new lies / old lies / whose lies

Monday, March 4, 1996

Welcome to the Bus

There's something for everyone online - especially if you enjoy feeling like an idiot

Ad agencies are the alchemists of the modern age. The technology of turning a huge, uncaring HMO into a Norman Rockwell doctor with gentle eyes and a healing touch is so advanced as to be indistinguishable from magic, at least for primitives like you and me.

A prime example of this is the recent transmutation of Big-Brother-is-reading-your-email Prodigy into a hip cyberspace hangout. You've doubtless seen the commercials, in which some horribly out-of-place geek (fly fisherman in full regalia, banjo player, grandmother on acid) is welcomed aboard a raucous bus filled with identically challenged misfits. No matter how much of a loser you are IRL, the message goes, all you have to do is get online to find instant acceptance among a friendly group of people who share your weirdest idiosyncrasies.

Well, maybe. The spots certainly capture a key aspect of the online experience. The possibility of being part of an actual human community has always exerted a powerful pull on the alienated nerds who make up the bulk of hard-core modem addicts. It's downright scary to be alone (almost as scary as it is to go out and actually meet people), and even if the online experience is short on the sights and sounds and smells of real human contact, it offers a comforting simulacrum that is as close as many of us are ever likely to get.

I first got online through the local BBS scene, a virtual community that was small, young, and vibrant. By the time I had worked my way downstream from those minor tributaries and entered the vast electronic ocean of Usenet, I'd had time to lose my vestigial yolk sac and develop the kind of protective scales a fingerling needs in those predator-infested waters.

Others weren't so fortunate. AOL, the great newbie hatchery, had recently been pressured into releasing its fry onto the net, and in a blunder that will live in online infamy, they put the newsgroup at the top of their menu of Internet resources.

The AOLers never knew what hit them.

A.b.o.i., then as now, was the site of a perpetual holy war between the clueless and those who would educate them. The group is intended for repostings, you see, rather than original messages; the idea is that the extended net community, when linked together in parallel via NNTP, will be able to develop an emergent, higher-order aesthetic sense and selectively filter out all the noise, leaving nothing behind but pure signal: articulate, witty, relevant.


If anything, the signal-to-noise ratio in a.b.o.i is actually lower than in a garden-variety newsgroup, what with all the crosstalk about the group's purpose and whether or not a particular message actually deserves reposting, to say nothing of the regular flamewars that erupt whenever innocent newbies stumble in and ask news.newusers-type questions.

Still, things entered a whole new phase when the AOLers showed up. You remember the scene in Jaws when Quint (Robert Shaw) gets plastered and tells the story of being on the Indianapolis, a troop ship that sank in the South Pacific with no S.O.S. being sent?

Sometimes that shark, he looks right into you. Right into your eyes. You know the thing about a shark, he's got... lifeless eyes, black eyes, like a doll's eye. When he comes at ya, doesn't seem to be livin'. Until he bites ya and those black eyes roll over white. And then, ah then you hear that terrible high pitch screamin' and the ocean turns red and spite of all the poundin' and the hollerin' they all come in and rip you to pieces.

That's what it was like in a.b.o.i. for a while after the AOLers arrived, a veritable feeding frenzy, with ravenous flamers slashing this way and that and newbie blood everywhere. Steve Case finally took pity on his users and gave them an explanation of the customs of Usenet, according to which walking into a crowded theater and shouting "Fire!" is sufficient to get you killed - or at least flamed to the point where you wish you had been - not because you shouted "Fire!," mind you, but because you did it in the wrong theater.


Usenet is a highly evolved culture. There are rules. Norms of civilized behavior. Mistrust (or outright dislike) of foreigners.

Of course, no one is really in charge, especially in the institutionalized anarchy of the alt.* hierarchy, but that doesn't stop crotchety .edu-domain sysadmins, converted by tenure into full-time Usenetters, from defending what they think of as the Higher Good.

It's a lost cause. Even before the arrival of the AOL crowd, Usenet had become so Balkanized that the wishes of the old guard were essentially irrelevant. In the days when everyone rode the same bus (Unix shell, vi, rn), it may have made sense to try to arrive at and enforce common definitions for terms like "signal" and "noise." These days, though, even asserting the universal applicability of such notions makes one look like an Amish farmer driving a horse and buggy down Route 30, while jeering college kids toss empties and heckle mercilessly from passing cars, their follow-ups set to alt.flame.

One thing you can say for Usenet, though: it is big. If you look long enough you probably can find the group that's just right for you, where Adult Children of Agnostic Sailing Mathematicians meet to discuss the similarities between n-dimensional quasi-conformal mappings and windward takedowns.

But if you do find your perfect group, you may not like it as much as you expected. One particularly questionable plank in the old-school platform says that subjects previously discussed by a newsgroup's veterans should not be brought up again by new arrivals. Given that those veterans are rapidly becoming a tiny minority, it hardly seems fair to make everyone else keep mum. Like presidential candidates whose ancestors barely escaped the potato famine yet who now demand razor wire at the border, there's a strong element of hypocrisy at work.

I'll stipulate that the old school accomplished much good in its time, and that the collective efforts of serious Usenetters have given us some valuable, even awe-inspiring tools to play with.

Still, some of the organized Usenet wisdom seems more a tribute to the power of shared delusion, as with statements of the form, "None of us [that is, the dozen or so get-a-lifers who follow alt.folklore.urban religiously] has firsthand knowledge of [insert star's name] putting a gerbil up his rectum, so it is therefore proven that it never happened."

Usenet! Pffbbtt!

"There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy..."

Give the newbies a chance, guys. They may actually say something you haven't thought of before. Hard to credit, I know, but stranger things have happened.


Between a job, a family, and an ever-expanding universe of webstuff, I actually don't have much time for Usenet these days. It survived the departure of spaf; something tells me it will get along fine without me.

I just wish the Prodigy ads would give new arrivals a better idea of what they're in for. I guess the Usenet Primer wouldn't work very well as a 30-second feel-good spot, but they could at least end the commercial on a more realistic note:

Welcome to the bus.

Now sit down and shut up.

Perfect Tommy

new lies / old lies / whose lies

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