Now connected
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    Truth be told, sometimes I think I might be fighting a losing battle. But it's one I can't not fight. ...I went back, you know. A couple weeks ago.
    What happened?
    What happened is that I failed, and she died.
    I'm... sorry to hear that.
    The first time I could barely bear it. Now I'm just... I'm just tired.

    It sounds like a scene from a Stieg Larsson book, or maybe an intense exchange between characters in the Jason Bourne movies. 

    It’s neither. It’s dialogue from an online text-based role-playing game (RP for short), pieced together collaboratively by people portraying various characters — some from popular TV shows and books, others developed by the player from scratch. The story is told one line at a time, the chance to narrate rotating among the participants.

    Among these RP users is Carly Ho, who graduated from McCormick last year and now works at the engineering school as a digital media specialist associate. Hers is the first voice in the above passage. As she navigates the various posts and threads of this RP, called Bete Noire, she sheds her identity as a young professional in Evanston. She becomes a revised version of Homura Akemi, a dark and quiet magic girl, originally a character in the anime television series Puella Magi Madoka Magica.

    What’s perhaps most striking as you read through Ho’s logs is the synchrony between Homura and the other characters. They bounce dialogue and action sequences off one another, melding their writing styles and interacting as if they know each other.

    But aside from a few fellow Northwestern alums, Ho has never met any of her fellow players.

    Ho is one of a number of Northwestern students whose Internet use extends beyond tweeting and Facebook stalking. They are part of a deeper community, for whom the Web is a platform for connection despite physical barriers.

    She’s been at it since age 14, and though the details of her first game are hazy, her motivations for getting into text-based role-playing are still clear. “That was the summer between middle and high school and I didn’t actually have any friends to speak of at that point,” she explains as she reaccounts her favorite scenarios. “So I was like, ‘Internet! Let’s meet people!’” Ho was a self-described “larval nerd,” one who’s blossomed into a full-blown fan of anime, webcomics and Internet trends. It seems role-playing was inevitable.

    “Even before I discovered the Internet, I was writing [fan fiction] on my computer about Star Wars and a Jedi character who happened to be just like me,” she says, laughing. “So this was an outlet to be able to do that with other people as a social activity, because I didn’t have a whole lot of social activities at that age.”

    Coming to Northwestern fostered such interests, but middle school – full of pop culture-obsessed tweens – made it hard for Ho to find people with the same passions. She had a desire to reach out to others who shared a love for Harry Potter and Sailor Moon, and it led her to turn to message boards, which themselves led to text-based role-playing.

    And she wasn’t the only one who felt isolated by a quirky interest that her peers in person didn’t share. Other Northwestern students and alums had something they loved so much, something that the people they were friends with in-person didn't understand, they felt the need to indulge themselves and search it. This initial click of a mouse eventually turned into an active online presence before the advent of social media as we know it today.

    “I feel like it is just sort of a natural step for any kid our age to, like, Google Harry Potter at some point and find all of these websites,” says Abby Schulman, a bubbly senior double majoring in theatre and English who first discovered the Harry Potter news site MuggleNet in middle school. What appealed to her about entering the Harry Potter fandom — or fan community — is that it made finding people her own age to talk about the series with incredibly simple. “When I was younger, all my friends were super into it, and then as I got older, some of my friends stopped,” she says. “I think the Internet’s actually a really great resource to find people who are just as into it as you.”

    For others, it was art that motivated their Internet searching. Communication junior Taylor Cleland had humble beginnings making art in her house, and eventually she stumbled onto deviantART, which she says played a formative role in her growth as an artist.

    “My family wasn’t very supportive of [my art] and it was the first time that I had people that wanted to see what I did,” she says. “I think if I hadn’t had that in middle school, I probably wouldn’t have improved as much as I did.”

    Cleland kept her online life secret from her parents. If she wanted to tell them about something an Internet friend said, she’d tell them she was talking to a friend who had moved away. (“They were like, ‘Damn, did your entire fifth grade class move away?’” she says with a laugh.) That worked well until an Internet friend became a real life one — her now-boyfriend Sean, whom she’s been dating since last year. She came clean to her parents about how they met after they became official.

    Even at Northwestern, an online interest in art helped Cleland bond with classmates. A post on the Northwestern University Class of 2013 Facebook group led to a friendship that extended to deviantART. After meeting on Facebook, she and Weinberg junior Li Gao began following each other’s art profiles, and they have remained friends — both virtually and in person.

    ***

    Ho made that transition from Internet interactions to real life ones her sophomore year at Northwestern, when she discovered the live action role-playing group Dead City Productions. She made friends she now plays with both in-person and online. It actually becomes difficult to ask Ho about her Internet life from before her arrival at Northwestern, since she tends to gravitate toward discussing Dead City Productions and RPs that involve the people in it.

    Through Dead City Productions, Ho has blended two worlds: the corporeal and the virtual. Now that she and her friends are “scattered to the four winds” post-graduation, they play together online, taking friendships once based on in-person interactions to online forums and games.

    In a digital age, we can see the Internet’s integration into our personal lives all around us. You could pose as anyone on MySpace, but that has been replaced by Facebook, which is more intricately tied to everyday life and is moderated for authenticity. And now there are Google Plus circles, for which you must use your real name. Check-ins on foursquare allow you to digitally mark where you are in person. And the virtual can become very, very real in online dating, which is more popular than ever. 

    In that vein, Cleland says she believes Google Plus is the next big website for artists. “It’s cool to see an artist and see their name on it and know that they’re a real person somewhere with a real life who really makes art,” she says. But she also takes issue with the fact that the Internet doesn’t allow as much anonymity as it did when she was coming of age. “You had this alternate universe to kind of test things. If you were an idiot, you’d change your screen name and no one knows that you were the idiot,” she says. “It is interesting and kind of sad to me that that time of user names was so quick and is over because it was an incredibly liberating, interesting experience that I think really helped me grow up and test who I was.”

    Nowadays, a person’s real life experiences are bound up so much with virtual ones, it can be hard to draw lines and navigate between two worlds. Making transitions between them can be tough, and one way or another, sacrifices must be made. All these students cut back on their Internet involvement once they came to Northwestern. Schulman used to spend 10 hours a week moderating fan fiction submitted to her favorite website, MuggleNet.com. Approving stories to be posted for that long, that often, was enough to cut into her social life, even though she was struggling to meet her minimum editing quota. When her fellow moderators nominated her for the superlative of “lurkiest,” she realized she needed to make a change. 

    “This isn’t fair to anyone,” she recalls. “I shouldn’t be claiming this spot on a website I’m not on all the time.” Though she no longer works for MuggleNet, she still chats on forums, checks Harry Potter news websites daily and interacts with her favorite series through the new website Pottermore. “I didn’t have to sacrifice my love for it,” she said. “I just had to sacrifice talking to people everyday or writing fan fiction all the time or being a moderator, which I think was worth it. The essential part is still there.”

    Similarly, Cleland majorly cut back on posting to her deviantART once she came to college. A part of her decision to do so was that she no longer needed emotional support from Internet friends. “I don’t need the escape as much because I can pick my friends here a lot more than I could in high school,” she says.

    And Ho responds to invitations to role-play more slowly now that she has a job and friends from Northwestern she can hang out with in-person. “I can barely keep up with it now just because I’m, like, the slowest poster,” she says.

    Yet their relationships with friends online have persisted. Ho and Cleland gush over how cool it is to have friends in other countries, from places like China, Malaysia and Australia. But even better was connecting with people over a shared interest and a shared Internet connection, so much so, it wasn’t even obvious the people they were chatting with were foreigners.

    “I made friends with people that lived all around the world and we talked about the same things and never picked up on the fact that we didn’t live in the same country,” Cleland says.

    And of course, no one hesitates to say the Internet has been a force of good in their lives, whether it’s helped them grow as a writer or an artist, or even if it’s helped them get closer to their true selves — in both the real and virtual senses of the word.

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