Just to be clear, this is not a film that already exists. This is my terrible pitch for something that would be a terrible idea. Also that no one would allow to happen for so very many reasons.
There are a lot of people who do research on Kids On The Internet, so the fact that this idea would never happen is not going to keep you from hearing about kids on the internet. Someone I know just got a grant to study something along these lines. Tweens on the internet during social distancing? Something like that.
Roughly half a million accounts have been created on our site, and a lot of them belong to people who are currently kids on the internet. I don’t know how many of these accounts are still active or how many of them are still kids, but, oh my goodness, there are a lot of kids spending a lot of time on our site. Now, don’t get me wrong, there are also a lot of adults who spend too much time on our site as well. The thing about our site is that you kind of assume that everyone is a 13-year-old boy, but you can’t really know that.
So here is the pitch: pick some number of sub-groups of our users and watch their interactions on our site and then also meet them in real life. I think that this sort of story-telling works best with an odd number of subjects, so to make this imaginary pitch be feature-length, I’m going to say that we should look at five groups.
We’d start with a group that is somewhat unsurprising. A bunch of kids who post about their math contest goals and aspirations. Kids at the high school level. The sort of kids who aspire to be the sort of kids who would be featured in a film like Hard Problems. Send a crew to the kids’ houses, look at their wide array of math books. See the kids put together their schedules of how much time that they’ll spend studying each day. Talk to the parents about what they think of the kids’ math contest goals. Have the kids read some of their posts out loud. There are certain types of posts that they make all the time: “This Is My Math Contest Journey” or “Tell Me How Many Hours I Should Study Which Topics In Order To Win” or “How Many Points Do I Need To Score To Be Guaranteed Admission To Harvard.” As counter-point to this part of the narrative, we’d also talk to some of the long-term moderators who tell each new crop of students that there is not a fixed recipe to become a math contest champion. You should sit back and enjoy the problems. This is what everyone expects when it comes to the journey of math olympians.
As is true of the genre, we should probably skip around back and forth among the groups that we are documenting. We shouldn’t just have the Math Contest Strivers taking up the entire first fifth of my imaginary film.
I guess from here we would move on to a particular social group. I’m not going to mention their group by name because they try to stay under the radar – not in a troublemaking way, just in a minding their own business kind of way. A lot of the students from The Group are into math contests and take classes on our site. But they also put a lot of time and effort into maintaining their group. The Group is run via a system of private forums (students can only join if invited + approved by someone who runs the private forum, kind of like a secret Facebook group). They have a system of elections in order to select moderators and approve new members. Just about everything that I’ve seen on The Group has been pretty wholesome. There are a lot of homeschool students in The Group. Members of The Group has arranged – with their parents’ permission – to meet up outside of our site. There will be overlap between The Group and the math contest strivers. A lot of the math contest strivers won’t know that The Group exists, though. This group has been around for several years, and it is kind of amazing that they have been able to keep things up and pass it down to the next group of kids.
Not sure which group to move our focus to next. If we have a lot of money for our imaginary documentary, we could look at a forum that is devoted to a particular country’s students. There are a lot of students from this country who participate on our site. The way that education is run in this country is that there are national exams in order to decide who is admitted to higher education, and the competition is cut-throat. So we have all these students who are discussing math together but who are also competing against each other. They are posting rumors about the exam process. Additionally, the culture of these students differs from my culture in many ways, so the sorts of things that they say and do seem quite unusual to me because I am not familiar at all with their way of looking at the world. It would be pretty interesting to see these students in their regular lives. I might learn something about WHY DO THEY DO THAT. How does math contest preparation in their country differ from math contest preparation in mine? What do their homelives look like compared to the math contest strivers and the homeschoolers from The Group? If we have enough money to travel to their country, we could find out.
Here is where it turns dark. Everything that I’ve mentioned so far has been on our message board system. Most of the forums that I’ve talked about (with the obvious exception of The Group) has been done on the public parts of our site. And it’s a persistent public part of our site. If you went to our site, you could search through the forums and find the sorts of things that I am talking about. If you made enough wholesome posts about Harry Potter or whatever, you might even get invited to join The Group.
There is a part of our site that has a rated game and a chat for spectators. This is a game where students compete against each other solving math problems as quickly as possible. The winner gains rating and the loser loses rating. The is a lot of commentary and trash-talking in the chat. There are a lot of accusations of cheating. This is reasonable because some of the most committed players of this game want to be at the top of the leaderboard, and they will go to extensive lengths to gain rating and to keep it. Bugs in the system have been carefully documented, and they know how to exploit them in order to disrupt the game. This is the math website equivalent of the high school kids who smoke behind the gym. Some of these kids are 12. But some of them are the math website equivalent of the people who graduated several years ago but who still smoke behind the high school gym with the high school kids. Maybe they’re the ones who buy the metaphorical cigarettes? Probably not a lot of crossover with the wholesome kids from The Group. Also not a lot of crossover with the International Students. This is kind of a thing unto itself. You might see some of the math contest strivers trying to practice their fast-draw problem-solving skills here, but a lot of them will get eaten alive by the lifers who have memorized (“memmed”) the answers to hundreds (perhaps thousands) of problems in the database.
But what are these kids like outside our site? Does their ruthless streak extend outside of this game that they obsess over? I can’t imagine them running kitten rescues. I know from the timestamps on the games that a lot of them stay up all night playing against each other. Maybe instead of comparing them to the smokers behind the gym I should have compared them to the old men who hussle chess in the park.
Where do we go from here? I know that I’m pretending that we will cut back and forth between the groups and that we won’t be treating them in an isolated way. But that is hard because the International Students do keep to themselves to some extent – and are pushed away by the math contest strivers. The strivers might see the international students post about some non-US contest, and the strivers will insist that this should not be discussed in the main forums but rather in the forum specific to the country that runs the contest. But we should also end with something that ties everything together and on a somewhat positive note. We don’t want to delve into the niche petty arguments that a group of adults who should know better are making about each others’ approach to posing and solving problems about inequalities.
Maybe we go back to the beginning and look at the youngest kids who are just getting started with Middle School math contests. They don’t have the focus and dedication of the older and more competitive students. Some of them play the games on the site. Some of them are focused on math. Some of them spend a lot of time chatting. After we meet the next generation of students, we could speculate about where they will end up.