An e-mail that begins this way stands out: ‘I’m a Goth/Wiccan in Alabama, and for the crime of wearing black lipstick, a trench coat, and a pentagram, I’ve been a social outcast for four years. In some ways I’ve had it better than many of your respondents: I’m graduating at the top of my class as a National Merit Scholar with a 1,600 SAT, a finalist for the Alabama All-State Academic Team, and a semi-finalist for the Presidential Scholars, among other things. I’ll matriculate at Yale University. I hold these things up as talismans to protect me; all my awards are thin paper shields to keep me safe from the hatred that surrounds me and my friends.’
The message came from Jennifer Andress, a senior at Bob Jones High School in Madison, Alabama. A self-described Wiccan (the pagan religion commonly associated with witchcraft) and Goth (the broody subculture marked by industrial music, black clothing, white makeup, and a preoccupation with death), she is a member of an obsessive, brainy community of oddballs, misfits, geeks, and nerds who know what it’s like to be outcasts.
The massacre near Littleton, Colorado, in April hit their world like a bomb. Like so many other kids who don’t fit into conventional notions of ‘normal,’ Jennifer found the massacre and resulting media-fueled hysteria appalling.
‘It hurts,’ she wrote. ‘Why do people assume that a kid in a black trench coat must be a psychotic murderer instead of a National Merit Scholar? Or a kid who plays Doom? Or wears white makeup? Or listens to Marilyn Manson or industrial music? Or spends as much time on the Net as his or her classmates do on the football or soccer field?’
Although many geeks are happy, well-adjusted, popular, and athletic, many are not. They grasp the reality of the alienated, the anger of those who inhabit a world that isn’t made for them, doesn’t work for them or reflect their values, and sometimes systematically excludes and humiliates them–a brutal fact of life in middle school and high school. And if life was painful before Littleton, it got worse afterward. The media coverage was grotesque, even outrageous. Even serious journalists accepted and transmitted the idea that two students turned to mass murder because they played nasty computer games associated with the gloomy (but nonviolent) Goths, or had access to Internet bomb-making sites.
Dumb and demonstrably false as it is (an estimated 20 million Americans, mostly kids, are into video and computer games; hardly any commit mass murder), this idea was so prevalent that most of the country actually came to believe it. The week after the massacre, a Gallup poll suggested that more than 80 percent of Americans agreed that the Internet was at least partly responsible for the Colorado killings.
And who could blame them? CBS’s 60 Minutes devoted a segment to this question: ‘Are Video Games Turning Kids into Killers?’ Time magazine ran grainy pictures of the two killers under this cover line: ‘The Monsters Next Door.’ Hundreds of newspapers and TV stations ran stories linking computer games, Goths, Web sites, and other ‘aberrant,’ ‘abnormal,’ and ‘weird’ behavior to mass murder. These messages were almost guaranteed to panic parents and students and to stampede educators into overreaction. Instead of being a force for truth, clarity, and calm, the media transmitted hysteria. The cost of being different–already high–went way up.
Overnight, geeks, misfits, and oddballs became instant suspects in a kind of ‘geek profiling,’ a national hunt for the strange.
Three days after the massacre, I wrote a column called ‘Why Kids Kill’ on Slashdot, a Web site with a large geek following. It was reprinted on the Freedom Forum’s Web site, Free! I suggested in the column that ties between violence and popular culture are fuzzy at best, and that what caused these mass killings remains unclear.
In two subsequent columns I reprinted some of the messages I got in response. Describing the cruel reality these kids face just because they’re different, the messages were wrenching and irrefutable. They couldn’t be subjected to journalism’s noxious and eternal culture of debate, because these were kids reflecting on their own experience. More e-mails poured in, reporting that students had been sent home for dressing strangely and that schools had installed hot lines to report odd peers. Kids who expressed sympathy or understanding for the Littleton killers were called into counseling or banned from class. Ditto for kids who admitted in newspaper articles and class discussions that they had sometimes felt enraged to the point of committing violence. Even kids who played computer games were offered psychiatric help.
‘Help me, please,’ e-mailed JDT from a high school in Illinois. ‘My social studies teacher asked if we wanted to talk about Littleton. I said I had some sense of how those two kids might have been driven crazy by cruel students, since it happens to me. I said I had thought of taking my father’s gun to school when I was in the ninth grade and was so angry. I was sent home. When I got there, three detectives were going through my room.’
School life, reported Jane D., had become insane. ‘We were all called into an assembly and asked to turn in our friends who were moody, emotional, angry at the way they were treated in school. That’s everybody I know!’ Another student wrote that he felt much safer with the people blasting him on the video game Quake than he did in his high school hallways.
The Net sent these voices into homes, schools, offices, and newsrooms around the country to a degree I’d never seen in nearly a decade of writing online. Geek kids had taken to their computers to launch a media revolution. While journalists, educators, and therapists were telling the world about the state of American kids, the kids were using the Net to speak for themselves. My columns quoting the Slashdot kids were read on National Public Radio, discussed at MIT, entered into the Congressional Record, reprinted and referred to in magazines and newspapers like The Economist, The New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, and several others.
Reaching far beyond their computers into the heart of mainstream media, these kids made big news. They used technology to fight back and speak out, and many journalists heard them. They changed the way the media work. Kids who were voiceless suddenly had a voice.
‘You speak for us,’ Jennifer said at the end of her message to me. ‘Take our stories and let them know what is happening here.’ Her message was an especially haunting and, in an odd way, unifying one, transcending the killings and their aftermath. It was a reminder of what it really means to be a journalist, new or old.
Jon Katz is at work on a book called Geeks, to be published by Villard in February 2000. Reprinted with permission from Brill