Xoxohth 1.2: The Whys and Wherefores

[This is Part I, Section 2, of the project I announced here. (Part 1.1 is here.) The goal of today’s installment is to present a diversity of views on why people spend time on Xoxohth, drawing largely on the voices of posters themselves.]

inkblot.cgiI’ll start by acknowledging an uncomfortable fact. This project suggests, and perhaps even reinforces, that critique of academic life often bandied about by the popular press: I’m asking a minor question, focusing on the uninteresting choices of marginal members of society, and using a methodology of debatable validity.

I felt bad about this for a while. And then I realized that the next best use of my time is grading: a similar process, but with higher perceived stakes.

Forward. The issue for today is why people continue to spend substantial amounts of time on XO. The question arises from the obvious point that students and lawyers have many ways to spend their time. Most of those ways are unlikely to lead to professional embarrassment if publicized, and may even enable individuals to build reputations for probity and acuity. It is odd, then, that hundreds or thousands of students and lawyers devote significant chunks of their free time to talking anonymously on XO. What gives?

It seems to me that there are a few motivations in play: entertainment, a search for information, the need for community, and the pleasures of transgression. Before we begin, let’s get some reader input. What motivation do you think drives XO’s traffic?

Why Do People Spend Time on XO?
The Community
The Transgression!
Information (Giving and Getting)
Free polls from Pollhost.com

Now that we’re done with the scientific polling, let’s look at the qualitative data.

A Community

A sense of community is an important part of XO’s continued popularity. Jargon, repeated catch phrases, and familiar jokes, all add to the sense that the board is a gathering place of old friends. A poster writes:

[X]oxohth is a social forum. Students have gotten head starts making law school friends over the summer before law school starts. Others have collaborated on papers together. Some posters meet a boyfriend or girlfriend online. But most posters are simply content to engage in debates, share jokes, and discuss their lives anonymously.

Belonging probably alleviates some of the unhappiness that many feel in law school or in practice. Moreover, the board’s ideology is disfavored in many public discussions among lawyers.

“Without the board, I would think that I’m the only person in the world who thinks certain taboo things. A board like XOXO allows us to debate very sensitive issues without destroying our real life reputations.”

Importantly, community cuts both ways. I’ve received many emails from individuals who claim to have been harmed when their real names were posted on XO in embarrassing circumstances. Others report that XO has made them distrust the secret motives of fellow students, especially men:

When I do have to talk to law students, I seek out the female URMs [defined here]. From what I can gather, they’re the ones who are least likely to have the Xoxo attitude lurking somewhere inside.

Putting aside these normative issues for the moment, it is also worth noting that the community itself may have changed since its Exodus from Princeton Review:

“XOXO retains its regulars very well–many have been posting upwards of three years, counting time spent on the old Princeton Review boards. The result is that XOXO is not really a pre-law discussion board anymore, but a law school and young lawyer board. Look at how many XOXOers took the most recent LSAT–maybe 10, 20. Compare that to LSD’s 100s (yet another reason to doubt XOXO’s traffic figures). Even at top schools, supposedly the homes of XOXO’s main posting population, most students do not know about XOXO. “

Watching a Car Wreck From the Comfort of Your Desk

A dominant reference among emailers was to XO’s “addictive and entertaining” nature: “Certain posters are characters, and to see them get into fights and fiascos is better than what happens on many reality shows.” (I have doubts.)

The site’s addictive nature, as one astute emailer points out, is largely dependant on its traffic stream:

“Catching up with a few hours’ worth of posts takes time and so does being active in a few different threads. Without a steady stream of new posts people certainly wouldn’t linger as long as they do. The fear that the traffic will slow is probably why, every once in a while, we get threads encouraging everyone to think of ways to recruit new members or, worse, proclaiming the end of xoxo.”

While this makes XO look somewhat like a Ponzi scheme, it’s a view of XO and the Law that is worth thinking about.

For many, the law – its study, its practice, its details – is terribly boring. Checking XO for the latest outrageous scatological picture, a comparison between the prestige of Superman and the Chief Justice, or a discussion of an anonymous poster’s intimate life, is, basically, a way to turn off your brain and slouch into a day-dream. In that fantasy, you don’t have an interrogatory to complete by Monday, or an exam to study for, or an application to complete. This escapist, comforting, fun seems to be a big part of the reason why people keep on visiting the board long after their lives have been set in the law’s path. It also suggests at least part of the reason for the increasingly exaggerated, self-referential, obscenity of the board. What was once titillating seems sort of mundane after a few months, and greater (and greater) nastiness is necessary to continue to get a response.

The Pleasures of Transgression

Rubbernecking doesn’t explain individuals’ willingness – eagerness – to post on their own. The sheer number of postings suggests something else: the joy of being transgressive in an overwhelmingly conservative, risk-averse, profession. This transgression may be deeply felt. That is, perhaps individuals are, indeed, racist, sexist, and anti-semitic, but lack courage to say so in public. This is the dominant view of XO among many law professors and law students I’ve spoken to about this project.

Emailers – who have obvious biases – suggest other motivations.

Some attribute the board’s content to the age of posters:

[T]he generation that posts on the board grew up with South Park (which was once shocking, but doesn’t seem so much anymore). The ironic shock-humor of Borat and Sarah Silverman is also undoubtedly popular. Doubtless, some of the speech on the board is authentically racist, sexist or anti-semitic while much of it is outsized schtick. The speech is unfortunate because it makes it difficult to be associated with xoxo. My addiction to the board is my dirty little secret.

Similarly, “It’s the popularization of the Ann Coulter, porn generation, and MTV effect: extremism and hyperbole yields attention, and attention is good.”

Others focus attention on the idea of role playing:

“”Flames” are posts designed to incite anger. “Schticks” are fake personas that are used to humorous effect or to flame. Many of the racist posts are made by schticks–the white woman-loving, Jew-hating poster aznaznaznaznazn, the white-bashing posters Africanus/Thaddeus/Strom Thurmond, the racist poster Rational Thought, and the Mormon-bashing poster rangerlaw are a few examples. In an environment where such shocking posts are common, and anonymity is nearly guaranteed, posters who otherwise don’t have racist/sexist/classist inclinations may find humor in joking about them, sometimes even creating them under alternate identities. “

It’s worth pointing out that listeners – and individuals named in posts without their consent – have little way to distinguish between schticks and intentionally offensive speech. (Intent surely matters to how much harm is felt, but it isn’t dispositive.)

A Market for Information

For some students, especially those without large endowments of social capital, XO is said to act as a career services office, guidance counselor, and head-hunter rolled up in one free package:

“I come from a less-than-wealthy background. I am the first person in my family to go to, let alone graduate, college. I had to join the military to pay for undergrad. I’m one of only about 7-8 people of my 50 person high school class to have graduated college. I’m not your typical law student, and I don’t have any family or friends who are lawyers, so I was unable to draw upon the experiences of others the way some other students might be able to.

For people like me, xoxo is invaluable. At most any school, career counselor or future counselor-types in general are pretty worthless. By accessing candid information, even if it sometimes comes in the form of insults, I have been able to find a path that has worked well for me. For example, if I posted a GPA/LSAT combo and asked “where will I get in?” with a list of schools, the responses might be candid and offensive, but once that’s sorted through, ultimately accurate. With limited funds to apply, I was able to narrow down the list of schools to which I applied.”

This advice may be quite specific indeed: “[p]osters also frequently exchange personal statements and proofread them for each other, both for grammar and for content.” (Although the frequency of such exchanges may be moderating as the board’s population ages).

Advice can be particularly valuable when students seek to apply outside of their school’s employment market. I heard many variants of the argument that law school career services offices were weak at this particular task, while XO was strong:

“Posters share job postings across different law schools, for example, a Georgetown student might send a Michigan student postings about jobs in Washington D.C. When posters have competing offers, the board can help provide information about which job to take. As with personal statements, posters have proofread and revised resumes and writing samples.”

Finally, posters credit XO’s informational value to anonymity:

Anyway, as school progressed, I appreciated the board as a place where one could be open about subjects people try not to talk about in school, like grades, for fear of being perceived as a jerk. The board gives a good outlet for the achievement-obsessed sides of many law students.

However, there is substantial uncertainty among posters as to whose advice to trust. Indeed, some might argue that XO serves as a dark meeting place for the blind to lead the blind. Poster reputation is of course quite important. But rumors still fly that some posters are better positioned than others to help:

“I have personally verified that there are posters who have clerked for prestigious Circuit court judges, lawyers at the top top firms in the country, and students from every major law school in the country. It has also been rumoured that some posters are law school admissions officers, professors, and big law firm partners (such as the mysterious zerosumgame “ZSG”), who appears to answer “responsible” questions every few months. “

According to a few emailers, this informational role keeps them coming back to XO:

” [A]s one of the “informative” posters on the board, I think it’s important to note that if it were not for the frank and rather uninhibited discussion that the board allows, many of us would quickly lose interest and the board would turn into the graveyard that is Greedy Associates. “

Concluding Thoughts

It is hard to know what to make of these varied, positive, claims on why so many students and lawyers spend time on XO. I admit that I would have thought that the preponderance of racist and sexist talk would have greater adverse effects on traffic, and wouldn’t have anticipated the network effects of traffic flow that appear to continue to drive the board’s popularity. On the other hand, I realize that there exists a continuing strong demand for information about the legal employment market. Why that demand has been met by this type of forum, rather than a more orthodox and commercial entity, is an interesting problem.

Notes and Sources:

1. The 2006 Weblog AwardsDid you like this post? Hate it? Either way, vote for us in the Weblog awards. We’re only 7 places out of first!

2. The project has been delayed by my continuing inability to get data of various sorts that would speak to the content of XO discussions. Further posts will be held indefinitely while I pursue the data. The next post in the project, should it happen, will be more quantitative than this one, looking at a random sample of posts to derive some conclusions about the board’s content and population.

3. If you have any special insights about XO, you are free to send them to me via email. Unless you tell me otherwise, I will assume that I can quote and attribute any emails.

4. There have been several discussions of this project on the web. See William McGeveran’s post on the project at Info/Law, and Jessica Silbey’s “experiment” at LawCulture. I feel no reason to replicate here Bill and Jessica’s experience with open comments, so I have closed them.

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