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By Benford, Gregory | Reason, January 1996 | Go to article overview

Alt.Fans


Benford, Gregory, Reason


The Internet is recapitulating science fiction fandom.

The Net is upon us. Cast outward by the culture of computer nerds to ensnare and transform the globe, it is the current hot metaphor for fast change, broader horizons, and info-deluge.

Alas, it comes with its own hot-eyed prophets, sure they are on the cutting edge. John Perry Barlow, much-interviewed savant of the Electronic Frontier Foundation, believes that "we are in the middle of the most transforming technological event since the capture of fire."

Revolutionary rhetoric, aside from making you automatically hide your wallet, should alert us to our past. Has something like the Net appeared before?

Arguably, yes. Around 1930, a small new phenomenon arose in Depression-ridden America, spawned out of the letter columns in science fiction magazines: fandom. Though today the term means any gathering of enthusiasts, fandom evolved in the science fiction community. Strikingly, it anticipated much of Net culture. Its history can suggest how the Net will evolve.

Fandom grew first through individual correspondence. It was cheap and quick, continent-wide contact for a penny stamp. The Net, too, began as a quick exchange medium, under funding for the ARPANet from the Advanced Research Projects Administration of the Department of Defense. ARPANet was designed to be dispersed, hard to break even in a nuclear war. It linked several national laboratories, where I first used it in 1969, then swelled to include universities, and kept growing.

Just as with e-mail, sometimes fans sent continuous chains of letters, involving n letter writers, called WONWs for Wide Open N-Ways. Then came fanzines. Often odd and eccentric, sometimes devoted solely to news or club functions, these circulated nationally and flourished into the several hundreds of titles. Most of the Net's "emoticons" - read sideways to convey smiles :) disapproval :(or a sardonic wink ;) - had appeared in fanzines by the 1950s.

As the number of 'zines grew, an anarchic sociology flourished. Vile-mouthed, aggressive fans, much like the "flamers" of today, were termed fuggheads, an obvious pun. As cross-talk grew in the early 1940s, fans formed APAs - Amateur Press Associations of limited (and later, invitational) membership - to escape the chaos.

These were much like today's user groups, newsgroups, and listservs, which act as orderly mailing circles. By analogy, we can expect the Net to split into APA-like groups. The current user and interest groups have trouble maintaining their boundaries; once a flamer finds you, he can drop in anytime. Even security codes provide no firm privacy against determined hackers. Unlike the post office, the Net is a highly public babble. Egalitarian forums can have notoriously low signal-to-noise ratios. In the electronic agora, a mob often drowns out Socrates.

Like the net's multi-user dungeons (where MUDdies find virtual playmates in fantasy worlds), fandom long ago spawned fantasy sub-fandoms devoted to specific authors, settings (mostly medieval), and worldviews. As "newbies" appear, after first lurking on chat sessions, their activity will echo the influx into fandom of "neos" who timidly tried out "fanac."

As the famous New Yorker cartoon remarked, on the Internet, nobody knows you're a dog. Nobody in fandom knew if you were a pimply adolescent, either, if you didn't want them to. This let a first-rank fanzine editor conceal her sex for years, simply by using her ambiguous name, Lee Hoffman. Others concocted entire fan-writing careers for nonexistent people. You could be anybody, or nobody.

Virtuality - connection without proximity - is a major attraction in both fandom and the Net. Nobody knows you're a dog through the U.S. mail, either. Fans could be utterly different in their fanzine persona, which may be why both fandom and the Net were invented by individualistic Americans.

On the Net, this has led to a torrent of rudeness. …

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