let’s all have coffee’, but it’s small comfort, given that this is the internets [sic] and all. it just drives the point home.”

Lol is the best medicine
Instinctively, users find FML to be different from the other Brown-specific social mediums. Spotted at Brown often documents the failure to connect. Brown Texts From Last Night is faceless. What is unique about Brown FML is the underlying effort to connect over what it means to be a Brown student, the byproduct of which is the creation of an internet niche.

At Brown, like anywhere else, we surround ourselves with people who have similar ideologies and interests. The internet allows us to create even smaller communities with blogging platforms like Tumblr and forums like SomethingAwful.

Inhabiting these internet niches can potentially give rise to exclusivity. Immersing ourselves in social networking tools reinforces the social and class divisions that separate us from people who don’t—people without 24/7 internet access, people with full-time jobs. Although this is an important consideration for tools like Facebook (whose user-base presents controversial ethnic breakdowns), it’s unclear how much, if at all, it matters to sites like Brown FML, the conceit of which is descriptive comedy—a toggle of perspective that turns life’s quotidian tragedies into buoyant commiseration.

On Brown FML, we endorse school camaraderie and engage in a larger conversation about what makes us Brown. We can, in that sense, participate in a shared sense of Brown homogeneity. A Brown stereotype. Something to mythicize, to poke fun at, to self-deprecate, to offer sympathy for, but ultimately something to reinforce. Whether this stereotype is accurate is less important than the motive behind constructing one: mainly, to connect, to join the club.

People will always self-separate, but the key difference here is that the internet is boundless. Though one might wonder about the social implications of the network-driven social media, especially those related to educational institutions, these online communities are evidence of a well-meaning pack mentality. Even in the interweb’s anonymous and infinite expanse, there’s a kind of instinctual cohesion at play. But it may be in the guise of sly and goofy lolcat. It may be written in library jizz.

Tune in next week for RICHARD WHITMAN B’11’s investigative journalism on library jizz.