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The New Republic
September 13, 1993

Voice of America
By Robert Wright


Surely you've heard of the Internet. Almost surely you hadn't heard of it a
year ago. In that span it has gone from unheralded region of cyberspace
(another word that suddenly needs no introduction) to topical and stylish
locale, the kind of place that shows up in a New Yorker cartoon. (A canine
hacker says, "On the Internet, nobody knows you're a dog.") In June, July and
the first half of August, major American newspapers carried 173 stories
mentioning the Internet, compared with twenty-two a year earlier--this
according to the Nexis on-line database, another part of cyberspace.

You've probably also heard that the Internet is a vast and diffuse electronic
web, a "network of networks" that spans the planet, encompassing a rapidly
growing number of computers. And you may have heard that the Internet will
deeply change politics, culture and the fabric of society--if not, indeed, the
very metaphysics of human existence. Then again, you may have heard that the
Internet is just another passing craze.

In any event, you've probably never actually been on the Internet. Though it's
suddenly becoming affordable (about $20 a month through no-frills access
providers), it remains a realm mainly of hackers, scientists and assorted
others with some institutional link to it.

Only a few weeks ago I had never been on the Internet either. But then this
magazine sent me on a mission to cyberspace, where I logged a couple of dozen
hours on the Net (as we say there). Now I'm back. There is much to report,
bearing on all the Big Questions about the Net's ultimate significance--
political, cultural, metaphysical, etc.

But first things first. My overwhelming initial impression of the Net was that
it's the promised land for amateur anthropologists. Never has there been a way
to observe people and groups so accurately and unobtrusively. As a place to
eavesdrop, cyberspace is without peer in all of human history.

For example, most of us know that Mensa is an organization of people who place
great and prominent emphasis on their intelligence. Most of us have suspected
that this emphasis might make warming up to some Mensa members a
bigger-than-average challenge. But how much actual evidence for that suspicion
do we have? Would you like to find some? Step into cyberspace.

Here you can overhear a Mensa member arguing with several people over whether
he should put his i.q. on his resume. "Clarification on my original
query/posting: The Mensa i.q. test I took (and did so well on, top 1 percent
on both tests they gave), was only four years ago, in 1989. I mention this now
because somebody complained that I shouldn't put old things like sat scores
and Mensa i.q. tests on my resume, they want something more recent, but in
this case 90 percent of my computer programming is older than my Mensa i.q.
test so the remark about i.q. test being 'old' and hence not belonging on
resume for that reason, is incorrect."

A point well taken. Nonetheless, some of those arguing for an i.q.-less resume
persisted. "Not to bust any bubbles," one replied, "but 'Mensa' i.q. is not at
all rare in the industry. If I saw your resume with Mensa membership or i.q.
score, it would probably get placed immediately in the 'self-styled genius' or
'legend in own mind' round file."

Ouch. The Net is a mostly peaceful place, but here, as on other frontiers,
things can suddenly turn nasty; cyberspace is not for the weak or the timid.
Unless, of course, you just sneak around and listen without revealing your
presence, thus becoming what some internauts pejoratively call a "lurker."
This was my approach.

The above exchange may not look too riveting here on the printed page, fixed
in cold type. But when you watch it in cyberspace--well, actually, even there
it's fixed in cold type. What's more, it isn't even a live exchange; the two
strands of a dialogue may be separated by hours or days. Still, there is
something about seeing these words on your terminal, knowing that there's
flesh and blood behind them, real joy being given or offense being taken, that
gives you the thrilling, guilty feeling of catching a glimpse through a window
at night.

Strictly speaking, this isn't eavesdropping. People who "post" on the Net's
many different bulletin boards--its "newsgroups"--know that their words can be
seen from just about any chunk of inhabited turf on this planet. But the
narrow focus of each group, the physical remoteness of observers and the
anonymity of those posters who choose it--all these combine to infuse groups
with a sense of intimacy, fostering candor of a sort seldom seen in public
spaces. If you're standing in line at the post office, there is little chance
that the man in front of you will turn around and say, "My own experience is
that the feet I don't find desirable I often find revolting. It seems, in
fact, that my revulsion from 'bad' feet is as peculiarly and abnormally
intense as my attraction to 'good' feet." But if you visit the newsgroup
called, you can hear precisely that. may sound like a parody of a narrow interest group, and
it's true that I didn't choose it randomly. Still, interests do regularly get
pretty narrow on the Net. There are, depending on how you count, between 2,500
and 6,000 newsgroups worldwide. (Many access providers offer closer to 2,000,
after filtering out some non-English-language groups, hyperfrivolous groups
and so on.) In the recreation region of the Net, there are thirteen aviation
groups (rec.aviation.simulators) and thirty-five music groups
(, There are another
fourteen music groups in the "alternative" region (; "alt"
connotes both the frequent- ly offbeat nature of the groups (what's enya?) and
the fact that here groups can be started without the formal approval needed in
most other regions. In the science region, there are more than fifty groups
(, sci.astro.hubble), not counting the biol- ogy groups in the
"bionet" region (including the ever- popular bionet.drosophila, de- voted to
fruit flies). In the social issues region, there are sixty- four "culture"
groups (soc.culture.malaysia, soc.cul- ture.greek). The computer region
features hundreds of ineffably narrow groups; nine begin with There are dozens of fan clubs, of various brows

All of this shows how much the government can accomplish when it doesn't put
its mind to it. The In- ternet began as a link among Pentagon-funded re-
searchers; newsgroups weren't on the agenda. But as more and more people at
colleges and other research centers were hooking up to the network, it was
becoming enmeshed with an obscure web of newsgroups called usenet. The two
were, and are, technically distinct; the Internet is an infrastructure, and
usenet newsgroups are one of many services available on it. In fact, a few
Internet purists will give you a stern lecture if you call usenet part of the
Internet, since the newsgroups are available via other conduits as well. But
even purists may call usenet part of the Net, a more amorphous term. And,
anyway, non-purists (i.e., almost everyone) consider the newsgroups a de facto
dimension of the Internet. One reason is the intricate symbiosis between the
two. usenet reached its mammoth scope largely by piggybacking on the Internet,
drawing vibrance from Internet users and exploiting the network's robust
infrastructure. Meanwhile, usenet has become, for many lay users, the
Internet's main attraction--the thing that draws them into the Internet, after
which they may explore other dimensions.

These dimensions are many and diverse. Internet Relay Chat offers real-time
written conversation--it makes your monitor look like an unfolding screenplay,
with you speaking one of the several parts. File Transfer Protocol lets you
enter computerized archives all over the world and download zillions of files.
I could go on. But the usenet newsgroups are (arguably) the most socially
momentous of the Net's dimension, and they're where I spent my time. Discourse
is even narrower than the number of newsgroups suggests. Within each group is
a changing mix of distinct conversational lineages ("threads"), each labeled
with the subject heading of the posting that started it. As of late August in
the soc.culture.celtic group, you could choose to associate with one or more
of half a dozen crowds, including the {How many Celtic civilizations were
there?} crowd, the {Scottish Stereotypes} crowd, the {Celtic Gods} crowd and
the {Looking for name of Dentist in Belfast N.I.} crowd. Actually, that last
heading never drew much of a crowd. When you read a posting, its lineage
appears as a family tree in the corner of the screen. If three people respond
to the {Scottish Stereotypes} posting, those responses are its
"offspring"--siblings of one another--and each may then have offspring of its
own. You can navigate these lineages, go from one posting to its parent, its
offspring, its younger or older sibling or straight to the root or the outmost

It would of course be easy to trivialize all this, to pick a few of the more
eccentric newsgroups and then car- icature them by selectively quoting from
their various subject headings. So let's do a little of that.
talk.religion.newage {Ancient Space People In India}. alt.war {Custer--what
happened?}. alt.alien.visitors {Do some abductees never come back?}.
rec.folk.dancing {Unusual Balkan rhythms}. alt.politics.libertarian {A
Darwinian Reason for Opposing Seat Belt Laws}. rec.equestrian {Dry, Dusty,
Barn???}. alt.history.what-if {WWI: Lusitania not sunk?}. alt.paranormal
{Noise in New Mexico}, {Cornbread, come to life}. The cornbread item, I
finally decided, was a parody posted by a gate crasher.

Now for some perspective. We all have interests this narrow, even if in some
cases they're more consonant with mainstream twentieth- century metaphysics.
The beauty of the Net is that it is a place where just about any interest,
from fringe to mainstream, can be indulged. It is also a place where any
question--Where to vacation? Where to get brain surgery? What was the name of
Jack Ruby's nightclub?--can be answered with amazing speed if deftly placed.
(Go to alt.conspiracy.jfk for that last one.) And the more the Net grows, the
truer all this is, which makes it grow more, and makes this truer, and so on.
The number of groups is rising by hundreds per year. For a long time to come,
more and more topics will have a large enough constituency to warrant a group;
and once there's a constituency, all it takes is an enterprising person (or
organization) with a personal computer to start the group. So far these seem
to be in abundant supply. Meanwhile, as a further attraction, software
companies are starting to make user-friendly Net interfaces--something there's
a great need for; it took me about a day to get comfortable navigating the

All these trends point the same way: the present expansion of the Net's
constituency--from hackers and scientists to regular people-- will persist and
may accelerate. You, too, will probably get sucked into the Net before long.
That's why the texture of cyberspace is worth examining, and all the Big
Questions about its import worth exploring. The Net is a microcosm of
tomorrow's macrocosm.

The family trees for conversational "threads" differ not just within groups
but among them. Some groups feature lots of complex trees, the sign of true
communication. Others are featureless landscapes--posting after posting with
no reply. Thus gives the impression of a lot of
one-handed clapping: {Cuba Supports Democracies & Liber'n}, etc. But this
doesn't signify failure. is a one-way medium, like a
magazine; the postings are press releases {alternative radio presents: Noam
Chomsky (Part III)}. How much action they generate is hard to say, but some
political organizations (especially environmentalists) do report great gains
from using the Net as an inexpensive mobilizing tool.

Hence Big Question #1: Will the Net be democracy's salvation? Don't bet on it.
There's been some leftish rejoicing about how newsgroups empower grassroots
organizations, making politics more egalitarian. And the Net may indeed bring
a counterweight to well- moneyed interests. But pro-lifers and various other
conservative groups are grass roots too; and for that matter even corporate
interests can make good use of cyberspace, once they discover it. The great
looming peril is that as special interests of all stripes are empowered by
information technology, gridlock will grow.

Hence Big Question #2: Will there be enough cross-ventilation to foster mutual
understanding and compromise? There are faint signs of hope. In political
groups with the most complex conversational trees, much of the dialogue is
generated by interlopers who question local dogma. When I checked into
alt.politics.perot and alt.politics.radical-left, the latter was markedly more
complex, and the complexity came largely from enemies of the left. Sometimes
you can even witness people being made painfully aware of facts at odds with
their worldview. Still, worldviews are pretty stubborn things. Some of Rush
Limbaugh's legions (on seemed unphased by helpful
reminders that Limbaugh, a champion of family values, is twice divorced. One
Rushite resolved the seeming hypocrisy by analogy: "I am totally in favor of
drivers using their turn signals, but I confess that there are times I forget
to use them myself." (Whoops! Forgot to stay married. Dammit, that's twice
I've done that!)

The landscapes of some groups are pretty predictable. Misc.entrepreneurs, full
of busy people focused laserlike, has short threads--crisp answers to specific
questions ({Business software recommendation?}), and not a lot of existential
reflection. Unemployed people seem to have more time on their hands. A query
in ({Should a two-page resume be stapled?}) yields an
eleven-leaf tree in short order.

Of course, after a few leafs, the original thread of a conversation is often
lost. A posting on misc.consumers titled "help! Lunatic Apartment Neighbor"
gets the reply, "I'd tell you to get a gun and learn how to use it, but the
last time I heard the waiting period in California is two or three months."
The thread then becomes a seminar on gun control.

Meanwhile, over on the Washington resident who doesn't hear
enough about guns on the local news--gun talk mutates into a discourse on
penology. One person suggests building more prisons to accommodate longer
sentences. This draws the reply, "No bloody thanks. More hotels for useless
parasites? Kill them. Painlessly. Mercilessly. Fast. Cheaply." The first guy,
his manhood now in doubt, tries to recover. "Well, I'm not crazy about having
to pay for keeping them around. I have, in fact, advanced the idea that
prisoners should be classified within the system according to the severity of
their crime. Let's say their prison is rated at 1500 beds. When prisoner
number 1501 checks in, he/she is rated and placed on the list. Then the
prisoner on the top of the list (most severe crime) is taken out back and
shot. This keeps the prison population 'humane' without subjecting society at
large to the predations of 'early release.'" One great thing about the Net is
that when you hear something like this you don't have to say, "Um, that's a
very, um, provocative idea. I'll have to give it some thought."

Hence Big Question #3: Will lots of creepy, nefarious groups use the Internet
to organize? In general, there is less on the Net about exterminating
parasites than you might fear. Much of alt.skinheads is devoted to
distinguishing mainstream skinheads from swastika-sporting racists (referred
to on alt.skinheads as "boneheads" and "tiny brained doo-doo heads"). Anyone
who wants to foment hate in a serious way is likely to opt for a low-profile
bulletin board, not visible to millions of decent citizens. No doubt
electronic hate groups are out there, but they're typically not on the Net.
And when they are (as with alt.flame.faggots), many access providers,
including mine, choose not to carry them.

The "flame" part of alt.flame.faggots doesn't mean what you might think.
"Flame" is the cyberspace word for, roughly, "speak in very heated or hostile
terms." Flaming is a much-discussed problem on the Net. In fact, as far as I
could tell, it is more often discussed than actually witnessed. But you do
sometimes see people debate with needless animosity, or reply with excessive
force to perceived breaches of etiquette ("netiquette"). And they may rudely
redirect those who don't seem to belong in a group. "Look, if it has nothing
at all to do with alt.horror.cthulhu,leave us out of it. Go whine on
alt.bitterness." Or, one might add, on alt.whine, which features, for example,
{it's not fair} and {it's not fair: not fair! when I was a lad ...}.

There are places on the Net that seem immune to rudeness and hostility. is a densely populated place where parents swap serious advice and
lighthearted tales about childrearing. When to wean? Where to get a truly
spill-proof cup? What to call flatulence? "One of the alternatives that I
liked, especially for a young kid, was 'air poof.'... But when [David] was
just 3 (he's 6 now) I think his daycare's teenager taught him 'body
explosion.'" Where to find a new day care provider?

The most assuredly earnest climates are in the therapeutic groups, such as
alt.recovery, where a.a. members share support., billed as
a discussion of why suicide rates grow during holidays, turns out to consist
partly of people trying to help each other get undepressed. There is something
truly affecting, not to mention dramatic, about watching a person who may be
contemplating suicide get help from someone who knows the territory. "This is
my survival list & I walk the edge often.... Walking randomly until either my
mind shuts up or my feet hurt.... I make myself call a friend.... I look at my
dog and try to figure out who will take care of him and treat him well and
spoil him if I off myself (I save this for the worst times.... I can't bear to
take him with me & I can't bear to leave him behind). A pet helps. I pick an
object. Anything, a plant, a jar, a piece of string on the carpet, a cat hair
on the couch & I study it. I try to imagine different uses for it. I try to
become whatever it is. I try to connect and imagine that object's connection
with everything else. If I can somehow feel that link/connection then I know I
am not completely alone & that I am connected (however tenuously) to this
world & that I sorta belong here even if it seems I don't fit in with whatever
is happening."

This sort of communication is the essence of the Net. As fun as it is to sit
and watch fringe groups sound frivolous, most newsgroup traffic is from
serious people finding communication they need or, at least, really want. And
the level of discourse, though uneven, is often very high. You can learn an
incredible amount of stuff just from the sidelines, without even asking
questions. But once you've spent much time on the Net as a lurker, you
probably will speak up. You will have an obscure question you've always
wondered about, or see a question you can easily answer, or just want to throw
your two cents in. Toward the end of my stay in cyberspace, I posed this long-
standing puzzle to the group: Why does the standard set of
clubs no longer include a 2 iron?

The experience was amazingly lifelike. I felt apprehension about speaking in
front of a strange group; relief and pride at not being ignored (a four-leaf
tree within forty-eight hours, plus two private replies by electronic-mail,
another Net service); and gratitude toward, even fondness for, those who
answered. And I actually felt a sense of belonging--I had communed with a few
nodes, and it felt good. None of these people has become a good friend or
vital professional contact, but that sort of thing does happen all the time on
the Net, as dialogue shifts from a newsgroup to an e-mail correspondence.
(Also, I got--in addition to several obliquely relevant replies--a plausible
answer, with which I won't bore you.)

This emotional permeability of cyberspace is the deepest source of its
magnetic power. The gargantuan knowledge-base is a big draw, but what really
keeps people coming back--believe it or not--is the warmth. The Net, like so
many other artifacts, is an expression of human nature by the most efficient
available technology; one of the deepest parts of human nature is the
affiliative impulse.

Thus the answer to Big Question #4--Will the Net alter the very metaphysics of
human existence?--is: not really. The attraction of cyberspace isn't so much
that it radically transforms human interaction as that it leaves the feeling
of interaction intact. The things it changes are the arbitrary constraints on
interaction. Distance is not an impediment. Race doesn't matter. Being a big
strapping male or a nubile female won't affect the amount of deference you

This does lead to a freer, truly disembodied mingling of minds, and if someone
out there can get a Ph.D. in semiotics by calling that a metaphysical
watershed (as someone probably already has), more power to him. But the bigger
story seems to be the surprising extent to which basic social dynamics remain
unchanged. There's been much talk about the effect in cyberspace of genuine,
impenetrable anonymity (which is available on the Net), of how it strips away
our civil facade, frees the animal within. But almost no Net regulars use true
anonymity to be purposefully abusive, and the ones who do would probably be
spending their time mak- ing nuisance phone calls if the computer hadn't been
invented. The frequent talk on the Net about "flam- ing" is partly a testament
to the tender sensibilities of some internauts; given its darkness, cyberspace
is a stunningly civil place. And the reason is that the human desire to be
liked by our neighbors runs more than skin deep.

As for the sexually liberating effect of anonymity: it's true that there are
places on the Net (and elsewhere in cyberspace) where inhibitions dissolve,
genders get switched, fantasy roles played. But this is an infinitesimal drop
in the bucket, irrelevant to what 99.9 percent of all internauts are doing.
Even the people in aren't there to talk dirty. They're
there for validation, to find company in which they're not strange. You can
almost feel the reassurance they get from hearing each other talk about
pretending to inspect the lowest shelf of a newsstand while in fact gazing at
a woman's exquisite, sandaled feet. I seriously doubt that these people would
mind revealing their identities to each other. They just want to shield them
from people like me. (Good thinking.)

Iposted a second query, this time on five newsgroups, ranging from to talk.religion.misc and covering some less cosmic
groups in between. I asked what was important about the Net and how it had
affected people's lives. The twenty or so (admittedly not representative)
e-mail replies were almost relentlessly upbeat. "It has both allowed me to
strengthen and articulate some of my views, and to change others." "Being an
American born to a British mother and Iranian father, the British and Iranian
culture newsgroups help me feel in touch with my heritage." "I left the Navy
with some bad mobility problems.... My world shrank [but then] expanded beyond
belief when I got on internet."

A number of people mentioned the Net's global reach. "On the Internet, you can
interact with the whole world, [which is] repartitioned, not geographically,
but by area of interest." Hence Big Question #5, then: Will the Net sap the
will of the nation-state? Certainly one can hope. Maybe international interest
groups will become weighty lobbying forces, fostering the regional or global
coordination of national policies and in other ways subjecting national
behavior to supranational will. Also, of course, it's harder to support a war
when you've swapped childrearing tips with some of the people you'd be
bombing. The eventual force of such effects depends on lots of things, notably
the stubborn problem of automated translation. But among scientists and some
other elites, English is already close to a global language.

The feature of the Net most lauded in my informal poll was, naturally, the
ease of finding shared interests. "It's like there's a town full of fishermen
or philatelists or antiquarians." Most of us wouldn't want to live in any of
those three towns. But there are thousands more to choose from, and the number
is growing fast. More to the point, how many Americans are wild about the
towns they do live in? One of the most discussed trends at the end of this
century is the collapse of community, the number of people who don't have
neighbors or colleagues who share their interests or values. The Net is a
natural answer. One Net user predicted that in twenty years "electronic
interaction will be a significant part of our personal lives." Another (a
"photographer/artist" who had been "thrilled to find others like me, not
techies or geeks" on the Net) said, "I just hope it doesn't make us less
likely to leave our homes and seek out others face to face!"

Hence Big Question #6: Will the Net hasten the demise of physical community?
Probably. When you're talking to people on the Net, you can't be talking to
people back on the planet. But what exactly this means will depend on how many
people spend how much time in cyberspace (and on how this varies by, say,
socioeconomic class). And this in turn depends on lots of other things. For
example: although pure print will remain the ideal medium for many purposes,
the Internet will likely evolve into a multimedia experience. There's already
a weekly Net radio show, and video signals can be sent too. For that matter,
the ultimate mode of life in cyberspace is virtual reality--a 3-d experience
that looks, sounds, maybe even feels like physical reality. (Virtual reality
was the context of the coining of "cyberspace" by William Gibson in the novel
Neuromancer.) A cyberspace with real virtual reality could, decades from now,
acquire truly irresistible power, and have unfathomable effects.

It's of course ironic that the Net, in addressing the problem of cultural
fragmentation, may in some ways deepen it. But that does seem to be in the
cards. Though cruising the Net widely is fun, many people seem to settle
finally into their own niche of a few particular groups. These groups
become--for hours at a time--their whole world, liberating yet confining. But,
hey: it beats solitary confinement, a common condition these days, and one
that espn, the Home Shopping Network and Court t.v. don't really alleviate.

Some Net users have boilerplate signatures, featuring a picture cleverly built
out of keyboard characters and, often, an epigram. Of all the epigrams I saw
in cyberspace, by far the most memorable was, "I post, therefore I am."

Smiley's people

The online world has its own cliches and truisms, none so haggard as the
belief that reliable written communication is impossible without frequent use
of emoticons, better known as the "smileys." Emoticons are nothing more than
characters that look like a face when viewed sideways. The original smiley is
:-), but there are innumerable variations, such as :-0 ;-) :-( 8-) :-{) :-{)>,
and each can signify anything from facial hair to a particular emotional
state. Emoticons are the electronic equivalent of spin doctors: commonly
inserted at the end of a sentence that is meant to be interpreted as sarcasm,
or, in general, whenever the writer fears his or her prose may be about to
jump the iron rails of literalism.

With the eerie uniformity of airport cultists, emoticon users all proffer the
same rationale for the smiley tic: since the streams of ascii characters
flowing across the Internet (usually described as "cold," "mechanistic," etc.)
cannot carry body language or tone, the missing cues must be supplied through
punctuation. The tendency of writers to bungle their attempts at sarcasm, and
of readers to bungle the detection of it, invariably leads (so the argument
goes) to hurt feelings, which in turn leads to network "flame wars" in which
people insult each other in extravagant terms that would never be used face-
to-face. Irony, it seems, is like nitroglycerin: too tricky to be good for
much, and so best left in the hands of fanatics or trained professionals.

Never addressed by such people is the question of how humans have managed to
communicate with the written word for thousands of years without strewing
crudely fashioned ideograms across their parchments. It is as if the written
word were a cutting-edge technology without useful precedents. Some hackers
actually go so far as to maintain, with a straight face (:-I), that words on a
computer screen are different from words on paper--implying that writers of
e-mail have nothing useful to learn from Dickens or Hemingway, and that time
spent reading old books might be better spent coming up with new emoticons.

Other smiley partisans maintain that, since many messages are tossed off
extemporaneously, the medium has more in common with talking than writing,
hence the need for emoticons. This neatly sidesteps the awkward fact that what
these people are engaged in is, in fact, nothing other than plain old writing
and reading, and that, as always, they may have to invest some time and effort
in the act if they don't want to mess it up.

Scott Fahlman, who is credited with inventing smileys, has been quoted by The
Boston Globe as saying that "I had no idea that I was starting something that
would soon pollute all the world's communication channels." The Globe does not
record, however, whether he terminated this statement with a smiley. Jeremy
Bornstein, a research scientist at Apple Computer's Advanced Technology Group,
thinks that a silent minority of people on usenet (the distributed news system
on the Internet) belong to the anti-smiley camp, but that "experienced users
realize that it's futile to rail against popular custom." Thus, members of the
anti- smiley underground constitute something of a secret subculture; they can
find each other only through lengthy exchanges of smiley-free messages,
growing more certain with each unadorned sentence that they have found a
fellow traveler.

The irony is, Net culture was unusually literate. The pioneers of the Net were
hackers, people who routinely spend twelve to sixteen hours a day editing
text, and whose favorite leisure-time activity is inhaling fantasy and science
fiction novels by the pallet load. These people are no strangers to words.
Much has recently been made of the nascent revival of epistolary society that
is supposedly growing up online. Such optimism is not entirely ill-founded,
but innovations such as the smiley suggest that media-age writers may have a
ways to go before they can compete with the average Civil War infantryman or
Victorian diarist. The very ambiguity that, properly used, gives words much of
their expressive power is viewed by many Net denizens as a glaring but
ineradicable flaw in an otherwise promising system. Thus, in hacker argot, the
emoticon is a "kludge," a hasty and inelegant patch on a problem that's too
difficult to solve just now.

Nearly all academic computers are on the Internet, so access is open to anyone
having an account on such a machine, which is to say, any student who bothers.
The Internet is, therefore, still very much a college town and shares much the
same ambience as Cambridge, Iowa City or Berkeley: a dysfunctional blend of
liquored-up freshmen and polymorphously perverse deconstructionists. The
politically correct atmosphere may help to explain the generally frosty stance
toward humor exhibited on usenet, where people either use it badly--at the
level of toilet stall graffiti--or categorically reject it; usenet is the kind
of place where people can seriously (without smileys) discuss the proposition
that humor is an intrinsically aggressive, nonconsensual act.

In such an atmosphere, the very ability of the smiley to destroy a joke must
be comforting. The addition of a smiley can somehow turn even the sharpest bon
mot into a clanking jape straight out of Reader's Digest; it is the written
equivalent of the Vegas rimshot.

Some hope is to be found beyond usenet, in relatively literate conferences
such as the well, where it costs money (albeit not much) to get in; the entry
fee cuts down on the number of feckless grad students wanting to air their
sexual peculiarities and leads to an atmosphere that is at once more diverse
and more serious. On the well, I have actually seen smileys used in a way that
made me laugh out loud, usually in an ironic sense that would confuse or
irritate any dyed-in-the-wool smiley-slinger.

It would be comforting to think that the smiley will be eradicated from online
culture, just as the genuine smiley face has, for the most part, been vacuumed
from popular culture. I am not optimistic, though. Most people, I suspect, go
on the Net because it's the only ticket to cyberspace. As today's ascii-based
hardware is replaced with broadband switched networks and telecomputers, many
users may desert what they see as the limited capabilities of prose for the
supposedly more expressive medium of video. If so, they may be in for a shock.
As many a political candidate has discovered the hard way, the ability to
emote on-camera is for most people no more natural than writing smiley-free

Neal Stephenson

Neal Stephenson is the author of Snow Crash (Bantam).

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