When people today talk about turning a website into a “community,” they generally mean something like Usenet in 1994: a group of people with similar interests gathering for informal, potentially productive conversations. Usenet was a lively, intelligent, and clannish collection of discussion groups devoted to thousands of single topics, from baseball to cyberpunk.
Usenet’s “community” status also derived from the fact that many of its users shared similar real-life experiences: They were computer enthusiasts and/or university affiliates who had invested a lot of time learning to access the service. In short, they were nerds; many were fans of Monty Python, the absurdist British sketch-comedy group, and took every opportunity to profess their fandom. “A lot of people who didn’t have a clue what to do to create conversation would just . . . recite entire Monty Python routines verbatim,” remembers one informal historian whom Brunton quotes. “A particular favorite was the ‘spam, spam, spam, spammity spam’ one because people could just type it once and just use the up-arrow key to repeat it. Hence, ‘spamming’ was flooding a chat room with that sort of clutter.”
“Clutter” is an apt term. Like the discarded clothes that accumulate on the floor of a teenager’s bedroom, making it hard to find the car keys, spam accumulates online, hindering access to salient information: the personal email that gets lost among hundreds of junk messages, the well-researched article that Google buries in favor of content-farm drivel. Brunton describes spam not just in terms of unwanted ads, but as a mindset: “The word ‘spam’ served to identify a way of thinking and doing online that was lazy, indiscriminate, and a waste of the time and attention of others.”
In the early days of digital networks, those distractions were fairly benign. Endless Monty Python routines might be annoying, but they’re not actively malicious. But as the general public discovered the Internet in the mid-1990s, “spam” came to refer to unwanted email solicitations: oddly punctuated missives promising easy money or longer-lasting erections. Entrepreneurs would send millions of messages in hopes of eliciting a few responses from naïve or distracted users who might actually believe that some deposed Nigerian prince would reward them if they helped him transfer some funds. The opportunity cost was low, and the potential rewards were high. Spam was everywhere.
Brunton traces the growth of email spam and introduces us to some of the most prolific spammers: “a few high school students, a failing Neo-Nazi, an ex-mit artificial intelligence (AI) graduate student currently in hiding.” He uses a Tennessee-based spammer named Rodona Garst as an archetype of people who approached the Internet not from a standpoint of what they could give to it, but what they could get from it. I think Garst, who sent billions of spam messages before leaving the industry amid lawsuits, also represents those millions of ordinary people who were discovering the Internet in the mid-to-late 1990s through services like aol, which made getting online as easy as running a floppy disc that came in the mail.
But things that are easily acquired are generally not held dear. Early Usenet participants had to deal with rudimentary machines, slow connections, and nongraphical interfaces in order to participate. This fostered a sense of mutual ownership, and this sense of ownership helped foster a sense of community, a sense that they were all in it together. The millions of point-and-click aol users would never have described themselves in those terms. They were customers of a subscription service, not collaborators in a mutual enterprise.