11 Beyond the Borderline

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Sanity is like a clearing in the jungle where the humans agree to meet from time to time and behave in certain fixed ways that even a baboon could master.

--Wilfrid Sheed, In Love with Daylight, 1995

Hackers may scare people, but they have at least vaguely understandable motives. Even if most people don't share their obsession for taking computers apart and making them jump through hoops, most people have had at least some irrational, overriding interest at some point in their lives that can help them understand. Less easy to understand, because their motives are opaque, is the small percentage of people who cannot function in cyberspace. I don't mean that they can't learn how to configure an Internet connection, or that they can't grasp the notion of newsgroup names or use a computer; I mean that they seem unable, for no discernible reason, to conform to such rules and conventions as the Internet has. These nuts--I'm sure someone will be along in a minute to come up with a more politically correct word--have the kind of personality problem that leads some drunks to get into vicious fights in otherwise peaceful pubs. You'd think that in the sprawling infinity of cyberspace you wouldn't notice, but they make sure you do.

I'm leaving out here people who are delusional, paranoid, or just plain weird but who function in cyberspace. For example, a lot of people on alt.religion.scientology think one regular Dutch poster, a former Scientologist named Koos Nolste de Trenite, is nuts: he believes he is channeling the spirit of L. Ron Hubbard. He posts frequently, in blank verse, what he claims to be Hubbard's thoughts on various Scientology members and alt.religion.scientology critics. At one point or another, he has declared almost everyone on the newsgroup to be a Suppressive Person. People get tired of this procedure. But in Net terms, he's essentially harmless. He doesn't (unless he has another identity no one's recognized) go berserk and suddenly start spattering the newsgroup with reams of hatred; he doesn't wake up on a Saturday morning and decide to post his messages to 10,000 groups across Usenet; and he doesn't spark off fights among other people, who are generally used to him. Newcomers are alerted to his presence in the FAQ. I would say that this person functions perfectly well in cyberspace, even if he's not making friends for himself and his grasp on reality is a little unusual.

But take this case: when I first got involved with running CompuServe's Fleet Street forum for UK media, we had a guy who had already been banned twice by the previous management.[1] He was unpredictable. He would write long, trenchant messages that set everyone laughing--and then the next minute he would turn on people, attacking them with viciously foul language and making them understandably uncomfortable and insecure. After a month, easily 60 percent of the forum's messages were to, by, or about him. A lonely wannabe, perhaps? Nope. He was the real thing: a genuine Fleet Street photographer, and personally known to a few of the old hacks in the forum.

I have a theory of online moderating, which goes that it takes every new moderator (or sysop) one nut to find out that you don't have enough time in your life to work with people who can't or won't function in a moderated online setting without creating huge amounts of trouble: if they're not demanding your time and attention policing their postings, they're setting other people off in similar behavior. This was my first time out sysopping, so I thought, I can work with this person; he just needs some respect. We exchanged email. I explained that service policy was not to allow swearing or personal attacks in the public areas. He agreed to tone it down. I discovered the distracting obsession of logging on twenty-three times a day to check up on what was happening in the forum. But he seemed to be settling in, and I left a couple of encouraging comments to some of his more interesting messages. Well, we all get a kick out of believing we've fixed things.

Then our friend was told by someone at headquarters that I had banned him from the forum (I hadn't). Volcanic email followed, threatening the downfall of the forum and my personal ruin. Shown it was a mistake, he repented. This precipitated warm, cuddly messages about his being an old softy, far more disturbing than the vicious ones. In the meantime, he'd forged a message stirring up trouble between two other forum members, requiring phone calls, explanations and hours of my time. And on and on. He was asked to leave, prompting an emotional farewell


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