I Saw You…Standing There

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What has been your experience with online social interaction? Tell
us what you think
: does the Internet augment and enable your social life, or is it simply a tool for procrastination and the avoidance of real, meaningful human contact?

A few days into reading period last semester, Tej Toor ’10 presented her final project for Computer Science 50. She had created a very simple website, called “I Saw You Harvard” after its inspiration, “iSawYou.com.” iSawYou is a “missed connections” site, a sort of hybrid between a personals section and “America’s Most Wanted.” The idea is that if you see someone in the Square who catches your eye, but disappears before you can get a name, you can write about it on I Saw You Harvard and have at least some chance, however remote, of getting in touch. 

Lamont bottom floor
Posted at 12/07/2009 7:07 pm, F spotting M
I saw you...Blond, I think, heading downstairs in Lamont, I was heading upstairs, we smiled, I looked back as I walked up the stairs and you were looking at me through the glass door. Who are you?


At my boring job…
Posted at 12/09/2009 1:29 am, M spotting F
I saw you...at work. I always try to pick up shifts I know you’ll have so we can talk. I asked you to hang out the other day but you had a paper…hopefully next time you’ll be free. Although now I’m nervous to talk to you and ask…

The site proved a huge success, spurred on, doubtless, by the fact that it provided the entire College with a convenient and addictive distraction from reading period and exams. Those first few days saw a frenzy of “sightings,” as posts are called: some 2,400 lovelorn utterances issued forth from the laptops and iPhones of Harvard undergraduates in that first incredibly busy week. It’s a marvel that the University’s Wi-Fi network didn’t burst from the sudden outpouring of anonymous romantic tension. 

It quickly became clear, though, that very few of the posts were missed connections in the strict sense. More frequent were the unspoken, nondescript crushes that clearly didn’t want to be discovered:

Harvard Square
Posted at 2010-02-25 22:43:38, F spotting M
I saw you with everyone else tonight. I wish we didn’t have to be just friends. Looking at and talking to you makes me smile.


Posted at 12/08/2009 3:39am M spotting F
I saw you…in Lamont. You are cute.

Or the remonstrations:

The Yard
Posted at 12/14/2009 9:23pm, F spotting M
I saw you...walking around in your flip flops. Your toes were really red. Put on some damn shoes!

Or the general observations:

12/21/09, 9 am, Sever 113
Posted at 2009-12-20 22:57:51, F spotting F
I will see you, last final of sophomore fall...and let me just tell you, you won’t stand a chance against me.



Almost immediately, people began to parody the entire concept of the site. Things quickly turned self-referential and mocking:

Posted at 2009-12-13 20:00:54, F spotting F
I saw you...killing my productivity. Thanks, isawyouharvard.


On isawyouharvard.com 
Posted at 2009-12-15 03:48:13, M spotting F
I saw you...far off in the distance as I posted to isawyouharvard.com. It was nice knowing you, dignity...

Then January came, the campus cleared out, and except for a few posts, the site lay dormant. When spring semester began, the site was still attracting traffic, but less of it; what had been hundreds of posts per day slowed to a few dozen, and gradually leveled off somewhere between 10 and 20. Moreover, while the actual sightings diminished, the mélange of commentary, complaint, and joking stayed. Crossfire began, with users trading posts and ripostes. Some of the fun was gone, and what had been a relatively amusing, if occasionally nauseating, catalog of daily infatuations began to look like a vast bathroom wall. 


This has happened before. In March 2007, Lizzie Widdicombe ’06 wrote in the New Yorker about boredatlamont.com, which, in effect, was trying to be a vast bathroom wall: it consisted of a single, scrolling, unmoderated message board. At the time, Bored At Lamont had accumulated more than 170,000 posts--in terms of sheer volume, immensely more than I Saw You Harvard. 

I entered Harvard in the fall of 2008, and never once did I hear anyone say a thing about Bored At Lamont. When asked, almost none of my classmates even know what it is. Juniors and seniors speak of it as a kind of distant memory, getting the same look on their face as my parents do when remembering Ed Sullivan. Within a year and a half, a website that at one time had an average of 25 posts for every student in the College had become a relic. If you visit Bored At Lamont now, you will find a largely defunct website, defaced by students from other schools and visited by only a few truly bored souls--the online equivalent of a ghost town. 

Harvard FML, a side project of the online student magazine The Voice, was launched at the beginning of the current school year. The site is a Harvard-specific version of “fmylife.com,” in much the same way as I Saw You Harvard imitates iSawYou. Every post ends with the abbreviation “FML,” which stands for “f*** my life,” and ideally consists of some sardonic mishap from daily life (“I go to Lamont so that I can focus on Facebook. FML”), but many are indistinguishable from simple complaining (“I have a midterm, in a class I have not attended since January. FML”), and sometimes downright unfunny (“I have leukemia. FML”). Harvard FML, like I Saw You Harvard, is a moderated site, which helps keep out some of the dreck that covers Bored At Lamont, but the fact remains that both sites are at the mercy of what people--these mysterious, anonymous Harvard students--produce for it. In the end, all such sites suffer the same crisis of purpose: why are people writing this stuff? And who’s reading it? 

It’s easy to turn these questions into a jeremiad against the Internet, or the shallowness of youth culture and its fads, or the failure of students to make meaningful real-life connections--all of which might be fair to some extent, but ultimately miss the point. There’s nothing terribly new here: the outlet, perhaps, but not the impulse. (The virtual bathroom walls were preceded by actual ones.) It’s the allure of anonymity, but also the sense that you have something to share--the thought that if you were released from all responsibility for a statement, free to speak with complete honesty, you could get at the heart of what goes on not only in your own mind, but in others’ as well. People don’t think that they’re writing with Shakespearean wit (much less profundity), of course, but neither do they think that their posts are completely worthless--otherwise, why bother to write in the first place? This is true of both the drippingly sincere and the bitingly sarcastic. Irony and honesty blend together. It is impossible to tell whether the leukemia poster was being serious or facetious. The difference stops mattering. The point is being able to touch something at the core of the everyday, whether it’s a bitter complaint, a secret crush, or a disdain for the notion of either. 

But it’s only a fantasy, and it gets old fast. Those things aren’t really the heart of the everyday; they’re the surface. The sad fact is that thinking takes work, and so what goes on in your head when you’re bored at Lamont sinks no further beneath the surface than any of the other thoughts you have from moment to moment. Feeling like everything is going wrong, or wondering if the person you passed was someone special--these are experiences everyone has, and for that reason, they might be interesting for a bit, but ultimately only tell you what you already knew. It’s thrilling to find that there’s someone out there who thinks the same thoughts as you, but, in the end, it’s not very helpful. That explains why these things tend to appear, flare up, ebb, and all but disappear: after a while, all the flirtations and the frustrations start to resemble one another. And, though we occasionally like to entertain the fantasy that we’re at Harvard because we’re at least a bit out of the ordinary, that’s as true here as it is anywhere else. 

Berta Greenwald Ledecky Undergraduate Fellow Spencer Lenfield ’12 will be at Cambridge University this summer, studying English literature at Pembroke College. 


[discuss:Join the Conversation:27781]

What has been your experience with online social interaction? Tell us what you think: does the Internet augment and enable your social life, or is it simply a tool for procrastination and the avoidance of real, meaningful human contact?

Read more articles by: Spencer Lee Lenfield
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