Meme this: How a second-gen Filipino-American landed at the heart of Philly’s internet community

Recognize the name Michaelangelo Ilagan? You might know him better as @mikeyil.

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Clever Girl Photography / Courtesy Mikey Ilagan
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Mikey Ilagan is that Philly guy everyone knows.

Well, kind of — most people know him online. Through his tweets obsessing over Totino’s pizza rolls and capybaras. Via his meticulous archiving of life as a dad and a husband on Instagram. From his on-point Facebook memes, or his blog posts on geek culture.

His internet persona is broad and diverse. Ilagan’ll pwn someone on Reddit as quickly as he snaps back at overzealous recruiters on LinkedIn, with a check on his Fortnite team in between.

Sometimes, people get to meet him IRL, and more sparks fly.

Upon introduction, Ilagan will immediately offer the names of at least four other people you should get in touch with, mention a couple of organizations you should follow and recommend a local podcast or two to stream.

Often, people he meets become good friends. Or coworkers — Ilagan works as an interface specialist on Comcast’s Accessibility Team. Or they get married — Ilagan met his wife of four years online.

No matter what platform he’s dipping into, there’s one thing the 33-year-old Philly native excels at: connecting people and building community.

A strict Filipino household

Michaelangelo Ilagan was born at Einstein Hospital on North Broad Street on Sept. 19, 1984.

The eldest child of immigrant parents from the Philippines — both of whom had known each other since they were children, but never dated until they were in their 20s — Ilagan has embraced the identity and of a “second-generation” immigrant.

“I wear my Filipino on my skin,” Ilagan said. “People always ask me where I’m from; I was born here. I was raised here.”

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Courtesy of Michaelangelo Ilagan

Prejudice over skin color was one part of his childhood he’d have to reckon with, the start of a lifetime of obnoxious or ignorant microaggressions. Other parts were more than skin deep: absorbing culture and tradition from his parents’ origin country while trying to be an average kid messing around in East Oak Lane.

Ilagan lived in what he calls a “typical multigenerational Asian-American household,” with his parents, his little sister and his grandma. The adults had a tendency to be overprotective and strict, so Ilagan spent most of his time indoors. Because he was kept in the house, his boyhood opportunities to make friends were limited to attempts at school, the now defunct Saint Joseph’s Elementary.

So childhood was kind of boring — until his family acquired a computer.

The Internet changed everything.

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Courtesy of Michaelangelo Ilagan

Riffing off a young internet

While his peers were still taking typing classes, Ilagan was building web pages.

Teaching himself by checking out the HTML of other other pages to “see what was under the hood,” he started publishing rudimentary sites back in the ’90s.

“The first web page I ever made was essentially a list of sophomore homerooms with the names and seating arrangements of the guys I went to school with at St. Joseph’s Prep,” Ilagan said. He now calls the page “prehistoric,” but he was pleased with himself for having built a site with a “cheesy tiled background” full of GIFs he “ripped off somewhere else.”

On what he deems the “essential 1990s self-publishing platforms” — Geocities, Angelfire, Myspace, Blogger — he continued to explore. As he immersed himself in learning Photoshop, he also connected with other budding designers over AOL Instant Messenger.

Years later, a classmate at one of his high school reunions would refer to Ilagan as “Mark Zuckerburg before Mark Zuckerburg.”

Ilagan’s response? “Hah… If only I had been born white with heaps of generational wealth.”

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Courtesy of Michaelangelo Ilagan

His interest in the intersection of visuals and computing was enough to inspire a college course of study. Ilagan attended the recently shut down Art Institute of Philadelphia, and earned a bachelor of science in multimedia and web design.

After graduating in 2005, however, he felt “burnt out on websites,” so took time off to make some money in a way he’d never expected: as a car salesman.

His automotive employer soon caught on that Ilagan had a knack for the net, so he was promoted to selling cars online — where he developed a renewed desire for his original passion.

“Car salesmanship is kind of how I started getting back on track for web development, writing for online platforms and editing,” he said. (And how he honed his Philly meme-generating skills.)

Social media-powered adulthood

When Twitter launched in July 2006, Ilagan had no idea how much of an impact the microblogging platform would would have on his life.

Ilagan concedes to not having a “friggin’ clue” where social media platforms were heading — nor does he have a clue where they’re headed now, he notes — but his habit of welcoming new people into his pool of friends was why he began tweeting.

“I realized at some point in my 20s that I was kind of just hanging out with the same old crowd,” Ilagan recounted. “There’s nothing wrong with that necessarily, but I wanted friends from college, friends from work and complete strangers to all come together. I wanted to find people I had a lot in common with, or learn about people I didn’t have much in common with but lived in the same city with.”

One of the people he met online was Eric Smith, former editor of Visit Philly blog Uwishunu and cofounder of Philly geek blog Geekadelphia — which Ilagan found to be a perfect hub for the connections he craved.

“The ‘everything goes, let’s talk about everything and nothing genre’ was such a thing in the 00s,” Ilagan said. The original intent of Geekadelphia was to publish random geeky stuff, he explained “but because it was based and founded in Philly, it took a local spin. We became a center of a community. It was an intense and an exhilarating experience.”

Ilagan eventually became Geekadelphia’s editor in chief, and would go on to be a groomsman at Smith’s wedding.

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Courtesy of Michaelangelo Ilagan

The love of Ilagan’s life, Allie, was another Twitter acquaintance. He had developed a crush on her after reading through her profile and checking out her food blog. Though at first they suffered a bit of miscommunication, things cleared up when they finally able met in person.

The chemistry was instantaneous and palpable.

“She was 21, I was 26, and my life just… It moved fast,” Ilagan said.

Mikey and Allie tied the knot in 2014. Their eldest daughter, Cora, will be three in December, and their son Louis was born in 2017.

A digital accessibility champion

Mark Zuckerburg comparison notwithstanding, Ilagan insists his plans for the future do not include founding a startup or launching a social networking platform.

Instead, he plans to continue contributing to the online ecosystem by preaching the gospel of digital accessibility. What’s that mean in practice?

“It’s thinking about accessibility from the perspective of code quality,” Ilagan said, “to make sure that accessibility and inclusion are compatible with the technology that you’re using.”

For example, if mobile software is built such that a synthetic voice can verbalize everything on the screen, he explained, the extra effort can be beneficial for not only the blind or visually impaired, but also for people with attention deficit disorders.

Ilagan’s role as a consultant and accessibility specialist at Think Company and as part of Comcast’s Accessibility Team is to ensure implementation of assistive technology is done appropriately. His commitment to the cause of making the digital world functional for all has evolved since he took this position, he said.

He began thinking about the disability community as being “on the margin” and left out of many of the online conversations he found so crucial to his own personal development.

“You have rights that deserve to be protected, and that includes equal access no matter your ability, gender, sexuality, religious orientation or race,” Ilagan said. “At the end of the day, I’m interested in protecting the rights of the people.”

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Courtesy of Michaelangelo Ilagan

As serious as he is about his work mission, Ilagan still maintains plenty of levity in his multiple online personas.

One big change is that his funny or poignant posts about Philly now include lots of observations about 21st century fatherhood, as he constantly documents his two kids at their silliest and cutest.

He’s as obsessed with them as he is with Totino’s — or the internet overall.

You can become Mikey’s friend on a computer near you. Look for user @mikeyil.