Once upon a time, there was a fresh-faced, enthusiastic professor who spent a lot of time and effort developing a new course. This course was designed to teach her students about one of her passions – the internets – and how to read and write effectively in this exciting new medium. The professor was excited to teach the new course, and looked forward to sharing her knowledge with her students.
Because she was keen, and fresh-faced, the professor thought in great detail about her assignments, and, thinking about what she would most like to explore, if she were a student in her own class (oh brave new world, that has such self-reflexive ideas in it!), she designed a term project. For this project, students would participate in an online community of their choosing. They could pick a new community to join, or write about a community in which they had existing membership. The professor thought about the handful of online communities of which she was a member and how fascinating it might be to consider them, meta-style, with a particular focus on analyzing how people communicated in these online enclaves. She hoped her students would enjoy this, too.
Well, the semester started and a lot of them whined about “not being able to find a community”. On the internet? Were they joking? The professor employed her google-fu to help those poor lost babes, and after a couple of weeks, she stopped hearing complaints, and so she naively assumed, in her fresh-faced way, that things were going well.
Months passed, and as the end of semester neared, the professor began to look forward to her students’ reports of their adventures in cyberspace. Many of the reports were a little dull, which disappointment the professor bore with a brave smile on her fresh face, and she was rewarded by a small but significant number of gems in the pile of dross. There was the thrilling tale of the girl who had dared the wrath of the terrifying moderators of Neopets, the chilling tale of the young man who had banded together with a group of right-wingers to support a particular conservative pundit, and the hilarious story of the guy who had faced the wrath of an army of Starcraft players when he challenged their assumptions about strategy.
All-in-all, the professor was happy with her experiment in assignment-setting, although she had copious notes about how to improve the instructions for the assignments in the following semester.
However, there was one student who caused the professor a great deal of consternation.
When she had first imagined her assignment, the professor had shared the idea of it with some of her online friends. One of them, a wise old man with a long beard, had asked “what happens if one of your students wants to join THIS community and report on it?” The professor had professed that she thought the odds on such a thing were long, and that she would cross that bridge when she came to it. “It’s a big internet.”
None of the students who had told the professor about their adventures on the internet had mentioned any of the communities of which she was a member, so it came as rather a surprise at the end of the semester when a report from a student came in, and lo, it was on this very same community of which she was a member; the community run by the wise old man with the long beard. “How odd that the student did not mention it. Or me,” she thought to herself. For, in a not immodest way, the professor was a prominent member of that community.
As she read the student’s report, the professor found herself more and more confused. The report spoke of the community having rules the professor was not aware of, and conversely made no mention of major discussion areas and topics familiar to all members. The professor could not fathom what was going on. Was the student very unobservant and a poor reader? Had he really overlooked the areas of the community with the most conversation and activity?
She took her question to the wise old man with the long beard, and some of the other community members, including a curious weasel. They pondered for a few moments, and then the weasel piped up “You cannot see the busiest discussion areas if you are not a member of the community.” Could this be? Could the student really have PRETENDED to join and participate in a community? Was his report a fake?
The professor gave the student the benefit of the doubt, and emailed him, suggesting that he needed to add some more detail to his report; there was still time, as he had submitted before the deadline. The student responded that he didn’t understand this advice, and declined to act on it.
The professor then marked the report, commenting with a heavy heart, that since the student had manifestly not completed the quest to participate in an online community, she could not in good faith give him a passing grade.
The student responded rapidly to the professor. Not to prove her wrong, but to explain that he had been FORCED to cheat on the assignment by the community’s unreasonably high membership requirements. You see, in his wisdom, the wise old man with the beard required adventurers who wished to join his community to answer a number of questions, varying in wording, but all essentially asking the question, “Are you a moron?”
The student had proved himself unable to answer the question in the negative; first by failing the test, second by not choosing an alternative community on the internet with lower membership standards so that he could have completed the assignment honestly, and thirdly by attempting to deceive his professor with a manifestly falsified report.
Was he unlucky to happen on one of the handful of communities on the internet of which she was a member? Possibly, but his own stupidity was his ultimate undoing.