When the post about the Russian girls in danger went up at 5:09 p.m. on May 19, 2010, Kathrine Gutierrez didn’t see it. She had other things on her mind.
Her husband had been out of work for a month. Their landlord had evicted the guy who’d been living in their living room and paying a third of the rent on their Chelsea one-bedroom which they now couldn’t really afford. Gutierrez herself, who usually worked as a nanny, hadn’t worked in two weeks, because she was recovering from surgery for endometriosis. Cash was tight. She and her husband had a drawer of ramen noodles they were “basically living off of.”
So when fellow MetaFilter user (or “MeFite”) ocherdraco sent Gutierrez a link to a thread about two Russian girls about to be conned into what seemed alarmingly like a sex trafficking operation, she of course clicked and skimmed—and that, she thought, would be where her involvement in this strange, upsetting case would end.
The following morning, however, Gutierrez was out at breakfast with hermitosis, another MeFite, who knew Gutierrez was hard up and had offered to buy her a real meal. The two of them were reading over an email chain that was circulating among a group of New York MeFites about the Russian girls, who at that time were 18 and 21. They had arrived in Washington, D.C., the day before, having been promised jobs by a Moscow travel agency called Aloha as lifeguards on Virginia Beach. The night before they left Russian, however, Aloha rescinded the lifeguard offer and told them to “just fly to the U.S. and we’ll mail you an offer.” When they arrived in D.C., they called Aloha, and were told they’d be given some kind of unspecified work by a man named George. They called him and he said he had a job for them but they had to come to New York, to an address on Long Island, at midnight the next night, or the job would be gone. Also, they’d have to hand over their passports to get their “hotel rooms” which were “being renovated”; in the meantime he’d find somewhere else for them to stay. Also, he didn’t really speak English or Russian.
The girls were creeped out, but they’d paid $3,000 each to Aloha and the whole thing had been vetted by CETUSA, a federal U.S. agency, and they were reluctant to see the events as anything other than a series of annoying setbacks due to an incompetent and rude employer.
Still, they were concerned, and they’d called Daniel Reetz, an American they’d met in Russia two years earlier, MetaFilter username “fake,” and told him what had happened. Reetz, a visual neuroscience PhD dropout from North Dakota, was in his car on a highway in Wyoming with all his earthly belongings on his way to start a new job at an R&D arm of Disney in Glendale, California, when he received that call. He was alarmed, called George himself, found George “evasive and weird,” and when George told him where the girls were supposed to meet him, “the lightbulb clicked on and I realized what kind of situation it was,” and he pulled over to the side of the road and posted this thread.
Gutierrez, at breakfast with hermitosis, saw what MeFites had since uncovered—that the address on Long Island was a strip club called the Lux Lounge—and she also saw, in the New Yorkers’ private email thread, MeFites trying and failing to figure out how to prevent these girls from going out to meet “George” at midnight. Fake had tried contacting various law enforcement agencies and hotlines seemingly designed expressly for this purpose, only to be told the girls themselves needed to make the call—and the girls, at the time, were still intent on going to Long Island.
Gutierrez was on almost no sleep—her building had been evacuated the night before after a fire in the basement—but when she saw that no one in the email chain had actually been in touch with the two girls at that point, she messaged fake asking for their numbers, received them, and sent one of them a text. She had a strategy. The girls didn’t really think they were in danger—in their minds, they had just embarked on an Exciting Adventure In America They Would Never Forget—so she presented herself as Just Another Fun-loving Young Gal In The Big City, Much Like Yourselves, and told the girls she’d gotten their numbers from a mutual friend and would be happy to hang out and show them around. Also, they could park their luggage in her apartment and maybe wash their faces and change so they looked nice for their new boss smiley face smiley face smiley face.
It worked, at first; they’d love to get a drink and see the city! Then they told George about their new friend. Suddenly, things got tense. George said they weren’t supposed to see anyone else, they said. George said they should come straight to the Lux Lounge. He said if they couldn’t come right away, he would meet them at the bus station and take them there himself.
Gutierrez and the girls messaged back and forth, she all the while trying to maintain a casual air; the girls had said they didn’t want to talk to fake anymore after he’d started to bug them too much with his alarmist conspiracy theories. Eventually, the girls agreed it would be chill if Gutierrez met them at the bus station.
MetaFilter is a venerable institution in a context—the Internet—where the phrase “venerable institution” is only maybe just beginning to acquire a non-ironic usage.
After getting some backup in the form of fuq, a MeFite from Bushwick who’d biked all the way to the Port Authority at the last minute, and receiving a phone call from the Manhattan district attorney who advised her against getting involved and officially disclaimed the police of any responsibility for her, Gutierrez changed out of her surgery track pants and put on some makeup to become Just Another Fun-loving Young Gal In The Big City, Much Like Yourselves.
The gambit worked. When the girls, Svetlana and Ksenya, saw Gutierrez, they changed their minds and decided to hang with her for a while after all. They agreed to drop their luggage at Gutierrez’s apartment, and so the three women and fuq were hailing a cab to do just that when two plainclothes policemen rushed in and separated the four of them, interrogating everyone individually about what exactly was happening for a full hour. The cops ended up giving Gutierrez and the girls a ride back to Gutierrez’s apartment, “to make sure it wasn’t some weird place with no doorknobs on the inside of the doors,” and told Gutierrez’s husband, “We know where you live.”
Still a little confused about how exactly these people had all ended up together but apparently satisfied no one was about to get murdered, the cops left, and the whole gang went out for dinner at a diner around the corner. A big group of New York MeFites joined the party, and everyone ate and drank and was basically merry, if a little exhausted and frazzled.
With Svetlana and Ksenya now safely in the embrace of the MeFite hive, Gutierrez quietly left the diner. Back in her apartment, she sat in her living room, in the dark, and asked herself, “What just happened?”
Then she picked up her laptop and went to metafilter.com to find out.
What did just happen? Two Russian women, having recently arrived in America, had a problem, and called their one American friend, who happened to be a MetaFilter member, and who posted to MetaFilter about their problem. A book editor in Harlem saw the thread about their problem and emailed an out-of-work nanny in Chelsea to notify her about it, who then more or less ignored it, but nonetheless ended up intervening. The out-of-work nanny invited the Russian girls to stay in her living room after that dinner at the diner,11That night, for the second night in a row, Gutierrez got no sleep because she was worried sick the girls would sneak out of the apartment to go meet George. She had a job interview scheduled for the next morning and had to cancel it. and they ultimately stayed with her for a full month, during which time MeFites in New York and around the country sent the out-of-work nanny money to help feed the girls, and helped also in other ways, such as taking the girls out on the town and putting them in touch with immigration lawyers and employment agencies. More difficult to answer than What Happened, however, is Why? Specifically, why did Gutierrez put herself at such potential personal bodily risk and give of her time, energy, and home for a full month to two total strangers she’d only just heard about on the Internet?
The story was covered extensively in the media at the time—most substantially in the Daily Beast, Mother Jones, and Newsweek—and it’s interesting to see now Gutierrez’s decision is portrayed. Newsweek said that when Gutierrez heard about the situation, she “immediately offered to help.” The Daily Beast, presumably paraphrasing Gutierrez, said, “On a whim, she decided: why just sit there and watch these bizarre events as a bystander? Maybe she could help.” Mother Jones, the least interested in Gutierrez’s intentions, simply said that, when the bus from D.C. arrived in New York with the Russian girls on it, Gutierrez “was there.”
In Newsweek’s “immediately,” Gutierrez is a Fearless Hero. In the Daily Beast’s “whim,” Gutierrez is a Zany Millennial. In Mother Jones, she’s a faceless Act of God.
Compelling, all, but not so illuminating. None of the writers of these articles mention the context within which Gutierrez’s decision occurred, i.e., MetaFilter, i.e., the people, the community that’s developed around this website, its history, its culture. Every aspect of this event happened within networks of people connected through metafilter.com. Importantly, there is precedent in various ways for this kind of thing on MetaFilter. I would like to introduce you to this culture, and these stories.
The simplest definition of MetaFilter is… well, I mean, it’s right here. They just did a redesign, and it’s not as blue as it used to be, but the important things haven’t changed: at the top are links to the subsites (among which the most active is Ask); on the left is the site’s main content (links to interesting things on the Internet); and in the narrow right sidebar we have “New & Noteworthy” comments and posts. Also, in one of those menu bars at the top, is “Popular,” a feed of the most-favourited content on the site over the last week, which, while often overlapping with the curated “New & Noteworthy,” is, being machine-generated, vibe-agnostic and hence a pure representation at any given moment of the site’s heat.
But so, my “simplest definition”: it’s a smaller, more heavily moderated Reddit. Its official function is to be a “community weblog” (that’s an olde-timey way of saying “blog”) where members post links to “the best of the web” based on an ever-evolving community-driven aesthetic. In the words of a 2005 University of Michigan Master’s thesis by Noor Ali-Hasan: “Members, known as MeFites, post links, known as front page posts or FPPs, to various online content, often providing commentary that ranges from cynical, humorous, critical, or serious. Other MeFites respond to the post by adding comments.” Founded in 1999 by Matt Haughey, a.k.a. mathowie, who worked on an early version of Blogger, one of the first-ever blogging platforms (which was eventually bought by Google), MetaFilter is a venerable institution in a context—the Internet—where the phrase “venerable institution” is only maybe just beginning to acquire a non-ironic usage.
I could wax about the cultural nuances of MetaFilter for days, but I’ll confine myself to the Three Most Relevant Points About MetaFilter:
1. Look at this: YouTube vs. MetaFilter comments. It’s a thing a MeFite made that puts the most recent (notoriously shitty) YouTube comments alongside the most recent MetaFilter comments. Next, realize a) the point it’s trying to make, which is that MetaFilter discourse is, on average, nuanced, grammatical, and punctuated, although also think about the fact that b) a MeFite made it, which just shows that the site attracts some real nerdy, loyal types, but then also know that c) it’s regularly linked to on MetaFilter, which suggests that actually, the site is perhaps full of nerdy, loyal types.
2. There is a really, really strict no-self-linking rule. This means that none of the content on the site was made by any of the members—none of the content, that is, except the comments, which arguably are the content, not least because the conversation is often more interesting, more well-sourced, more diverse, and more fun to read than the things that get linked in the first place. Also—and MetaFilter is by no means unique in this, but it’s still interesting to think about—none of the people producing this extremely high-quality and well-sourced writing are paid to do so.
3. There are people who are getting paid though, and the site would grind to a shitty, shitty halt without them: the moderators. MetaFilter mods are active, assiduous, and drawn from among longstanding community members who really understand the culture. At least one mod reads every comment in every thread on every subsite, and offensive comments and spam are deleted with famous speed. In turn, they are well compensated for their time, in contrast to, say, the moderators of Reddit.
So: Nominally, MetaFilter is a venue for people to talk about things other people have done, intelligently and with respect for each other (if not necessarily for the thing being discussed), and a small number of people are paid well to ensure this is what happens. All of this, it seems, adds up to a place with a premium on humility and other-centeredness. Of course, members’ opinions, perspectives, and anecdotes come out inevitably and regularly in the comments, and are in many ways the lifeblood of the site. But the fact remains that structurally, the users’ main input to the site—their comments—are secondary, appendageal, or, looked at another way: supportive.
Here is a MetaFilter story. A woman in a taxi in Washington, D.C. with her three-year-old son half in her lap learns that her husband has lost her cat, Tina, at Devils Tower, a national monument in Wyoming. The woman, username k8t, posts to Ask, seeking advice to relay to her husband about how to catch the cat. There’s a flurry of activity: the layout of Devils Tower and likely spots for a cat to hide; reminders that her husband should be mindful of their other cat in the car (and himself) in the July Wyoming heat; advice that, to catch a cat, you have to grab its tail; and warnings that the cat will fight you, but that a human is bigger and stronger and will win. Necessary tools: gloves, blanket/towel, pillowcase. Put water and food out and call as nicely as possible. A YouTube video that demonstrates how to mewl is linked. There is a brief debate over whether to call nicely or mewl plaintively. All thorough if standard advice—the kind of stuff you might get if you posted the problem on Facebook and had a particularly helpful bunch of friends—But You Won’t Believe What Happens Next. You can just read the thread, but in essence, the practical and emotional support persists unabated for a solid two weeks. EvaDustruction and pickypicky thoughtfully and empathically suggest ways for k8t to talk to her son, who is three years old and taking the whole situation very hard, about the absence of a loved one. Desjardins designs a poster for k8t’s husband, who has since joined her in Seattle and then flown back to Wyoming, to print out and post in the area. And then, almost three weeks after the original post, k8t’s husband, armed with tuna, heavy gloves, and a towel, wrestles Tina out of a small cave in the desert floor, and k8t posts, “HE GOT HER!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!”
A FEW WORDS ABOUT WHO USES THIS WEBSITE: metafilter.com receives on average 61,793 pageviews a day from 307,698 unique visitors across the world, and is the 404th most-visited site in the United States. According to Quantcast, “The typical visitor shops at Cold Water Creek, visits sierratradingpost.com, and banks at U.S. Bank.” According to a 2004 study, “The average MetaFilter user is a 31-year-old, straight, white, single male.” According to Alexa in 2014, “Relative to the general internet population,” males are under-represented and Females are over-represented. Forty-seven percent of visitors are from the United States, 14.6 percent are from India, 6.5 percent are from the U.K., 4.4 percent are from Canada, and 2.4 percent are from Australia. Twenty-five-to-thirty-four-year-olds use it the most, followed by 18-to-24-year-olds, and then 34-to-44-year-olds. Visitors to metafilter.com are 15 percent more likely than “the average internet user chosen at random” to have graduated from college, and 47 percent more likely to have gone to graduate school. The population is more or less exactly as white and Hispanic as the Internet average, 30 percent less black, and 32 percent more Asian. Over the years, membership has included the writer and comedian John Hodgman, the poet Kenneth Goldsmith, musician Amanda Palmer, Mythbusters’ Adam Savage, Apple’s Steve (“The Woz”) Wozniak, XKCD’s Randall Munroe (whose comic is a MeFi staple), and Boing Boing editor and author Cory Doctorow. Some of the very first users were some of the earliest bloggers and Internet personalities, such as Jason Kottke (of kottke.org), Anil Dash (of Six Apart), and John Styn, a.k.a. halcyon, a Burning Man-type guy whose name people on the Internet knew circa 2000 and who was central to this early Super Important MetaFilter Historical Incident.
The MetaFilter community comprises feminists, computer engineers, current and former liberal arts nerds, thick-skulled autodidacts, at least two or three pretty famous science fiction writers, a European phage researcher, a New Orleans undertaker, this guy, design geeks, MMORPG nerds, geeks and nerds of all description, people who work at Walmart, Starbucks, and McDonald’s, dads, moms, at least one person in Antarctica, factory workers, small-town politicians, unemployed people, this woman, small business owners, pastors, people in porn, aid workers in Africa, him, her, 13-(almost-14)-year-olds, retirees, bedbound people, and people with no particularly noteworthy traits beyond their prolific raconteurishness, their devastatingly true evenkeeledness, or their nuanced views on how to find your passion or how to dump a motherfucking asshole.
MetaFilter users are what I would characterize as “self-consciously smart,” which, I promise, doesn’t play out as gratingly as it sounds. It’s more like, “I know I’m smart, I know you’re smart, we’re all smart around here, so we don’t have to show off (although we do sometimes anyway cuz it’s fun).” And when someone comes around and says, with sophomoric hubris, “I know more about this than you can possibly imagine,” that person is laughed down heartily, and the phrase becomes just another site meme.
The MetaFilter meme most illustrative of the site’s self-conscious smarts, though, has to be the one declinable as “plate of beans” and conjugable as “bean-plating,” which comes from the user solistrato injecting into a 2007 hermeneutics session re: Alanis Morissette’s cover of “My Humps” the line, “HI I’M ON METAFILTER AND I COULD OVERTHINK A PLATE OF BEANS,” which MeFites proceeded to adopt ever after as a judgment-neutral description of just a thing they sometimes do. Most notable and referenced beanplating session ever, which has also become a site meme in its own right: A debate over the meaning of Ralph Wiggum’s line, “Sleep, that’s where I’m a Viking.” This nerding out, though, really, is only half the story. In a way, there are two MetaFilters: one is this nerdy, autodidact-y culture, which takes place on metafilter.com, a.k.a. “the blue,” i.e. the front page of the site, so named because of the long-time and recently changed design, in which the front page’s background was blue.
A heartbroken college student needs an abortion. She is feeling “very messed up,” she says, about her pregnancy and about her attachment to a guy who doesn’t care about her. She receives not only excellent and detailed and locally relevant advice, but offers of rides to the clinic from users in Chicago, Hamilton, Seattle, New York, L.A., Vancouver, Akron, Ohio, and 20 other places across North America, as well as the money to pay for the procedure, which she is surprised by after waking up from a nap.
The other MetaFilter takes place at ask.metafilter.com, a Q-and-A site, where any member can ask a question, and other members attempt to answer that question. It is a.k.a. “the green,” “AskMeFi,” “AskMe,” and, simply, “Ask.”
Ask was born as a subdomain22The only other subsite important enough to have a colour-based nickname is metatalk.metafilter.com, a.k.a. Metatalk, or MeTa, or, after the American spelling of its background’s colour, “the gray.” Launched in March of 2000, the gray is the backchannel for communication about the site itself: it’s where discussion of policy changes happen, site news is posted, where one could conceivably ask members for input if one were writing an article about the site, etc. There are also subsites for jobs, music, members’ own projects (self-linking allowed), meetups, and so on. in 2005, soon after Jessamyn West, a.k.a. jessamyn, came on board as the first non-mathowie moderator and, for a long time after, the only female moderator at all. According to her, it was sort of her brainchild and she was its high priestess: she was the most active moderator on the green, and as a source of a seemingly never-ending stream of life wisdom she maintained a pervasive presence. With MetaFilter history sometimes spoken of in terms of “boyzone era” and “post-boyzone era,” it was the culture of Ask that steered the site as a whole away from the bro-y nerdy Internet asshattery to which “boyzone” refers (and which still characterizes the vibe of a lot of other comparable sites), and toward the atmosphere it enjoys today, which is actively and vigilantly inclusive without explicitly being a site ‘about’ social justice.
It is this second MetaFilter, I submit, and the community centred around Ask, that has played and continues to play a major role in events such as what went down in May 2010 with Gutierrez, fake, and the Russian girls. Because what Ask really is, for the large subset of users who use it this way, is a community of people with stable identities who talk to each other about their personal lives. People get to know each other. People have gotten to know each other. A culture has taken shape that’s more than the sum of its individuals. You begin to know the people behind the usernames, often including quite intimate details about them, over a period of—if you stick around—many years. Trust and intimacy and mutual support becomes part of the shape of the place in a way that goes far beyond what might be expected from a website that, to the casual passerby, could be mistaken for something as insubstantial and shallow as Yahoo Answers.
Here is a MetaFilter story. A heartbroken college student needs an abortion. It’s because of her ex-boyfriend, for whom she still has feelings, and who, earlier, had promised to help pay for the procedure and accompany her to the clinic, but who has now left her a voicemail saying it turns out he can’t go with her anymore because he forgot he was busy that day. She doesn’t have many friends, she says. She is feeling “very messed up,” she says, about her pregnancy and about her attachment to a guy who doesn’t care about her. “This last part might sound silly,” she says, “but if any of you have watched the latest episode of Glee, I feel like what I really need is someone like Kurt’s father (I never had anyone who really believed in me) to tell me to be strong, that I matter and that I need to keep moving.”
She receives not only excellent and detailed and locally relevant advice, but offers of rides to the clinic from users in Chicago, Hamilton, Seattle, New York, L.A., Vancouver, Akron, Ohio, and 20 other places across North America, as well as the money to pay for the procedure, which she is surprised by after waking up from a nap.
“Thank you, thank you, thank you,” she says. “You have really changed my life. I didn’t trust there to be so much kindness and generosity out there, but there is. […] You have all reshaped my view of humanity.”
“You are such a gracious, good-hearted young woman,” responds a prominent and longtime user of the site. “I am so proud of you.”
When sociologists write about online communities, they sometimes reference what they call “common identity and bond theory.” This is the idea that every online community is rooted in either a shared aspect of their identity, such identifying as LGBTQ, or “bond attachments,” i.e., relationships between people who already know each other for whatever reason, Facebook probably being the clearest example of such. A related theory labels communities based on common identity as “topic groups” (e.g., rpg.net is a community based around the topic of RPGs), and communities based on bond attachments as “social groups.” In other words, people form communities online either because a) they like to nerd out with one another, or b) because they already happen to know one another.
Of course, there is always the possibility that a community could be both.
Over the phone, jessamyn told me that when MetaFilter first started way back in 1999, the original members were “literally handpicked” by mathowie among people he knew personally whom he thought would make for good contributors. In other words, MetaFilter started as both a “topic group” for people with shared interests and a “social group” of people who already knew each other. I’m going to go out on a limb and suggest that this is one explanation for what a professional fundraiser in a thread concerning MetaFilter’s recent financial troubles33A modification to a Google algorithm one day in late 2012 lopped off 40 percent of traffic to Ask, and with it a huge chunk of the site’s ad revenue; this was only revealed to the public (i.e. the site’s users) in the spring of this year. In the same thread in which that information was dropped, it was announced at the same time that universally beloved jessamyn was being laid off. There was an outcry, which led to a huge and apparently very successful fundraising effort. called its “insanely engaged userbase.”
Of course, even if the first users had some prior connection, at the very beginning, MetaFilter, like any other online space, was still just a bunch of people talking to each other on the Internet from their respective geographical isolations. Something changed, though. There were likely a multitude of underlying causes—meetups, for one thing, started popping up in the Pacific Northwest as early as 2000—but however it happened, the change is most clearly seen, appropriately enough, in times of emergency.
The earliest example of this is the February 2001 Seattle earthquake. While not the world’s most devastating disaster, it was one that hit home for a lot of early MeFites. In the comments, where people are checking in and offering first-hand reports (possibly, incidentally, the earliest instance of liveblogging and maybe one of the first times a non-news site broke a story before major media outlets), the user aflakete noted that as he followed the thread, he “felt the ‘community’ in this weblog like I never have before.”
This was followed soon after by the landmark, community-defining 9/11 thread, and after that you can follow the site through nearly a decade and a half of rallying and information-sharing during disasters, from the 2004 South Asian tsunamis and 7/7 London bombing, the Arab Spring, Fukushima, Hurricane Irene, and Sandy Hook, up to the recent outstanding coverage of Ferguson.
Fifty days after his wife’s funeral, the man posts an update. He mentions in a comment, when a MeFite who’s visited him several times to bring him bagels reminds him he said he’d get a maid, that he has one lined up “once [he] get[s] Amy’s ER/hospital/ambulance bills paid.” Forty-one minutes later, Matt Haughey, the site’s founder, transfers him the money he needs.
Even though the digital landscape has changed immensely since 2001, the explosion of information available from social media, especially in situations where traditional media reportage is limited, as during the Arab Spring and in Ferguson, has made the site’s function as a central aggregator more important, and more useful than ever. MeFites still regularly say things like, “when a disaster hits, MetaFilter is the first place I come to” (e.g.). Indeed, because of its strict moderation standards, its linear, orderly layout, and its focus on links over speculation, it’s still arguably the best place for up-to-the-minute information on quickly-evolving events as they happen in real time, even into the age of Twitter.
And when MeFites are personally involved, as, in a community of this size, they often are, the site also serves as a place people can report their survival and coordinate ways of helping each other. For the best story about this, listen to longtime member ColdChef talk about taking 26 people into his house during Hurricane Katrina, and MeFites sending him money to support them, in an early episode of the site’s own podcast, here.
Of course, members turn to MetaFilter during disasters on a smaller scale, too.
One last MetaFilter story. A 34-year-old man’s 34-year-old wife is vomiting, has sweaty skin, and chest pains. She calls her husband at work. He takes her to the hospital. Doctors do an EKG, blood tests, check her blood oxygen, give her two NSAID painkillers, and tell her she’s fine. At home, she says her back is sore and she’s going to take a soak in the tub, then a nap. The man says “Okay,” and goes into the computer room to catch up on work. It’s never clear to the man whether his wife napped and went back to the tub, or whether she never made it to the bed. He’s in the computer room, 15 feet from the bathroom, working with his headphones on. Two hours later, he takes those headphones off and goes out into the hallway. The bathroom light is on. He opens the door and finds her. He runs across the street “fully butt-ass naked” and pounds on the door of Lyle, who knows first aid. Lyle runs back to the house with him, and while Lyle’s in the bathroom, the man is talking to 911. Lyle comes out of the bathroom and just kind of shakes his head. The paramedics arrive and tell the man she’d been gone for a couple of hours.
Five days after the funeral, the man posts: “Have you lost a spouse at a very young age? How did you cope?”
People respond. Express condolences. Several people have been through similar things. They tell their stories. They have advice.
Fifty days after the funeral, the man posts an update. He mentions in a comment, when a MeFite who’s visited him several times to bring him bagels reminds him he said he’d get a maid, that he has one lined up “once [he] get[s] Amy’s ER/hospital/ambulance bills paid.”
Forty-one minutes later, Matt Haughey, the site’s founder, transfers him the money he needs.
Why are these people helping each other the way they are? What makes a MeFite help another MeFite track down the personal records of a relative who died in the Holocaust? What makes a MeFite offer to get a drink then and there with a MeFite he doesn’t know who just got dumped? What makes a MeFite volunteer to be the witness at a wedding for a couple so socially anxious they don’t have a friend to do the job and are afraid to ask a stranger? For that matter, what makes a MeFite make a poster for a total stranger who lost her cat in Wyoming? What makes a whole bunch or MeFites pay for a total stranger’s abortion? And what makes a 24-year-old unemployed nanny in New York City volunteer to host two young Russian women mixed up in a criminal organization for a full month? “Why do I do anything?” Gutierrez said to me on the phone. “I don’t know, you know? I think there are much fewer reasons for why people do what they do than they think.”
She paused. “It’s funny, people actually ask me, they’re like, Your life was so bad—they’re a little more tactful than that…”
She paused again.
“I didn’t want to get involved initially,” she continued. “But ultimately, when it came out [the girls] weren’t talking to fake and were basically just on their own, I felt that someone should do something, but no one else was in the position to do anything, so in that moment that someone happened to be me. So I stepped in and did what I could.” I asked her what role the website played.
“It’s the kind of thing that’s really impossible to do by yourself. Just knowing that I had this amazing resource, which is the community, was absolutely a necessary part of it—the social support I got—because it was very scary, actually. And I was under a huge amount of stress. People put a lot of faith in me, too. Fake didn’t know me—for all he knew I could’ve been the world’s sketchiest person—and he gave me their phone numbers, these two vulnerable young women. He trusted me to take care of them. And then people from the site trusted me enough to send me money. People trusted me enough to help me.”
Conventionally, when you want to tell the story of a culture, you select or invent one hero whose actions are supposed to be read as representative of that people; in The Aeneid, Virgil created the hero Aeneas, whose actions and characteristics were meant to embody that which the Romans thought a good man should be. In this way, a “hero” is a fictive device. But real people really do great things, and although I’ve “deconstructed” to some extent the media’s characterization of Kathrine Gutierrez as a “hero,” I don’t mean to minimize her actions in any way. I think what she did is great, and I admire her a lot, as I do all the “heroes” in the stories I’ve told here.
I have my MetaFilter stories, too. MetaFilter helped me decide to go to grad school, helped me figure out the logistics of how to move to Alabama, helped me with a sex question I asked anonymously, was there for me when a writer I cared about died unexpectedly, and I have the thousands and thousands of comments in these two threads in 2007 to thank for giving me up-close-and-personal insights into women’s experiences to a degree I’d never had access to, even from my closest female friends and girlfriends, which more or less singlehandedly changed the way I thought about feminism overnight. MetaFilter has also helped me with a hundred other Life Problems and given me access to some of the most interesting people I’ve never met, and has been the room of voices I’ve woken up to almost every morning since the fall of 2007.
That being said, I personally have never engaged with the site in a way like the people in the stories I’ve told here, and I suspect most MeFites haven’t either. But just because you don’t play an active role in an event, doesn’t mean it doesn’t have the potential to be important to you. You learn from what other people do; you learn from the site’s culture. The highlights are the exceptional feats of heroism, but anyone who reads the site with any regularity soon learns that the spirit that animates these Great Acts in fact runs all throughout the site, in all the little conversations, all the little exchanges, in the friction and the recovery from the friction, and in how people treat each other and learn to treat each other, even when interacting with people they’ll probably never meet.
People connect to each other here, is what I’m saying. They get to know each other and they treat each other well. If Twitter is people you don’t know at their wittiest, and Facebook is people you do know at their most mundane, then MetaFilter, I would say, is a family of strangers.