Can’t get there from here: Living in a World of Text

  1. The History of the World Wide Web
  2. Can’t get there
  3. Is There Anybody Out There?

You must remember this...
a kiss is still a kiss...
a sigh is still a sigh...
The fundamental things apply...
As time goes by.

Despite all the fancy pictures and sounds you may have seen in television demonstrations of Internet vehicles such as Mosaic (footnote alert), the language of the Internet is still text and text alone--no italics, maybe bold, no color, no flashing lights. Most of the people who are using the net are using computers that cannot display high-quality graphics, and are ‘coming in’ over slow connections that couldn’t transfer the huge amount of data necessary to show graphics anyway. The biggest Internet service remains ftp, the prehistoric, command-line based file transfer protocol. (For Real?)

So there is no sound and there are no graphics: netizens communicate by typing. Most of the time, they communicate by what could be called a public letter. One person sends out a message to a discussion group, and another person responds to specific points in the message.

A kiss is no longer a kiss, and a sigh is no longer a sigh. A sigh is a *sigh*, a kiss is any number of touching or disgusting sound effects, and the fundamental things take place solely in the imagination of tinysex afficionados.

“Tiny” is a series of virtual worlds. There are TinyMUDs and TinyMOOs and probably a TinyMUSH out there somewhere as well. These text-only virtual worlds are places where you can WALK NORTH, SAY “HI!” and discuss all the writings of Freud on a text-only couch in a text-only room in a text-only building in a text-only city. And somehow, the Tiny worlds became associated with text-only contextual sex. Meet in a dark corner of the keyboard, type sweet nothings into her terminal and before you know it the hot and heavy is pouring from your fingertips onto your screen.

Sex isn’t the only thing you can have in a text-only environment. Some people still like a little foreplay. Text-only discussions have their own rules which the net has built up to keep discussions from getting too confusing.

From: [c--am--r] at [] (Clayton Cramer)
Subject: Re: Pedophile movement inhibits gay rights movement
Date: Wed, 15 Jun 1994 23:27:29 GMT

Rajappa Iyer <[r--i] at []> wrote:
>[c--am--r] at [] (Clayton Cramer) writes:
>>Yet another reminder of the connection between child molestation and
>>adult homosexuality.  This appeared over in, and is
>>pretty typical of how homosexuals are trying to legitimize child
>>molestation -- and why homosexuals won’t tell NAMBLA where to go.
>>Who would upset their recruiting arm?
>Wonderful work, Clayton... do you have other information about how
>homosexuals are trying to legitimize child molestation or is a posting
>on Usenet your incontrovertible evidence?
><[r--i] at []> a.k.a. Rajappa Iyer.  La Jolla, CA.

You’re new here.  Just the continual defenses of NAMBLA from
homosexuals; NAMBLA’s continuing presence in gay parades around
the country, even other political groups have been excluded; and
lots of postings in like the one I quoted above,
but nowhere near as well written.

Clayton E. Cramer {uunet,pyramid}!optilink!cramer  My opinions, all mine!
“What do you mean I can’t take a leave of absence to overthrow the government?
What sort of cheap-skate company is this?”

What do we have here? Strange posts indeed! A person named Clayton Cramer is responding to a message from Rajappa Iyer, who was, in turn, responding to a previous message from Clayton. The ‘right arrow brackets’ (>) show who said what. Since Clayton is responding to Rajappa, anything with one arrow (>) is what Rajappa said. Clayton’s original message is two messages back, so anything that he had said in the previous message has two arrows (>>). Some articles will include messages from three, four, five, and more previous posts, and quotes from those messages will be preceded by three, four, five, or more arrows.(We even have a name for it.) In general, this makes it pretty easy to see who said what, although some people will accidentally or deliberately mess up the ‘attribution’ of who said what. And a growing minority are using custom indicators of who said what, which takes some getting used to. I’m a bit anti-revolutionary on this point; the stupid little arrows are traditional because they work; they concisely point out who said what, and when. Some newbies from America On-Line, when the AOL floodgates opened onto the Internet, came up with a completely incompatible means of showing who said what. They put brackets around the name of the person they’re replying to:

[Abraham Lincoln said]

Four score and seven years ago, our fathers brought forth on this nation a new continent, conceived in liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.

[I say]

Yeah? What about women, Abe, babe?

It looks nicer at first, but it completely breaks down if anyone quotes anyone else’s message from more than a single post back. Judging from the way the most vocal proponent of this method writes, she probably thinks her postings are the end of the discussion anyway, thus eliminating any need for discussions taking longer than two messages. The rest of the net doesn’t quite agree with her.

But enough whining from an old man on the infobahn.

Text has its disadvantages, especially when there’s some inflection or emotion that’s important to what we’re saying. So we have developed sound effects and even fake body language to help us write messages.

>Tell me this, then: do *you* believe that President Clinton is a Nazi?

I don’t know. *shrug* It certainly seems to me that any government official who wants to call hunting rifles ‘assault weapons’ and then ban them because gang members prefer to use fully automatic weapons--while knowing full well that

  1. none of the weapons banned *are* fully automatic;
  2. there is no indication that gang members *are* using fully automatic weapons, and
  3. there isn’t even any indication that crimes are being committed with these weapons to begin with...

It seems to me that this hypothetical government official must have *some* reason for what he’s saying.

>and what does Waco have to do with it?

Bill Clinton is very much afraid of Waco, because what Waco boils down to is homeowners defending their property against revenuers, using shotguns and hunting rifles.

>I would like to hear at least one thing that the President said that could be
>construed as ‘nazi’.

You’re showing your age, old man. Join the MTV generation :*). MTV is where the President said that the only freedoms we should be allowed are the freedoms he thinks we should have.

when we got organized as a country and we wrote a fairly radical Constitution with a radical Bill of Rights, giving a radical amount of individual freedom to Americans, it was assumed that the Americans who had that freedom would use it responsibly... When personal freedom’s being abused, you have to move to limit it. That’s what we did in the announcement I made last weekend... (*)

Freedoms aren’t something to be ‘given’. Governments don’t *grant* freedom. They can only take them away--infringe them; or, in the words of President Clinton, “limit” them.

It helps to understand the language of the country you’re visiting, and the Internet is no different. After taking part in an Internet talk show, Jay Leno said this about the experience:

Any performance skills you have go out the window. One loses the ability to be sarcastic or place emphasis. (Jay Leno)

All he did was show his inexperience with the net. Performance, sarcasm, and emphasis all take place in on-line chats and letters. We can *shrug* to indicate ambivalence. We can *rotfl* to indicate that we’re “rolling on the floor laughing”. We use ‘smileys’--a colon, asterisk, and close parentheses, or :*)--to indicate happiness or sarcasm, and ‘frownies’--a smiley with an open parentheses, or :*(--to indicate a sadness.(Can’t see ‘em?) We have to use these, because no matter how sarcastic you think you’re sounding, someone out there is going to believe that you mean what you say, and someone else is going to actually support what you say. I’ve had this happen to me, and it’s very embarrassing. It’s pretty funny when someone takes your sarcasm as real and then rails against it. It’s very scary when someone takes your sarcasm as real and then hails you as a martyr when other people rail against it. Remember when you post: there are a lot of people on the net, and someone, somewhere, is weirder than you.

We’ve even come up with a technical name for these weird squiggly smiles: emoticons. There’s a whole shitload of emoticons, but only a few are commonly used and understood.

Emoticon/Acronym Meaning
:*) Happiness. Or, “Just kidding. Please don’t flame me.” For a while, this was being replaced by “NOT!”, that seems to have died out.
:*( Sadness. Or “It’s too bad that what I just said is true.”
imo In My Opinion
imho In My Humble Opinion
imnsho In My Not So Humble Opinion
rotfl or rofl Rolling On (The) Floor Laughing
rkba/rtkba Right To Keep And Bear Arms
Ob Obligatory, in messages which don’t mention the discussion group’s subject.
*word* Hey, this word is *important!*
_Word or phrase_ Italicize. For books, and often used interchangeably with *word*.
foo anything
net.word Word as it relates to the net.

Ob is used to politely point out that the current discussion has strayed far away from the discussion group’s topic, to bring the discussion back to the appointed topic, or just to be cute. If some people on (for the discussion of author J. R. R. Tolkien) start discussing drugs, someone might add the line:

obTolkien: I’ve heard that Tolkien drank wine at his book release parties.

in order to tie the ‘drug’ discussion back to Tolkien, which is what everyone else on is reading the newsgroup for.

I mentioned that one of the reasons we’ve developed these shorthand aids is that the common denominator is text, and we have to use text to communicate things that are normally communicated by body language. For some people, even normal text is too advanced. Their computers can only communicate in all upper case. This is treading dangerously on the edge of creating a flame war, because everyone else on the infobahn uses all upper case as a way of yelling at all the idiots out there. You can sometimes recognize these people because their computers also can’t handle subjects longer than thirty-two characters. So the subject, besides being in all capital letters, will have been truncated to the first thirty-two of them as well. This can lead to some interesting subjects:

Subject: There are no real Christians anywhere in politics.


Because we rely on text to communicate, we take our text pretty seriously, even to the point of being really obnoxious and correcting other people’s spelling. Those of us who aren’t quite so anal about spelling errors don’t correct them; we make jokes about them, which is far worse. In a discussion on rec.arts.comics(*) about the DC Comics book Suicide Squad, someone misspelled Squad as Squid in the subject line.(Blame it on computers.) They’ve regretted making that post ever since, and they’ll probably regret it all the worse now that I’m making it even more famous. One person replied to the Squid message as if it were real, making up a discussion about the hero Suicide Squid. A couple of people, recognizing a bad joke, replied to that message, and from there it just snowballed. Suicide Squid discussions threatened to take over the entire newsgroup. Eventually, it all died down, but it still pops up here and there. The official mascot of rec.arts.comics.misc remains the Squid. You can see him, ready to commit suicide in a number of ways, on the newsgroup T-shirt, and the annual awards for best comic and best comic creators, given on the basis of votes from the newsgroup’s readership, are called Squiddies.

Most computer editors will now have the computer check your spelling for you if you ask. It’s a good idea. We don’t need two Suicide Squids out there.

The days of the written word are numbered. Text will remain the main means of communication on the net for a few more years, but as fiber optic cable (and ever more advanced cabling) spreads throughout the world, it becomes more and more feasible to rely on pictures and sounds. AT&T already has a plan called--and may already have started building, by the time you read this--”Africa One”, which will spread a high-speed communications backbone through forty-one countries in Africa.(*) They already have the text capabilities: I’ve chatted with students in Saudi Arabia wanting to brush up on their English. Soon, they’ll be able to brush up on their inflections and even body language.

Telephone over the net is not just “in the works”: it is possible today to talk in “real time” across the Internet. The software is sold through the major computer magazines, and as an added bonus, some of the free software will even encrypt your voice so that only the person you’re talking to can understand you. There’s also free software from my alma mater that handles both voice and video, real-time: Cornell University’s CU-SEE-ME produces blocky pictures and crackly sound, but it works, today, using technology that runs right up to your telephone box.

  1. Mosaic is a client that talks to servers for the World Wide Web.
  2. Data Communications March 1995 p.18, as reported in EduPage 3/12/95
  3. When you get lots of arrows flowing across the screen, it’s called a ‘cascade’, because the article seems to ‘cascade’ down the screen, like a waterfall. Or something like that. When you’ve been staring at a computer terminal for four hours, you’ll see all sorts of things.
  4. President William J. Clinton, on MTV’s Enough is Enough, April 20, 1994, as reported by Bill McDonald.
  5. New York Times, April 12, 1995, p. B1/A12
  6. To read frownies and smilies, tilt your head to the left. See? Eyes, nose, smile/frown. Weren’t the infobahn founders clever?
  7. The fore-runner to rec.arts.comics.misc.
  8. Or, possibly, some computer somewhere ‘spiked a bit’, turning the ‘a’ into an ‘i’. If you remember from the previous chapter, an “a” is “97” to a computer. An “i”, it turns out, is “105”. And actually, I lied. Numbers may be silly, but they’re still something humans can recognize, and what self-respecting computer would use that? Computers use “base 2” to count--as if they had only two fingers on their hands instead of ten. So an “a” to them is 1100001, and an “i” is 1101001. So, turning an “a” to an “i” is a mistake in the fourth bit of the letter. Aren’t you glad you know this?
  9. Financial Times March 23, 1995, p.5
  1. The History of the World Wide Web
  2. Can’t get there
  3. Is There Anybody Out There?