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Work & School The truth behind the internet's study communities

Oct. 9, 2020
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I’ve done my fair share of embarrassing things. I’ve shown interest in the wrong people, made snide comments about someone who was right behind me the entire time, acted like a child while under the influence of alcohol—you know the works. But one instance so humiliating it remains embedded in the recesses of my mind is when I bawled in the middle of my local bookstore because they were out of Zebra Mildliners. A five-piece set of these Japanese highlighter-marker hybrids may cost $15, but they still run out of stock faster than you can say “overpriced”—which, of course, only makes me want them more. 

My search led me to three separate shops and several Instagram sellers. My determination seemed unwavering, but if I’m being honest, a girl can only hear “They’re sold out, ma’am” so many times before she finally cracks. When the cashier delivered the bad news to me, I burst into tears, much to the surprise of several onlookers who were shooting me judgmental stares. Back then, I really was convinced I reacted the way I did with good reason.

Mildliners are a staple in the #studyblr community, a corner of the internet populated by the best and brightest students, whose ultimate goal is making the most taxing tasks look easy and fun. You’d think that a group established in the name of academia would take any damn stationery item as long as it got the job done. But they put a heavy emphasis on beauty and precision, as seen in the color-coordinated, calligraphy-ridden lecture notes we’ve all seen and wished were our own. It’s all about doing away with the notion that learning is a chore. Given the right amount of time and resources, it can become a skill—maybe even an art form. 

I entered the scene as a phony, a burnt-out former honors student who’d screwed up one semester and was finding it impossible to regain her footing. I figured that if I could mimic the most prominent #studyblr members, I could finally relive my glory days and graduate with flying pastel colors. Fake it till you make it, as the age-old adage goes. And so I did. 

I never got my hands on my own set of Mildliners—they remained elusive until the very end—but I made sure to live by every other unspoken rule in the book. I hoarded everything from washi tape to loose-leaf paper, studied every Definitive Guide to Studying as if it was an entirely different subject of its own, and even tried making blog posts with tips just to contribute to the discussion. 

Maybe it’s my long-standing belief in the power of good karma talking, but I genuinely thought I was finally on the road to getting better. So you can only imagine my disappointment when my grades for the semester came in and I’d still failed to make the cut. 

I wish I’d been informed that, like any social media platform, what I was seeing on #studyblr was a filtered, idealized version of reality. These star students still get awful grades from time to time. They take a ridiculous amount of time converting their chicken-scratch penmanship to a laptop-ready font and go through a sickening number of drafts before arriving at that bright red A+. They just never publicize it. 

Thankfully, half a decade later, I’m a college junior who’s managed to kick the odds in the ass and study at her dream university. Here’s the catch: the world is currently in turmoil, leaving me to obsessively plan out my future just to feel like I’m in control of something, anything. On top of that, my university has declared remote learning for the rest of the academic year, completely obliterating the line that separates work from the rest of my life. So, after a little prodding from friends, I’ve found myself face to face with #studyblr’s younger cousin: Study Twitter.

I’m not going to drop my username, but I can tell you I’m currently one of the community’s oldest members: a 20-year-old swimming in a sea of teenagers busying themselves with everything from basic algebra to college-entrance tests. In the span of time I spent away from platforms like this, I got myself a decent GPA and significantly more realistic study habits. I busied myself with other pursuits and found that I no longer need online spaces to affirm my existence. So I’m able to see the community for what it is: a place to foster equal parts inspiration and accountability. On Twitter, information seems much more digestible and accessible. Exchanges happen in real time, allowing concerns to be addressed as soon as someone is available to answer them.

An example of this lies in my favorite part of Study Twitter: the #askstudytwt hashtag. Here, some ask for a better explanation of lessons taught by lazy professors. Others simply enjoy stirring the pot and summoning the stationery fiend in all of us: nothing like binder versus notebook discourse to spice up the TL, am I right? (For the record, digital note-taking is definitely the way to go.)

I personally enjoy engaging with as many questions as I can. For those who post math problems with the signature “help me???” affixed to the end of the caption, I try my best to solve it before completely giving up and moving on to something that my brain waves can actually grasp. I’ve messaged users to talk about how I decided on my major, and I’ve offered feedback on people’s essays. It feels refreshing to see others extending the same energy, even if it’s just to give the virtual equivalent of a pat on the back. 

The constant exchange of tips and tricks on Study Twitter might give the impression that users are stuck on a loop of hyperproductivity. But it’s common to see people complain when work gets too hard or report that it’s past eight and they’ve still accomplished nothing of importance. Sometimes, all I need is a reminder that behind a user’s avi is a human just like me: when we do human things like get tired or give up, that doesn’t undermine the efforts we've made.

This is the kind of space I needed as a teenager, and although I definitely could have used it more then, I’m glad I get to be a part of it today. School is demanding, especially with the abrupt adjustment to online classes. I see my teenage self in every person I interact with, and I can tell their academic stress is compounded by the uncertainty of our times. I feel a responsibility to look after them like I would have wanted to be looked after: to remind them that there are no hard and fast rules to academic success, and to guide them toward being as productive as they can—but also to reassure them that it's perfectly normal if they fail to follow through. 

Photo by James Bareham for The Verge.