Chapter 4: Usenet customs & myths (1 of 7) -- FLAME, BLATHER AND SPEW

Chapter 4: Usenet customs & myths (1 of 7) -- FLAME, BLATHER AND SPEW

     Something about  online  communications seems to make some people
particularly irritable.  Perhaps it's the immediacy and semi-anonymity of
it all.  Whatever it is, there are whole classes of people you will soon
think seem to exist to make you miserable.
     Rather than pausing and reflecting on a message as one might do with
a letter received on paper, it's just so easy to hit your R key and tell
somebody you don't really know what you really think of them. Even
otherwise calm people sometimes find themselves turning into raving
madmen.  When this happens, flames erupt.
     A flame is a particularly nasty, personal attack on somebody for
something he or she has written.
     Periodically, an exchange of flames erupts into a flame war that
begin to take up all the space in a given  newsgroup  (and sometimes
several; flamers like  cross-posting  to let the world know how they
feel). These can go on for weeks (sometimes they go on for years, in which
case they become "holy wars," usually on such topics as the relative
merits of Macintoshes and IBMs).  Often, just when they're dying down,
somebody new to the flame war reads all the messages, gets upset and
issues an urgent plea that the flame war be taken to e-mail so everybody
else can get back to whatever the newsgroup's business is.
     All this usually does, though, is start a brand new flame war, in
which this poor person comes under attack for daring to question the
First Amendment, prompting others to jump on the attackers for impugning
this poor soul...  You get the idea.
     Every so often, a discussion gets so out of hand that somebody
predicts that either the government will catch on and shut the whole
thing down or somebody will sue to close down the network, or maybe even
the wrath of God will smote everybody involved.  This brings what has
become an inevitable rejoinder from others who realize that the network
is, in fact, a resilient creature that will not die easily: "Imminent
death of Usenet predicted. Film at 11.''
     Flame wars can be tremendously fun to watch at first.  They quickly
grow boring, though.  And wait until the first time you're attacked!
     Flamers are not the only net.characters to watch out for.
     Spewers assume that whatever they are particularly concerned about
either really is of universal interest or should be rammed down the
throats of people who don't seem to care -- as frequently as possible.
     You can usually tell a spewer's work by the number of articles he
posts in a day on the same subject and the number of newsgroups to which
he then sends these articles -- both can reach well into double digits.
Often, these messages relate to various ethnic conflicts around the
world. Frequently, there is no conceivable connection between the issue
at hand and most of the newsgroups to which he posts.  No matter.  If you
try to point this out in a response to one of these messages, you will be
inundated with angry messages that either accuse you of being an
insensitive racist/American/whatever or ignore your point entirely to
bring up several hundred more lines of commentary on the perfidy of
whoever it is the spewer thinks is out to destroy his people.
     Closely related to these folks are the Holocaust revisionists, who
periodically inundate certain groups (such as soc.history) with long
rants about how the Holocaust never really happened.  Some people attempt
to refute these people with facts, but others realize this only
encourages them.
      Blatherers tend to be more benign.  Their problem is that they just
can't get to the point -- they can wring three or four screenfuls out of
a thought that others might sum up in a sentence or two.  A related
condition is excessive quoting.  People afflicted with this will include
an entire message in their reply rather than excising the portions not
relevant to whatever point they're trying to make.  The worst quote a
long message and then add a single line:

           "I agree!"

or some such, often followed by a monster .signature.
      There are a number of other Usenet denizens you'll soon come to
recognize.  Among them:
     Net.weenies.  These are the kind of people who enjoy Insulting
others, the kind of people who post nasty messages in a sewing newsgroup
just for the hell of it.
     Net.geeks.  People to whom the Net is Life, who worry about what
happens when they graduate and they lose their free, 24-hour access.
     Net.gods.  The old-timers; the true titans of the Net and the
keepers of its collective history. They were around when the Net
consisted of a couple of computers tied together with baling wire.
     Lurkers.  Actually, you can't tell these people are there, but they
are.  They're the folks who read a newsgroup but never post or respond.
     Wizards.  People who know a particular Net-related topic inside and
out.  Unix wizards can perform amazing tricks with that operating system,
for example.
     Net.saints.  Always willing to help a newcomer, eager to share their
knowledge with those not born with an innate ability to navigate the Net,
they are not as rare as you might think.  Post a question about something
and you'll often be surprised how many responses you get.
     The last group brings us back to the Net's oral tradition.  With few
written guides, people have traditionally learned their way around the
Net by asking somebody, whether at the terminal next to them or on the
Net itself.  That tradition continues: if you have a question, ask.


     Usenet's international reach raises interesting legal questions that
have yet to be fully resolved.  Can a discussion or posting that is legal
in one country be transmitted to a country where it is against the law?
Does the posting even become illegal when it reaches the border?  And
what if that country is the only path to a third country where the
message is legal as well?  Several foreign colleges and other
institutions have cut off feeds of certain newsgroups where Americans
post what is, in the U.S., perfectly legal discussions of drugs or
alternative sexual practices.  Even in the U.S., some universities have
discontinued certain newsgroups their administrators find offensive,
again, usually in the alt. hierarchy.