Through The Looking Glass: Path to "Pigeons"
In July 2014, I was spending my third straight summer in Hanover. I was working as a teaching assistant for “Classics 4,” helping with a digital mapping project in the art history department, editing an educational website’s mythology curriculum, kicking off research on my thesis and avoiding the contemplation of the spectre of adulthood which had by this point fully sunk its teeth into my unrelenting existence.
One morning, I got a call from one of my best friends (whom I’ll call Joey) informing me that the father of another of my best friends, Jerry, had suddenly passed. Both of them were in the Boston-Cambridge area for the summer. I took the last $50 I had in my bank account and grabbed the Dartmouth Coach to go ride out to Boston and be with him and his family to sit Shiva for his father. The mood on the train out to the small town where Jerry lived was sad but friendly. Joey and I talked about what we were doing; I mentioned I was working on a searing, insistent and unscrupulously pedantic thinkpiece about Humans of New York , a viral facebook photoblog often abbreviated as ‘HONY’— that I find insufferably phony.He told me that recently he and another friend of his, under the influence of certain recreational botanicals, had come up with an idea for a satiric foil to Humans of New York: Pigeons of Boston . I thought that was the best idea I’d heard all month and I committed to making something of it. Later that week, I started drafting a series of demo posts, featuring high-resolution images of pigeons I’d pulled off the internet. In the photo’s caption, an interviewer would ask “Have you ever done drugs?” and the pigeon would respond: “Yes, once.” The interviewer would follow with, “And?” and the pigeon would explain,“Well now I’m a pigeon.” Most of them were just re-hashes of successful canned jokes I liked to use in small audiences of my familiars, made marginally more ludicrous coming from the mouth of a pigeon.
Unexpectedly, the Facebook page blew up. Or at least it ignited and smouldered for months on end. At some point I realized that I had more on my hands than a top five yak, especially when the followers grew to be in the thousands (and then tens of thousands), and I was getting interviews published with the likes of Boston.com , The New York Observer and The OdesseyOnline. It wasn’t anything like a viral sensation, but it was a unique chance to do something I never had had the platform to do before.
Among my more unsuccessful side-projects were those that tried to leverage my newfound publicity for charity. I’ve tried to sell shirts, mugs and other household detritus to fund cancer research. Yet since my followers are typically college students and thus more apt to pay out in likes than in dollars, the profit margins were always minimal. I wrote and published a book with funding from Kickstarter, which made enough money to donate a modest amount to an individual in the Hanover community, but factoring in the time and effort I put into writing the book, I might as well have just worked at a taco truck over winter break.
More valuable was the experiment of finding out what people found thought-provoking and amusing. My forays into other social media forums, like Bored At Baker, even at their most successful, were limited in what they could tell me about humor, given that the audience is so skewed and specific. Now my challenge was to creatively satisfy the common funnybone of twenty thousand people at once. With an endeavor like that, four sentences can take four hours to craft. At the same time, I tried to avoid using sexist, racist, transphobic, homophobic, misogynistic, etc tropes as crutches as much as possible. Although it is likely impossible to completely scrub the residual traces of those -isms from anything American, and regardless of whether there can be jokeforms that explicitly invert and flaunt social maladies for progressive purposes, I wanted to “prove” that you can still be funny in 2015 without doing so at the expense of others, even if it means a lot of sex, drugs and poop jokes.
For the past few months, the Pigeons page has been dormant, and since I’d rather go out at the zenith of my popularity, Seinfeld-style, I might keep it that way for good. It’s not the greatest thing in the world — honestly it’s not even the funniest or most successful parody of Humans of New York. But I think that it’s been both a pleasant and fulfilling experience for me, as someone who has very little to offer the world, except some better-than-average jokes.
The inception of Pigeons corresponded with a time in my Dartmouth career when I was experiencing increased anxiety over whether I’d ever done anything that mattered. As my good friend and associate Teddy “Crazy Eddy” Henderson often likes to say, “What art Man that thou doth consider him?” You go to class, you read the chapter, you write the essay, you hand it in, you get it back, you elicit an “oof” an “ah!” or an “eh” and that’s it. No one ever reads that essay again, no one would want to. You can only hope that one day it will be uncovered by your overzealous biographers who will push it to the public eye in a book later picked up and listicalized by 2050 BuzzFeed: “Top 12 Craziest Moments From Noted Politico-Conceptual Bassoonist Aaron Pellowski’s Essay on New Testament Household Codes: Tradition & Oppression.” And that’s only if you even have biographers.All people are obligated to find a way to make a difference in the lives of the people closest to them. Making a big difference for a small number of people is both the duty and the opportunity of a good person. What not a lot of people get to do is make a small difference in the lives of many, and only a tiny few make a big difference to anyone. Pigeons of Boston, with its modest notoriety, hit that middle band of accomplishment, precisely because I could see that my work, however vulgar, facetious, goofy or insulting, was making hundreds of people laugh. Compared to all the tests I took and papers I wrote that never made a difference to anyone, getting a lot of people to laugh feels like a real, personal accomplishment, especially when I read the comments or get messages from people who say they love the page and read it out loud to their parents, or I meet a stranger at a party and they’re like “That’s you?” And even if I never accomplish anything ever again, biographer-worthy or equally middling, it’s enough to slake my existential thirst to be more than a bug on a leaf on a twig on a log in a hole at the bottom of the sea. I’m the twig now.
For good or for evil, the power of social media is to take the calculation of what will receive public attention and balloon that middle variable known as “reach.” A message doesn’t have to be groundbreaking, appealing or viral to get out to a lot of people and affect them in real time. Yet, for every person who likes one of my Pigeon posts and gets a little late-night rise out of the mock-sentimental image of a bird smoking weed and eating pizza pockets with his two years-younger adoptive son — there are literally ten thousand people liking some inane, millennial-pandering HONY post and consequently becoming worse people.
Oh well. Before social media, the definition of futility was digging a hole to China. Now it’s trying to dig a hole to the bottom of the ocean: not even your first scoop can make a difference against the waters closing in around your efforts at all times. That’s a metaphor folks. Figure it out while you’re still in college.
Aaron Pellowski is a former member of The Dartmouth staff.