In the summer of 1997, an email found its way into inboxes all over the world. It claimed to contain the transcript of a speech given by Kurt Vonnegut, bestselling author of "Slaughterhouse Five", to students at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology that June - and it caught the imagination of people from Boston to Budapest.
Whilst apparently addressing America’s elite – the geeks, thinkers and entrepreneurs that would go on to build the world we live in now – the words spoke to everyone. They would end up on posters and postcards, be turned into a bestselling book, and transformed into a chart-topping record.
The email itself was arguably the first example of something "going viral"; certainly, it was the first time that Internet culture would influence the popular mainstream at scale.
It's hard to imagine email having the same kind of cultural impact today. But back then, there was no such thing as Facebook, Twitter or Google. Even blogs were not yet a thing (or at least, not yet a thing that we would call "blogs"). Amazon, the original "dotcom", was barely a year old; and eBay still went by the name of AuctionWeb.
The worldwide web itself had just celebrated its sixth birthday, but it was only now entering the consciousness of the general public. 1997 was the year in which the web went "over the top". By the end of the year, there were over 1 million websites in the world (compared to 250,000 the year before, and over a billion today). It was a symbolic threshold: something significant was happening.
Those people who did have an Internet connection would have been thrilled by the breakneck speed of 56k dialup (introduced that year, and doubling their bandwidth). But if you were one of them, what you would most likely have used it for more than anything else – whether at home, or in the workplace – was email.
Unlike websites, email was something both new and familiar. The barrier to entry was low - anybody could do it. Email reignited people’s passion for letter-writing; but the form was more immediate and conversational. People wrote how they spoke, and punctuation often went out the window. Forgotten family members were rediscovered, old friends reconnected. Space and time were no longer an impediment to the written word. The @ symbol became shorthand for "the future".
Increasingly, people found themselves sharing; not only their own words, but those of others. Ideas could be copied and pasted wholesale, and forwarded to a new batch of people at the click of a mouse. And typically, each new email preserved a trail of those that had read it before you. Indeed, that was part of the magic: tracking the email's path around the world before it arrived in your own inbox, tracing the names of total strangers until they began to merge with those of family, friends or colleagues.
This, ultimately, was the promise of the worldwide web, and the Internet as a whole: we were all connected.
It's difficult to grasp now how radical this notion was at the time, or how exciting. Whilst the behaviours themselves are now so familiar as to be everyday, the way in which they manifested themselves seems impossibly quaint today.
Nevertheless, reading this particular email twenty years on, it’s not hard to see how the words caught the world's imagination. They ring just as true now as they did back then (if not more so):
Ladies and gentlemen of the class of '97:
If I could offer you one tip for the future
would be it
The long-term benefits of sunscreen have been proved by scientists, whereas the rest of my advice has no basis more reliable than my own meandering experience.
I will dispense this advice now.
ENJOY THE POWER AND BEAUTY OF YOUR YOUTH
Don't waste your time on jealousy.
Sometimes you're ahead, sometimes you're behind.
and in the end, it’s only with yourself.
Remember compliments you receive.
Forget the insults*
*If you succeed in doing this, tell me how.
Keep your old love letters.
Throw away your old bank statements.
Don't feel guilty if you don't know what you want to do with your life. The most interesting people I know didn't know at 22 what they wanted to do with their lives. Some of the most interesting 40-year-olds I know still don't.
Maybe you'll marry,
maybe you won't.
Maybe you'll have children,
maybe you won't.
Maybe you'll divorce at 40,
maybe you'll dance the funky chicken on your 75th wedding anniversary.
Whatever you do, don't congratulate yourself too much, or berate yourself either. Your choices are half chance. So are everybody else's.
Do not read beauty
magazines. They will
only make you feel
Get to know your parents. You never know when they'll be gone for good. Be nice to your siblings. They're your best link to your past and the people most likely to stick with you in the future.
Understand that friends come and go, but with a precious few you should hold on. Work hard to bridge the gaps in geography and lifestyle, because the older you get, the more you need the people who knew you when you were young.
Live in New York City once,
but leave before it makes you hard.
Live in Northern California once,
but leave before it makes you soft.
Accept certain inalienable truths:
Prices will rise.
Politicians will philander.
You, too, will get old.
And when you do, you'll fantasize that when you were young, prices were reasonable, politicians were noble and children respected their elders.
Don't expect anyone else to support you. Maybe you have a trust fund. Maybe you'll have a wealthy spouse. But you never know when either one might run out.
Don't mess too much with your hair or by the time you're 40 it will look 85.
Be careful whose advice you buy, but be patient with those who supply it.
Advice is a form of nostalgia. Dispensing it is a way of fishing the past from the disposal, wiping it off, painting over the ugly parts and recycling it for more than it's worth.
But trust me on the sunscreen
There was just one problem: the story wasn't true. Or at least, not quite. Kurt Vonnegut had given many speeches in his time, but not this one. He'd never even been to MIT. Nevertheless, the words were real, and only the hardest of hearts could deny their potency. Somebody must have written them. But who?
When writer Mary Schmich sat down on May 31st that year to write her regular column for the next day's edition of the Chicago Tribune, she could have had no clue as to what would happen next. It was graduation season in the American university calendar, and she had decided to do a slightly more down-to-earth take on the lofty, inspirational speeches designed to flatter the ambitions of America's young elite. Her starting point, and the central proposition of her piece, was itself inspired by having seen a young woman covering herself in sunscreen a few days earlier, and wishing that someone had told her to do the same when she had been that age. The rest flowed freely on a "coffee and M&M-fuelled high".She filed her copy, and moved on to the next assignment without giving it a second thought.
Quite how Vonnegut came to be credited with her words, or who was responsible, is anyone's guess. As we now know only too well, the web has a way of covering its tracks. But suffice it to say, over the coming weeks and months, Mary Schmich's words travelled far and wide. If you had access to the web or email that summer, you almost certainly read them. You probably even passed them on yourself.
Even Vonnegut's own wife believed the hype. "She was so pleased. She sent it on to a whole lot of people, including my kids -- how clever I am" he said at the time. When it finally came out that the words were not his, this only added more fuel to the fire. It became a pop cultural phenomenon. Indeed, Vonnegut himself first heard about it not from his wife, after all, but from his lawyer, who had contacted him to pass on requests to republish “his” words, or turn them into posters. Soon after, they were set to music and transformed into a hit record by none other than Baz Luhrmann, director of Romeo+Juliet (itself a huge cult movie hit around the same time). It would chart multiple times, and in various forms, in countries all over the world for the rest of the decade.
The scale and rapidity with which the story spread was something quite new; and it proved unnerving for both Vonnegut and Schmich, not to mention many early settlers of the worldwide web. Schmich received hundreds of emails “from cyberlovers excoriating me for damaging the Internet,” she reported. “But this is just one of those stories that reminds you of the lawlessness of cyberspace. Having been roped into it in a very personal way, it suddenly seems less merely interesting and more dangerous.”
Vonnegut was more succinct: “I don't know what the point is except how gullible people are on the Internet.”(His wife must have been thrilled by *that* comment.)
In the era of daily memes, “fake news”, Twitter storms and trolls, it's hard not to see the whole affair as foreshadowing much of what would follow. It is the web we know now in its purest, most innocent form - for worse, but mostly for better.
In a post-Trump, post-Brexit, post-fact world – in which our profile pics are perfectly airbrushed, our public personas controlled and curated, our news feeds forced through a filter bubble – Schmich's words now seem radical, urgent and timely. Her message is one of world-weary positivity, concentrating on life’s essentials, reaching out from one generation to another – and now to the next. Twenty years on, her original audience can finally grasp how fabulous they really looked that summer. They were not, after all, anywhere near as fat as they imagined.
And neither are you, now. Ladies and gentlemen of the class of '17: we salute you 🙌
Of course, whether Mary Schmich's words would have travelled as far as they did - whether we'd be writing about them now - if Kurt Vonnegut's name had never been attached to them is something we can never know for sure. What we can say with certainty is that, in reality, the 1997 MIT commencement speech was given by none other than Kofi Annan, then Secretary General of the United Nations. But nobody remembers what *he* said.
Perhaps sometimes, fake news can be a force for good.