There’s nothing like the feeling of finding a group of true friends, or a gang of like-minded people who share your interests and annoyances. If you love technology as much as we do at Ars, that feeling probably hit you at some point when you were online. Today the Ars staff is celebrating some of the Internet communities we’ve loved.
Sometimes an online group is just a place to bitch about work, and sometimes it’s a place to share your deepest secrets. Some of us found love online, and others found hope for the future of civil liberties. We gamed, we had deep discussions, we figured out how to prank dumb users, we talked about sports and science and digital surveillance.
And we’re still doing it here, in Ars comments and forums. These are our stories, but they are yours, too. Tell us about the online communities you enjoyed for a quick joke, or the ones that changed your life.
Lee Hutchinson: Thanks for calling tech support, how can I kill you?
My formative Internet years were the mid 1990s, when the Web was still growing and the vast majority of companies didn’t have an Internet presence. USENET was still flourishing back in those days, though the cancer of spam that would eventually choke the life out of most of it was flourishing as well. USENET was a place of wonder and terror—you could find deep and nuanced discussions on anything you could imagine, from the merits of Kirk versus Picard to highbrow domestic policy analysis that would make Nate Silver look like a backward child. You could also find porn of any kind, way before porn became a thing on the Web—USENET was egalitarian in the information it let you access. (Yes, I know it sounds weird, but there really was a time when the Web was essentially free of smut—because it was all on USENET. And on a bunch of private FTP sites that you could never seem to find the passwords for.)
For a budding nerd, the place I most wanted to hang out on USENET was a newsgroup called alt.sysadmin.recovery—or, more commonly, by its anagram, the Scary Devil Monastery. This newsgroup became famous (though some might say infamous) as a place where incredibly angry, incredibly caustic system administrators vented their collective spleen about the drudgery of dealing with (l)users. But hanging out and reading the Scary Devil Monastery was one thing; actually posting there terrified me. I was young, and though I had some basic IT knowledge, I didn’t think I would ever fit in with the ancient evil spirits that inhabited the place.
But as the new millennium dawned and I got more real-life experience doing IT, I found an even better newsgroup—alt.tech-support.recovery. Unlike the *nix-focused ancient enraged wizards at the Monastery, ATSR was filled with my people—tired and bitter tier 2 and tier 3 tech support analysts. The newsgroup quickly became a daily hang-out for me for a few years in the early 2000s; it was a place to swap stories about the insanity of (l)users the world over.
The posting style was somewhat derivative of the Monastery—posts tended to be long and rambling, filled with jargon (the better to ensure the lusers who knew how to browse USENET couldn’t understand us). Footnotes were encouraged and used extensively, making posts harder to read but also more appealing to the literal-minded and to folks who like exhaustive explanations of minor technical terms. The adjective “clueful” was used as an aggregate word to describe how technically savvy anyone was—a good boss was one who was “fully clued,” whereas a dumb luser (always “luser,” never “user”) was someone who needed to be clued-in, preferably by the repeated and forceful application of a clue-by-four. Bosses, of course, were “PHBs” (for “Pointy-Haired Bosses“). Old tech support hands were called “bobs“, and new members of the IT department were PFYs (for “Pimply-Faced Youths“) until they graduated and earned their bobdom—usually through some kind of horrifying IT trial by fire like having to pull an all-nighter to fix another department’s screw-up.
On reflection now, the folks posting to the board—myself included—seem to be… perhaps a little whiny, or perhaps a little overly obsessed with the dumbness of their (l)userbases. But it’s important to remember that tech support is a Sysiphean job—no matter how many people you help or how many problems you solve, there will always be more. That phone will never stop ringing. ATSR was a place where everyone all had the same problem—that damned phone headset perched on your ear sometimes can feel like the heaviest weight in the world, tying you to a desk you can never escape. In misery, we found company.
Although Google’s archive of ATSR is woefully incomplete, you can still find a smattering of threads I participated in. I only ask you please don’t judge Past Lee too harshly—he was a much angrier person than Present Lee.
John Timmer: Becoming a science journalist online
For more than a decade, my career involved working in a lab, constantly interacting with the other people there, and often collaborators around the country. Then I switched careers and found a new home at Ars. Which was great in many ways, but a bit isolating. We all worked from home and, for the first few years, had an extremely small staff. Within that staff, I was the odd one out. Everybody else was reporting on some aspect of technology (as did I with a fair bit of frequency, due to the small staff). I was covering science, with a somewhat distinct set of challenges and concerns.
So, there was a constant, nagging worry that I wasn’t handling those challenges as well as I could, a worry exacerbated by my utter absence of journalism experience. And there was nobody at Ars who knew any more than I did.
The obvious people to talk to about these worries were other science journalists. The problem was that I didn’t actually know any of them, and there was no reason to think that they’d be especially welcoming to an inexperienced newcomer from a publication with an odd name.
What I hadn’t appreciated at the time was that the science writing community has a deep commitment to ensuring that the public gets accurate information. And that commitment holds true when they’re not the ones doing the writing. Instead of taking a “LOL noob” attitude, everyone in science writing has always been incredibly helpful and supportive.
And mostly I’ve come to discover that online. I’ve met a fair number of other writers and editors over the years, but that’s mostly been at conferences that happen once a year or as people passed through New York. But through social media, e-mail lists, and discussion forums, I’ve found a home in a community that offers support, advice, information, and often a place to just vent about annoyances.
Sam Machkovech: Trying to become king of virtual Possum Kingdom
My first major “Internet community” was an IRC channel originally hosted on Microsoft’s default Comic Chat servers, but I’ve already told some of that story (complete with photos of my incredible late ’90s butt-part haircut). Thus, I’ll use this opportunity to recount my second major Internet home: the Toadies BBS.
The Toadies, if you don’t recall, are that “doooo you wanna diiiiiiiie” band from Fort Worth, Texas. Their biggest song, “Possum Kingdom,” climbed the post-grunge radio charts in the mid-’90s, and every Dallas-area rock radio station played every one of their songs ad nauseam. I became a fan almost by default.
Following their limited breakout success, the quartet tried, and failed, to finish a sophomore album. As they languished in the shadows of their major label home at Interscope, their tech-savviest member, guitarist Clark Vogeler, whipped up an UltimateBB forum. (Its only archive is here; my username there is “sammym,” which I have since retired.) I believe I joined the forum shortly before I graduated high school in 1999, and my teenage self was delighted to discover that the band members trolled, and even contributed to, the forum. My teen self wasn’t ready to accept that these fucking rock stars were really just bored people working ho-hum day jobs and killing time on a BBS. No way. They were obviously taking breaks from their daily regimen of doing lines off of strippers’ butts to post music recommendations, answer questions, and talk smack. (My illusion was popped, in part, by a video Vogeler later posted to the site showing the band’s four members facing off in an epic Goldeneye 007 tournament.)
This forum set my eventual music-writing career into motion, as it contained a ton of people talking about bands who were releasing albums. Within weeks of joining the forum, I fell in love with singer-songwriter Elliott Smith after seeing Vogeler post about him (which means, thankfully, I caught Smith in concert before his tragic suicide in 2003). I also enjoyed access to a lot of musicians and “scenesters” talking up the Dallas area’s coolest rock bands, including Baboon, Centro-matic, Brutal Juice, The Deathray Davies, Pleasant Grove, and the pAper chAse. At the time, this was a far more efficient way for a local-music outsider to get hip than trying to navigate the local newspapers’ awful late-’90s sites. Members were shameless about sharing FTP addresses and Napster usernames to get new bands and albums into each other’s hands. The moderators (as in, the band members) never stopped it. I’m unsure if they partook.
This forum existed in the brief Internet bubble where centralized content ISPs like AOL began losing popularity, but pervasive social networks like MySpace hadn’t yet struck gold. If you wanted to keep up with Internet friends in a pervasive, non-chat manner, you found a BBS, and this one happened to have a lot of local events to tie its members together. This resulted in a lot of organic policing where good behavior was rewarded with real-life friendships; out-of-line posts were thus naturally ignored or buried. (In one rare exception, lead singer Vaden Todd Lewis, who rarely posted to the forum, popped in to interrupt a particular troll’s BS by declaring, “I don’t come to where you work and slap the sailors’ dicks out of your mouth.” I am pretty sure that troll never returned.)
I eventually met dozens of the forum’s members at concerts, either for The Toadies or others, and I still count a few as lifelong friends. One of them, Derek Rogers, is among my favorite experimental musicians. Another one, whose old handle was Poochie The Rockin’ Dog, pretended to be an attractive blonde woman for his first few months just to troll everyone. Really glad I didn’t send “her” a PM in those early days.
If you’re curious, The Toadies are still together and run an annual Dia De Los Toadies festival. Vogeler fits occasional Toadies gigs into his schedule as an award-winning film and TV editor. I’m unsure if he’s still serving as a forum moderator.
Eric Bangeman: The best subreddit ever
If you ask any of my colleagues up here in the Orbiting HQ what my one obsession is, they’ll all tell you the same thing: byby. (Rugby union, to be exact.) In my non-journalist life, I am a rugby referee, referee coach, and administrator for the local referee society.
There are many things I love about the oval ball sport: the physicality of the game, the incredible athleticism, and the contrast between forwards smashing ahead for a couple meters of territory and the backs moving the ball quickly toward the touchline, looking to create an overlap with the defense. But what stands out about rugby more than any other sport is the culture.
There’s a tired saying about rugby being a hooligan’s sport played by gentlemen, but there is truth there. As I remind the captains before the coin toss, rugby has one referee and 30 players, not 31 referees. The only way that it’s possible to play such a physical, violent sport with that many players and one referee is the culture of respect for the referee, opponent, and sport that permeates all levels of the sport. You go out and try to dominate your opponent physically and then afterwards you share a beer or meal with him or her.
My favorite online community exemplifies all that is good about the sport of rugby union. Reddit’s /r/rugbyunion/ is a place where fans from all around the world gather to talk about the game. Given the demographics of the sport, /r/rugbyunion has a heavy population of English, Irish, New Zealanders, Australians, Welsh, and Scots. There are also a fair number of French fans who post regularly, along with Americans, Canadians, and even some folks from Georgia, Japan, Romania, and elsewhere.
/r/rugbyunion can be a place for serious discussion of tactics, conversation about team selection, stupid moves by leagues (I’m looking at you, Super Rugby) and national unions. But it’s also a place to commiserate with people who, while they cheer for a different team, love the sport the same way you do. And it’s a great place for Bantz, shitposts, and best of all, the epic ALL-CAPS SLEDGE THREADS where no topic is taboo and everybody participates in the spirit of having a good time and taking the piss out of supporters of other teams.
So when I’ve logged off Ars for the evening and I want to catch up on all the rugby news that is news, read an intelligent discussion on Ireland’s tactics against New Zealand, laugh at jokes about backs, and bitch about the USA’s failure to successfully field a professional league, there’s only one place I go: /r/rugbyunion.
Annalee Newitz: Politech saved my sanity
Early in the morning on September 11, 2001, I looked at my girlfriend’s computer and felt the kind of raw, empty panic that comes only when news is too big and misshapen to understand. A video was playing over and over on her monitor: A plane crashing into New York’s Twin Towers, spewing smoke into the air, obliterating everything I took for granted about my political reality.
In the days after the tragedy, everything felt insane. Crazies were calling for every kind of crazy thing; conspiracy theorists were theorizing; one of my friends had been flying from Japan to the US when the attacks happened and was forced to land in Canada with no way to get home. Our borders had been closed! I know my reaction sounds naive now, but this was something I’d never experienced firsthand. My national and personal identity felt fragile.
I didn’t trust anyone to interpret what had happened. I kept reading and re-reading this weird essay by Slavoj Zizek in The Village Voice about the attacks, where he described how events like this created a dangerous void in meaning. He warned that we had to find meaning fast, or cede everything to the aforementioned crazies and conspiracy theorists.
I learned about 9/11 online, so it makes sense that I learned how to make meaning out of it there, too. Searching the Web for sanity, I somehow came across then-journalist Declan McCullagh’s e-mail list Politech. Now sadly defunct, the list was devoted to the overlap of politics and technology, something I was already writing a lot about as a columnist at The San Francisco Bay Guardian. I started reading some of the posts, which were all level-headed analyses of how the US government was responding to the attacks. The people on the list, like me, were concerned about what this meant for electronic surveillance, digital liberties, and free speech.
For the first time since the attacks, I felt like I was having a conversation with rational people. The Politech listserv wasn’t afraid to explore topics that the mainstream media wouldn’t touch, like whether 9/11 would lead to a draconian crackdown on our civil liberties and how we could put a stop to that, even as we mourned our dead.
Though McCullagh was famous for his staunch libertarianism, and I’m one of those dirty pro-government European socialist types, my beliefs were welcome on Politech. The libertarians on the list took their credo seriously, fostering much-needed skepticism about government activity without trying to shove their own dogma down anyone’s throat. My void in meaning had been filled. I will always be grateful to Politech for reminding me that we can stay calm and think critically even under the most extreme circumstances.
Megan Geuss: There were no murderers or sex offenders
Like many people who grew up in the 1990s, I first logged on to the Internet because I was looking for friends. I set up an AOL account in 7th grade and spent the summer e-mailing the one friend I knew who also had an AOL account. (This is not a comment on how pervasive AOL was at the time, but a comment on my lack of friends in middle school. I had two. One was not allowed on the Internet.)
When I hit high school, I started making more friends. I was at a Catholic all-girls school, so we were taught about the perils of wearing skirts too short, of getting into cars with strangers, and of the latest affront to teenage purity: talking to anyone unknown on the Internet (murderers and sex offenders, all of them).
But teenagers are not known for placidly heeding advice from church elders. So as my friend group expanded we found that e-mail lists were not enough to contain all the absurd conversations and hormone-fueled rants that we were compelled to write each other. Plus, we started meeting kids from other schools and wanted to keep in touch with them, too.
So a friend of mine took it upon himself to start a private forum dedicated only to our group of friends. It cost him $5 a month, which was an absurd extravagance at the time. But it was glorious. Now we could have five, six, seven forum threads going at the same time without the imperfections of e-mail correspondence weighing us down. We used AIM chatrooms, but if you weren’t in the chat for some reason, you’d miss the latest act. With the forum, it was easy to find what jokes you missed.
By the end of sophomore year, the forum was something we all checked daily. A friend of mine started venturing into online RPG communities and she met someone new—a guy named “James” from Indiana—and convinced us to let him join our message board. I was certain he was going to find and murder all 19 of us, but after living my life unmurdered for a while, I decided he was probably just another cool-but-lonely teen like all of us and not a serial killer. From there, lots of people were invited into the forums. And although news would have you believe that the only thing teens can do on the Internet is cyberbully each other and make revenge-porn out of the weakest links, I like to believe we were all pretty respectful humans on the whole. We had dumb conversations and deep conversations. We passed hours and hours saying anything and nothing just because we could. We argued, but the arguments blew over. We genuinely liked each other.
By senior year the forum was still going strong, but as soon as everyone hit college or JC, use of the forum tanked. All of a sudden life got a lot tougher. Some of us were trying to make new friends in new cities, some of us were struggling with living at home with overbearing parents, many of us were realizing how hard it is to balance a budget on minimum wage, some of us were losing weekends to the empty promise of house parties and immature partners. Our friend who was shelling out $5 a month to keep our message board together kept it for years longer than he had to, maybe in the hope that we’d all someday come back to each other. We never did. I still remember how sad I felt the day he e-mailed us all saying he was going to stop paying for hosting, and we might lose our conversations. It was the definitive end of an era and the blunt reminder that time only goes in one direction.
Jonathan Gitlin: Yes, I’m an Arsian
I first started reading Ars Technica in graduate school, back before I moved from London to the US. I can’t quite remember how I discovered the site, but I signed up for the Openforum in November 2000 as a fresh-faced Mac user, at which point I got promptly trolled and then doxxed by our very own Peter Bright.
Somehow that didn’t deter me, and before too long Ars was my digital home. After one rather drunken London meet, I even ended up with several posters crashing on my couch!
I moved to San Diego in 2002 to pursue a postdoc at The Scripps Research Institute, discovering once there that I had a lot of downtime between experiments. To combat the boredom, I was spending a lot of time in IRC—#Macintosh mainly—where I got to know other infamous forum trolls like | Palindrome | (a.k.a Eric Bangeman). Along the way I also met my wife—username Evoque—and ended up writing a weekly series of columns about science. At first I alternated with Zamboni (Fred Lockyear to his friends), then wrote solo for a while, before we moved to a daily format you used to know as Nobel Intent.
San Diego became Lexington, Kentucky, and another infamous troll—Stasis7 (Ben Kuchera)—turned out to live a couple of blocks from us. We remain firm friends to this day, even if he no longer swears at people on the Internet. While in Kentucky, I juggled being a postdoc with writing more and more science content for Ars, until in 2009 I moved to Washington, DC, to start a policy job at the National Institutes of Health.
That curtailed my science writing somewhat, but not my Ars-habit. Covering science policy or NIH-funded biomedical research was now a bit of a conflict of interest, so I kept my hand in writing about video games, the occasional MacBook review, and pieces about racing technology. And evidently I did something right. When EiC Ken Fisher decided it was time to add car coverage to the site, he asked if I’d like to come onboard and edit that section. I moved to Ars full time a little under two years ago and haven’t looked back, because writing for this site isn’t just a job, it’s like being with family.
Sean Gallagher: The House that MOO built
Back in 1993, in the days of PPTP dial-up access to the wild, raw Internet, I discovered a place called LambdaMOO. Reached by telnet, it was a “multi-user dungeon” (MUD) running on a server at Xerox’s PARC—the first one that allowed community members to create extensions of its existence using object-oriented scripts. I stumbled into it while doing some research, stayed at first to experiment with the scripts, and then stayed longer because of the global virtual community that it fostered. (For LambdaMOO veterans, I went by the username “trotsky” while I was there.)
Lambda was founded by Pavel Curtis, now a software architect at Microsoft. But it was a community-run space in many respects, and it became something of a virtual pub for many early inhabitants of the Internet. The community’s rules were set by petitions and ballots that registered members were greeted with when they logged in. The rules were enforced by administrators known as “wizards.”
Guests to LambdaMOO arrived in the Coat Closet, a crowded virtual space with one exit that frequently trapped newcomers until they figured out how to open the door. In the Living Room, a Cockatoo would repeat things people said in chat until someone “gagged” the scripted bird.
College students with terminal access, researchers, and others exploring the early Internet showed up there in text-based representation, interacting with each other and creating “rooms” that chained off of each other, scripted objects and interactions that in many ways foretold the early potential of later user-built communities like Second Life&emdash; for good and ill.
LambdaMOO also became the site of the first “cyberrape.” A user called Mr.Bungle, who text-described his virtual presence as a perverted “Bisquick-faced clown,” created a “voodoo doll” object that would output text describing other accounts being forced to perform various sexual acts upon him.
It was just code, but it was a gross violation of Lambda’s etiquette, and Bungle was booted and then banned.
I remember it as a happier place than that, where I met people whom I would later meet in the real world at a time that was, to be honest, pretty crappy in real life for me. Some of those early relationships on Lambda led directly to other things I did in software development and other Internet projects. And Lambda still stands today, though its foundation has been moved elsewhere, for others to experience what is in many ways a sort of Colonial Williamsburg of online communities.
More Info: arstechnica.com