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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 lunatics. 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 (see section Big Sig). There are a number of other Usenet denizens you'll soon come to recognize. Among them:

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.

People to whom the Net is Life, who worry about what happens when they graduate and they lose their free, 24-hour access.

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.

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.

People who know a particular Net-related topic inside and out. Unix wizards can perform amazing tricks with that operating system, for example.

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.

Today, one of the places you can look for help is in the news.newusers.questions newsgroup, which, as its name suggests, is a place to learn more about Usenet. But be careful what you post. Some of the Usenet wizards there get cranky sometimes when they have to answer the same question over and over again. Oh, they'll eventually answer your question, but not before they tell you should have asked your host system administrator first or looked at the postings in news.announce.newusers.

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