Oct 152012

This man is thrilled that his door photographs and poems about trees will outlive him on the Internet. (Source)

This weekend I tried to Google something from my past and wound up spending an hour knocking around the Web, following the trails left by my eighteen years on the internet. Always an unsettling practice, finding out how little anonymity we have in this digital world.

What surprised me most about my own online legacy was its totally random nature. For every document from my legal career, there are strange one-offs like a listserv post from 1996, a 2003 forum question about Polaroid cameras, and a 2008 comment on a blog post about elephant-shaped laundry hampers. There’s my tutorial on making bowls from magazine pages, posted to a design site years ago and repeated on other sites. There’s also the one other person who shares my maiden name, who seems to exist only in an empty blog and a couple of family obituaries.

Even with painstakingly created spaces like this blog, you can never predict what will “take off” and reach people most often. Of the hundreds of posts on Two Wishes, the single most popular post — the one that gets two thousand hits a month — is tip about hair dye removal that I wrote in about 15 minutes.

Which brings me to my law school application essay.

The original reason for this weekend’s Google search was that I was helping a friend with an application essay and wanted to hunt down my own essay as a sample. Googling it wasn’t as crazy as that might sound — the essay was published in one of those “how to write application essays” books, which is part of Google Books. My page wasn’t in the Google Books preview, so as a final effort, I tried just Googling a unique phrase from the essay.

It got hundreds of hits!

Yes, my law school application essay has gone viral. Not viral in the Roomba Cat sense, but definitely viral to the small world of application essays. Peterson’s EssayEdge uses it in their instructional materials. And check out this section from a Penn State professor’s handbook for application essays:

Of the thousands of personal essays I’ve read over the past 20 years, one of my favorite introductions is from an application to law school, and it opens thus:

My interest in the law began with donuts. As a child, I developed early persuasive skills during family disagreements on how to divide boxes of the treats. My parents belonged to the “biggest people deserve the most donuts” school of thought; while as the youngest family member, I was a devout believer in the “one person, one donut” principle. The debates were often cutthroat, but when it came to donut distribution, I sought justice at any cost.

This opening, taking from a sample essay in the book, How to Write the Perfect Personal Statement, by Mark Allen Stewart, isn’t just effective because of its cleverness. It’s also efficient in detail, humorous and surprising in delivery, focused in theme, universal in appeal, and even moralistic in meaning. This writer is concerned with justice, even at an early age when decisions of right and wrong could be reduced to the distribution of donuts. Obviously, the paragraph that follows the opening discusses justice at a more advanced level, and gradually this law school applicant addresses social issues such as poverty, nationalism, and prejudice, and he emphasizes his passion to address them through law. As he later sums up near the close of his essay, “My identity rests on these convictions”— and we believe him.

I alternate between ecstasy over the compliment* and depression over the fact that I’ve lost the ability to write. Everything comes out a flabby, jumbled mess these days. And let’s not even talk about those youthful ambitions toward social justice. Guess I can take comfort that, even if I never solved the problem of world peace, my legacy will live on in hair color tips and magazine bowl tutorials.

(* Lest I get too big for my britches, there’s always this helpful advice from a different site: “This story is great for personal use however, the whole donut idea when it comes to upscale colleges may not be appealing. To personal and irrelvant, these people are much more complex and intelligent than that. But good paper.” Love the patronizing little pat on the back at the end.)

Do you have a strange online legacy? Have you ever “gone viral”? Bloggers, is your most popular post an unexpected one?

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