History of the Internet Series
Cascades & Smilies
by Michael Macrone (June 1994)
On the internet, the risks of misunderstanding are great. The first problem is that the medium is intrinsically poor at communicating intention. The second is that you don’t have to pass a rhetoric (or rationality) test to get a Net account. Thus discourse can be a little strange, especially on the Usenet, where if one good thought provokes another, one stupid posting can launch a cascade of angry, sarcastic, and/or emptier replies.
The cascade seems to be the inherent generative form behind the Usenet, a collection of thousands of discussion groups distributed worldwide, principally through the Internet. The basic idea is: if it’s worth doing, it’s worth overdoing. Here’s a series of questions presented recently by the software I use to read Usenet news:
subscribe to new group alt.fan.oj-simpson (y,n,q)? subscribe to new group alt.fan.oj-simpson.drive.faster (y,n,q)? subscribe to new group alt.fan.oj-simpson.gas-chamber (y,n,q)? subscribe to new group alt.fan.oj-simpson.die.die.die (y,n,q)?
Typing “y” to each of these queries would subscribe me to all four groups, just in case my hunger for opinion wasn’t fully gratified by alt.fan.oj-simpson alone, the sardonically titled progenitor of the cascade. (“Alt.fan” is a grouping of discussion groups about the famous, infamous, and wannabes.) I’ll admit: I couldn’t help myself. The anarchic stream of Usenet discourse is addictive.
The Usenet leaves no need unmet, no controversy unaddressed, no whim unacted upon, automatically defining new topics of “interest” long after one’s appetite is sated. Collectively, the Usenet never tires of anything. You think one would quickly get enough of something like the following message, but somebody somewhere will keep it going:
>acb (firstname.lastname@example.org) wrote: >: Weasel Boy (email@example.com) wrote: >: : firstname.lastname@example.org wrote: >: : : wednsday@MCS.COM (chela Wednesday) writes: >: : : /<email@example.com> Weasel Boy wrote: >: : : />Chris Kush (firstname.lastname@example.org) wrote: >: : : />: <email@example.com> Austin George Loomis wrote: >: : : />: ><firstname.lastname@example.org>Lupus Yonderboy wrote: >: : : />: >:Thus spake email@example.com (Ethan Straffin): >: : : />: >:+firstname.lastname@example.org (Sven Geier) writes: >: : : />: >:+:alten@CSOS.ORST.EDU (John Altendorf) writes: >: : : />: >:+:><email@example.com> DFRussell wrote: >: : : />: >:+:> >firstname.lastname@example.org (Richard Saepia) writes: >: : : />: >:+:> >|> James Speer (email@example.com) wrote: >: : : />: >:+:> >|> : asuter@Xenon.Stanford.EDU (Lupus Yonderboy) writes: >: : : />: >:+:> >|> : > Thus spake firstname.lastname@example.org (DFRussell): >: : : />: >:+:> >|> : > +email@example.com (Chris Metzler) >: : : />: >:+:> >|> : > +|> firstname.lastname@example.org (Rose Marie Holt) writes: >: : : />: >:+:> >|> : > +|> |><email@example.com> wrote: >: : : />: >:+:> >|> : > +|> |> >BRETTM@UGA.CC.UGA.EDU (Brett Middleton) writes: >: : : />: >:+:> >|> : > +|> |> >>firstname.lastname@example.org (Mark A Holland) writes: >: : : />: >:+:> >|> : > +|> |> >>>asuter@Xenon.Stanford.EDU (Lupus >: : : />: >:+:> >|> : > +|> |> >>>><email@example.com> wrote: >: : : />: >:+:> >|> : > +|> |> >>>>>Rob Furr (firstname.lastname@example.org) wrote: >: : : />: >:+:> >|> : > +|> |> >>>>>: Threats will get you nowhere. >: : : />: >:+:> >|> : > +|> |> >>>>>Threads will get you nowhere. >: : : />: >:+:> >|> : > +|> |> >>>>Public Transportation will get you nowhere. >: : : />: >:+:> >|> : > +|> |> >>>Flattery will get you everywhere. >: : : />: >:+:> >|> : > +|> |> >>Two bucks will get you underwear. >: : : />: >:+:> >|> : > +|> |> >Four hundred buys a tiger snare. >: : : />: >:+:> >|> : > +|> |> I would not like them anywhere. >: : : />: >:+:> >|> : > +|> Minoxidil will grow you no hair. >: : : />: >:+:> >|> : > +If true, that's surely unfair. >: : : />: >:+:> >|> : > If you have hair, then you should share. >: : : />: >:+:> >|> : Weekly, in the barber's chair. >: : : />: >:+:> >Weaky in the barber's chair. >: : : />: >:+:> Social Security is spreading everywhere. >: : : />: >:+:What happens, if the next line doesn't rhyme at all? >: : : />: >:+The heavens, yes the firmament shall surely fall. >: : : />: >:And Kibo will speak at your local mall. >: : : />: >And Barney will be crushed by a falling brick wall. >: : : />: Sandworms will roil from beneath Nepal. >: : : />Some fool will sell Chevy Novas to Steven Seagal. >: : : / I've run out of comebacks. I guess that's all. >: : : But the fun was just starting ! >: : Why must we be parting? >: My hair is not parting. >My hair is DEparting. My car is not starting. :(
Every time someone replies to this sort of message, another layer of carets or colons is prefixed, and another few lines appended, propagating the cascade to potential infinity. This happens because news-reading software quotes prior messages by prefixing lines with some sort of punctuation (usually a caret, but oddly enough never quotation marks); quotes within quotes produce carets within carets, etc. The odd result is a typographic style reminiscent of the early days of the book, when inverted commas were hung in the margin before every line of continuous quotation. The irony is redolent.
Other curious punctuation conventions make up for the fact that networked computers can’t communicate such typographical niceties as italics, or such interpersonal niceties as facial expression. You’ll notice on the last line of the cascade a concluding :( , one of a peculiar genre of net.signifiers called “emoticons” or “smilies.”
Sideways-looking strings of punctuation, smilies :-0 are a staple of popularizing articles on e-mail and the Internet. One’s first feelings about the smiley—the ur-smiley being
:-) <----this way up
—are apt to be unkind. Twain didn’t need smilies to register irony or parry offense. Any decent writer can do without such insipid (or worse, retro) gimmicks. The plague of smilies on the Net just proves that these people really are as bad writers as they seem.
But such attitudes invariably soften. I was a die-hard anti-smileyite for a good half year, before I realized that people weren’t reading my writing as if I were Mark Twain. In fact, they weren’t even reading it as if it were writing. They were reading it as screenfuls of casual conversation, or cocktail chat, or pure blather, with rarely a reader making it past a screen’s worth (about twenty-four lines). But it’s chat without the context of chat—blather without the raise of an eyebrow.
Everybody’s in this boat, and posters have learned to take advantage of their keyboards to fill in the context. They use caps-lock keys as amplifiers, asterisks as emphasizers, carets as arrow-heads quote marks. Acronyms such as IMHO (“in my humble opinion”) and RTFM (“read the fucking manual”) abound. Perhaps most annoying is the use of “dots” (known elsewhere as “periods”) for net.coinages, ideograms of a sort, whereby references to nonexistent but potential entities such as “alt.stupid.newbies” are immediately grasped. (FYI, the “dot” and is an epiphenomenon of the UNIX operating system native to most machines on the Net. UNIX insists that names of things be unspaced, and by convention the dot arose as a means of separating pieces of a name.)
Given the informality and willful excess of net.writing, quality of discourse is at something of a premium, which comes to many net.novices as a surprise, though they wouldn’t expect an uninterrupted stream of brilliant commentary at, say, the local school-board meeting, where some of the speakers might even have been elected. Nobody on the Net is elected to anything except by themselves or except as a joke, as when the Usenet newsgroup alt.usenet.kooks polls readers on the “kook of the month.”
And the kooks abound. Everyone with an idée fixe but not enough money, clout, or talent to get published in the old-fashioned way has discovered in the Usenet the perfect cheap vanity press. Some of these net.kooks have, with their diligence and shamelessness, attained the status of “net.legends”—the fixtures of all future histories of net.kookiness. Among the more notorious old-time net.legends are Ludwig Plutonium, who claims to have an atom of plutonium as power-source at the center of his brain; and “Serdar Argic,” an expat Turkish nationalist (or cabal) best-known for flooding the Usenet with historical revisionism and denunciations of Armenia.
The ire and ridicule inspired by the likes of these, however, pale before the onslaught of rage more recently unleashed by the Arizona law-firm of Canter & Siegel, net.pariahs. Their sad story is the subject of another column.
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Copyright © 1994 by Michael Macrone