Michael Macrone
Articles & Essays
History of the Internet Series

Clueless Newbies Flood Net: UNIX Weenies Grab Virtual Sledgehammers

by Michael Macrone  (May 1994; revised July 1994)

One by one, my friends and family are falling into step. The resisters can't hold out too much longer, not before the awesome onslaught of cover stories, news segments, utopian proclamations, and Peter Lewis columns in the New York Times. It's practically impossible to buy a computer any more that doesn't come with modem installed and software pre-loaded; America Online, CompuServe, Delphi and Prodigy shower the land with floppy disks and trial accounts.

The result: even my mother has an e-mail address. In fact, we e-correspond more than we ever talked on the phone, which just goes to show that nice things do happen on the information superhighway. You don't hear much about family values, though, in all the hype, which is sometimes hard to distinguish from bashing. The Internet is the Future, but it is not Nice. The media have arrived on the scene and discovered pornography, pedophilia, harassment, forgeries, falsifications, flirtations, hacking, cracking, and flaming. No matter that two, maybe three authentic pedophiles have been discovered on the Net in the past ten years; they're good for about one more article per week.

But the danger only seems to add to the allure of the Net, which, despite the alternately utopian and dystopian prognoses, is actually a lot like what's called "real life" on-line, though amplified. It can take a while for some people (e.g., my girlfriend) to get this point. They approach the Net cautiously and in stages. The first stage, typically, is incomprehension: why would anybody actually pay to sit at a computer typing messages to strangers? Stage two is concern: sitting at a computer typing messages to strangers is really pretty antisocial, isn't it? (According to those who've never networked, those who do are all pasty-faced computer weenies frightened of the light of day, let alone human contact.) Somewhere along the line, though, curiosity sets in, and that, along with the promise of a month's free "surfing" on the Net, eventually hooks 'em.

The biggest catch this year has been hauled in by America Online ("AOL"), an information service provider with a friendly graphical user interface ("GUI") and lots of colorful icons to click. AOL promises that magic commodity, "access," with none of the pain people associate with "directories" and "commands." And AOL does indeed provide easy access to some nifty things — assuming your idea of "nifty" includes the rantings of Courtney Love and scraps off Time magazine's cutting-room floor.

The problem, though, is that a lot of people join services such as AOL, Delphi, and Prodigy thinking they're infobahn "on-ramps" and then never get off the ramp. In the first place, the ballyhooed highway — or "information infrastructure" — exists more in the abstract than IRL ("in real life"). In the second place, the closest thing we've got — the Internet — should not be confused with AOL. So much was demonstrated by the reception accorded America Online "newbies" as they gave their software a test-drive earlier this year, once AOL established limited links to the Net. (Since net.folks hate almost nothing worse than "info superhighway" metaphors, I'm putting a stop to them here. What they do hate worse is the now-infamous law firm of Canter & Siegel, which is fodder for another column.)

That part of the Net upon which AOL unleashed its customers, without much preparation or warning, is the volatile and sensitive amalgam of discussion groups known as the Usenet. A vast and populous "virtual space," the Usenet protects its culture, and its codes of ethics and etiquette, with the kind of ferocity known only where authority is tribal rather than centralized. And AOL newbies, through no fault of their own besides ignorance, promptly tromped all over the codes.

The first rule of Usenet etiquette is that every message has its proper place. The 10,000 discussion groups are organized descriptively into hierarchies and sub-hierarchies; computer talk belongs in the "comp" hierarchy; discussion of computer operating systems belongs in the "comp.systems" sub-hierarchy; discussion of Macintosh systems and software belongs in the "comp.systems.mac" sub-sub-hierarchy, etc. etc. People who read the group comp.systems.mac.hypercard are interested in particular things and don't care to see messages about other things in their group.

The mistake AOL made was to introduce its customer base to the Usenet by automatically subscribing them to a careful selection of "interesting" groups, with alt.best-of-internet at the top. (The "alt" hierarchy is the collection of "alternative" groups, meaning groups not officially sanctioned by the Usenet powers-that-be, such as they are, and they aren't much.) The purpose of alt.best-of-internet is to reprint especially humorous or scintillating postings from the other 9,999 Usenet groups. The purpose of alt.best-of-internet is not to field questions from novices about how to post their résumés so everyone will see them. Certain AOL newbies didn't know any better. They deluged the auto-subscribed groups with inapt messages, some of them posted multiple times. (Not only didn't they know what they were doing, AOL's software was buggy.)

The result: incessant rounds of flame and counter-flame, and ultimately the creation of a new group, alt.aol-sucks, where one may find such choice bits of discourse as:


All ’round the Net, flies are getting squashed with sledgehammers. On the more positive side, the invasion of "clueless newbies" from AOL (and before them, from Delphi and Prodigy) has spurred interesting philosophical discussions, increased debate of unsettled issues, and salutary self-reflection. Some of the debate swirls around the question of whether who belongs on the Net is determined by what software s/he uses; in particular, there are those who point and click their GUI way around and those who use UNIX, the command-line-oriented operating system native to most machines on the Net.

Some people, all of them UNIX veterans, think there's something inherently virtuous in an unfriendly interface; its difficulty becomes an important test of fitness. As Andrew Laska put it in a posting to alt.aol-sucks, "UNIX weeds out idiots. Thats its greatest strength. Its like needing a driver's license to drive the Information Super Highway. AOL is like a DWI on the information Super Highway." (UNIX does not, however, weed out mispunctuation.) Vicky Bond agreed: "My thoughts EXACTLY!! These morons don't have to undergo any rites of passage or anything like that. Why can't all the stupid on-line services just become one big one and that can call themselves GRIN (Graphical Retardo Internet-like Network), or something like that!"

One detects a touch of sarcasm here, sarcasm of a deliberately indeterminate pitch. Intentionally provocative posts, or posts that blur the line between serious and feigned hostility, are called "trolls." The purpose of a "troll" — which exploits the fact that irony can be hard to detect on-line, where there are plenty of genuine kooks and idiots — is to entrap gullible readers into taking a stupid remark seriously. A successful troll provides its author with great satisfaction and warm feelings of superiority. For only according to such tests may rank and caste be established among what is known on certain quarters of the Net as the "great unwashed" of Usenet.

Trolling for clueless AOL newbies is just shooting fish in a barrel, but that doesn't stop anybody from doing it. Truth be told, trolling in general doesn't take much work, and it's become some users' favorite way to unwind. One recent outbreak of flames was engineered by a sophomoric band of pranksters who gather to plot in the newsgroup alt.syntax.tactical. Their hobby is "invading" discussion groups they find silly and posting radically inappropriate things. The most notorious of these wits' trolls was posting catmeat recipes to the group rec.pets.cats. Since cat-lovers are apt to lose their heads when their emotions are ridiculed, the tactic worked beautifully. The group, overwhelmed by flaming and counterflaming, was rendered unreadable and still hasn't recovered.

People who get on the Net looking for good "information" are surprised to discover that it isn't NPR-on-demand. Likewise, those (reportedly a sizable portion of the AOL user-base) who get on for "hot chat" with "net.babes" eventually evaporate from the scene, because the singles-bar metaphor doesn't work any better than the college-classroom metaphor (college dorm is more like it). Every metaphor so far proposed has been ground into dust, though some offer more resistance than others. The fact is, none of them really tells you what you're going to find once you do make it off the “on-ramp.” The territory is virtually limitless, and nobody's got a map. The beauty is, you get to draw your own map. The problem is, you've got to draw your own map.

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