An interview with Jacob Lewis, Co-founder of Figment.com.
Back in the early ’90’s my dad gave me my first computer–one he’d built himself but subsequently outgrown. At the time I was a freshly-minted military wife. I’d gotten married just a year out of college and within two years I’d lived in three different states: Central Florida, Upstate New York and the Virginia Peninsula. This was well before cell phones, email or social networking had become common and all of that moving had separated me from the friends I’d known best. Meanwhile, my husband was now attached to a fast-attack submarine where he regularly worked twelve-hour shifts, babysat the ship’s nuclear reactor every third night his boat was in port and headed out to sea (incommunicado under various ice shelves) for more than half of each year.
I’d like to say that I handled these circumstances well–that I used the time to pen a first, precocious novel or take up watercolor painting…but mostly I just stayed alone in our apartment, depressed and unemployed, eating Ben and Jerry’s New York Superfudge Chunk and watching Quantum Leap reruns. I briefly considered becoming pregnant around this time but balked when I heard that adding a child to our family would make us eligible for food stamps.
Instead, I became friends with that computer. Because, goddammit, I wanted to connect to people and I wasn’t going to let something like mild agoraphobia or geographic isolation get in my way.
I think about that black hole time now whenever I read articles about how our “plugged in” existences are altering our culture or affecting the neurobiology of our children. I grew up “unplugged” but also very unconnected–geek before it was chic. Toward the end of my childhood, one of my favorite professors in college would stridently caution my composition class: FIND YOUR TRIBE. OTHERWISE, YOU’LL BE LOST. I understood what she meant–but still I wondered where are my people and how am I supposed to find them, anyway?
It took a while, but I believe that I finally started to find my tribe when I turned on that first computer. Today I do feel connected–the lonely young woman from twenty years ago is barely recognizable to me. I’d love to be able to leap backward a la Sam Beckett and tell her, “It’s going to get better. Actually? It’s going to get AMAZING. You will meet people and you will find a way to do things that make you feel SO ALIVE–this whirring screen box is going to be such a help. Oh, and never mind learning DOS.”
Just this week, a new online community, Figment.com, officially launched. The site was created by two former employees of The New Yorker magazine and is designed as a place where writers aged 13 and up can share their writing, “follow” other young authors who they enjoy and even review work or be reviewed themselves. Community members can choose to make their stories public, available to select people or visible only to themselves. They can get to know each other better through an online forum where advice, writing prompts and strategies are all proffered…
I immediately think of my 14-year-old son as I read this article about Figment.com. Sure, he might look like his dad, but man, he’s got my brain–all my sensory wonkiness and my obsessiveness…and my gifts, too. He talks too loudly, perseverates on his favorite topics, is constantly stumbling or bonking his head…and is a third the way finished with the first book in a projected five-book fantasy series involving an alternative universe and a self-created religious mythology.
On their Facebook page today, Figment announced that at the close of its first post-beta week it expected to have 10,000 registered users. I am aware that virtual friendships can never replace real-world relationships. Still, I cannot help but remember myself at my son’s age. I think that finding an online community like Figment.com at his age would have felt like such a gift.