ASCII by Jason Scott

Jason Scott's Weblog

Online Cancer —

Cancer, in case you haven’t heard of it, is a horrid potential byproduct of the natural process of cell division. Things go wrong, a process goes out of whack, and the next thing you know you’re doing all sorts of insane, crazy shit to fix it. And make no mistake; most cancer therapies are insane, crazy shit. The results are not always great, the earlier you find it the better (because then the madness is in one place) and in the meantime things are generally horrible.

The real bad part is, you can get cancer of the nearly everything. Unlike diabetes or migraines or breaking a bone, the problem can, quickly or slowly, spread elsewhere and make cancer happen there. It is pernicious and deadly.

Kind of a bummer, I know. Let me talk, then, about online cancer.

A while ago, I heard Tom Jennings say a brilliant thing. This is not hard to do, if you’re listening to Tom Jennings. But it struck me how many levels of brilliant the statement was, over time, considering it from many angles. It was at a Vintage Computer Festival talk, the one where I beta-premiered the nearly-done BBS Documentary episodes. The organizer, Sellam, had decided it would be fun to have the Fidonet guy also speak at the same event, and then have the Fidonet guy sit through an episode about himself. I do believe that was the scariest part of my entire production!

Anyway, Tom gave a talk about the considerations of putting together Fidonet. And he mentioned some error checking, and he veered off into a rant about error checking. And what he said was:

“Error handling is 90 percent of the work. Most of your time is spent trapping for everything that could go wrong.”

This may on its face sound either simplistic, wrong, or exaggerating, but once you consider it thoughtfully, it blossoms into brilliance. Rephrased another way, it could be considered that engineering is primarily the preparation for unwanted events both external and internal, not just the successful completion of a series of wanted events. The “holy shit it works” phase is rewarding and heartwarming and all the rest, but under controlled situations with little variance in user pool and approach, stuff can be made to work very quickly.

A buddy of mine worked on a lot of software projects, a well known instant-messaging environment. He told me how they’d check in a new revised version of the server and they’d know if it was working within 90 seconds; that’s how long it would take for the onslaught of user interaction to slam it to pieces. It’s not the “hey, people can message each other” part that kills you, it’s the “everybody can do anything and that includes stuff that wasn’t accounted for” part.

A lot of time has been spent on making sure stuff works, and can handle the onslaught of stuff that specifically makes a website crash. It’s rather hard now to put in some magic set of control characters or paste in HTML or pile on the long-length words and make a site go down. When you’re faced with an input window of text that you can fill out, chances are you won’t cause the thing to die. The problem is exacerbated by the use of libraries, where the libraries are created by an entire other group of people outside of the ones making applications that use those libraries. Applying my rule of the two-way street, this is fantastic in putting in improvements — everybody’s stuff gets better! But it’s disastrous when there’s a security bug — stuff you didn’t even know used that library is now able to be dressed in a gimp outfit!

But all of this is well-tread ground. If you base the success or failure of your project/application/website on its ability to stay stable and online and handle whack-ass input requests and poorly-formatted queries and the rest, then you will have success relatively easily, and this “start to success” time has decreased as libraries are strengthened and people depend on the strength of years-and-years of quality control. There’s an entire industry dedicated to software-level quality control and a lot of effort put into it.

So where’s this online cancer I’m talking about?

My web browsing puts me into a lot of forums, in a lot of websites, in a lot of places. Sometimes these forums are fully-formed groups of people with a specific theme. Other times, it’s just the commentary at the bottom of an article or weblog posting, or under a Youtube video. They’re all, in some way, forums, just at different levels of complexity and thought given into the process of people being able to communicate with each other.

Obviously, I’m looking at these places with a more historically-aware eye than most. I passed my quarter century of using “message bases” last year. In fact, let’s pull one from that time:

This one is interesting, because it’s about politics, always a contentious issue. Yet, generally, discourse is outward-focused (Reagan, Mondale, Heavy Metal) instead of inward focused (users, the political structure/system, the quality of posts). The reasons for this are pretty clear: very small group, and very long turnaround time. Remember, only one or two people can use the Safehouse at once, and so the first post is on August 3, 1984 and the last post is September 10, 1984. 38 days later. With 26 total posts, that’s an average of less than a posting a day. 24 hours between posts.

Now, compare that to a thread on Here’s a good one:

Ex-Marine kills bear with log.

This thread, meanwhile, started at 9:04am on June 21, 2007. Within 12 hours it has 187 messages. The majority of those 187 messages are posted in the first 3 hours.

So we go from a posting rate of once every 1,440 minutes to once every 45 seconds. In the first example, it’s about “politics”. In the second, it is “An ex-marine fought off a bear with a log.” and a link to a news story.

The conversation, and bearing in mind this is one of sixty new stories/topic threads started on Fark the same day (two an hour, every hour, the entire day), starts off with jokes and commentary on the story. Then it divests into discussions of camping and marine egos. Then it turns, discussing the motivations/choices of the marine in the story, and the wisdom of the other posters. Bear in mind, too that Fark implements moderators who remove particularly offensive or attacking letters, so this represents, if not the cream of the crop, the best of the remaining.

Keeping up with all postings on all threads of Fark would be a full time job. There’s another online community-thread site called Metafilter. They had 22 story postings for the “main” page (there are sub pages), and over a thousand comments between them. Another full-time job.

Fark and Metafilter are both working very hard to control what I’m talking about, the online cancer where the pure mass of postings into a forum from so many disparate folks inevitably leads not just to bickering and misunderstandings but screaming, blind hatred within an hour. Fark and Metafilter have subscription levels, inexpensive, but functioning as a barrier to entry (in the case of Fark, to see topics before they’re posted, and in the case of Metafilter, to be able to post). Metafilter, in fact, has gone years ahead of a lot of websites and has moderation of comments, history browsing of users, and a very, very strong ruleset about quality of topic threads, duplicates, and so on.

I don’t think a lot of people are recognizing this cancer for what it is, this rapid, rapid posting of messages where any out-of-lockstep post can send the entire conversation flow cascading down into bitter side-taking and attacks. Mention a political party. Mention a hot-button topic from recent news. Mention a place, a job, a race, and watch as everything turns on itself and makes a horrifying feedback noise. As much as actual cancer comes from too-quick division of cells, I feel like this online cancer comes from uncontrolled, unchecked cascades of off-topic messages with no real moderation/quality control capable by the site or the users themselves. Sure, a place will send their guy in to delete an article with someone’s social security number or which informs another user that they are going to be killed in their sleep; but that’s the level of baseline legal protection. It’s what you do because you don’t want the site sued. But what about the quality of the conversation, the working together to end up with a conversation that makes everyone who plays a part in it better for contributing?

Choose a youtube video. Choose any popular Youtube video and you will watch the cancer eat out the bottom of the page with people turning on each other, insulting each other, dragging topic into places that make no sense and have no bearing. And there you go, someone might have spent weeks working on a great video and below them lies absolute garbage. Sure, they can turn off comments 100%. Is that really a solution? No.

Will the conversation and the engineering really turn its priority from ensuring that there’s no buffer overflows in input windows to coming up with a lightweight “personality” that you can have from site to site? Or devising improvements to moderation, or determining solutions to this online cancer? Cute little conferences are being held around the world lightly touching on this, but the idea, which should be as fundamental a goal and question as getting the webserver machine running, is an afterthought, a hindbrain twitch, a quick sleeve-polishing of the glasses before throwing it out to the wide world.

It shouldn’t be. The cancer is going to grow.

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  1. cassiel says:

    hm, I think cancer is not just uncontrolled cell-divison (bacteria do it all the time and that’s the way they have to procreate). Cancer is egoism on a lower, cell level. Egoism always threatens a higher level of integration and might kill it. There is much cancer on a human society level, which threatens the existance of humankind, but that’s a different story.

    I don’t think this noise in the internet, which can be seen anywhere is always “cancer” when you ask for the egoism criteria. Spam is much more cancerlike. Flame wars in forums is much less cancerlike, because you can simply turn it off if you don’t like it. On the contrary, for many people flame wars in forums is entertainement. The german IT-newsticker is a good example. There are many so call Troll-postings there with no constructive sense at all. That’s much fun for many people hitting at each other. There’s the Microsoft/closed source vs. Linux/open source flame war and any news concerning the one or the other issue results in endless threads with no meaning at all. But if you learned to separate the trash, you can find interesting background information, correcting or enhancing the given information. I prefer news sources with public comment function or forums, because then things can be discussed critically. That’s the fantastic thing about the internet: we are not only listeners, but also authors. An information spread on the net with independent pros and cons has much more value than an information with no comments at all.
    So with a noise filter comment functions and forums are progres and don’t get destroyed by trolls.

    There are also different levels how noisy a forum is. If you know about the psychology of a forum or mailing list, you can set up a charta with fair but strick rules of behaviour. Having the worst case always in your mind, this can reduce the noise in a forum and create a special kind of culture. I do run many forums and mailing list as an admin. They are small, but not noisy, because my charta separated the usual suspect who just want start flame wars and telling each other names.
    So even in this respect forums are much different from cancer: there is much cure, but you have to remove the cause, not the symptom.

  2. I’ve contended for quite some time now that a major cause of this “cancer” you speak of is directly proportional to how easy it is to get online these days. It took me almost a week to get my first Commodore 64 modem (an off-brand, VolksModem) to dial and connect correctly. Back then, you had to WANT to be online. Compare that to these days, where half the time I find my laptop has magically configured itself to communicate with someone’s wifi signal and is connected to the Internet. As the technical bar has continually lowered, so has the intellectual one.

    The number one excuse I see for people trolling forums and causing trouble is, “what’s the big deal? It’s not real!” My fairly common retort to that is it should be equally okay for you to call your mother a whore over the telephone — hey, it’s not real, it’s just digital bits representing your voice!

  3. Dan Moniz says:

    At the risk of metastizing right here in your blog comments, xkcd covered the YouTube part of what you’re talking about particularly well a while back:

  4. Quag7 says:

    What drives me persistently nuts is the inability of presumingly experienced internet users to recognize trolls for what they are.

    I’m convinced that for every one individual with a stupid point of view that causes a massive cascade of unpleasant posts, there are three trolls. This is based mostly on reading, which has some of the most infuriatingly noisy discussions of any site of its kind.

    I was thinking about trolls on the internet, and then thinking about Usenet trolls, and then BBS trolls and war boards, and then my mind drifted back farther into the past to bathroom stalls.
    I like graffiti in bathroom stalls. It gives me something to read and almost always improves the unsavory experience of having to use a public restroom. But there is always one…dude…who has taken a pocket knife and carved into the stall:


    I often hope there is a literal Christian-style afterlife with a heaven where you can become privy to at least some of the universe’s mysteries. Presuming I make it into heaven, and God looks past all of the impure thoughts and acts, the river of constant profanity and taking his name in vain, as well as disgust and despair that is my life (there are also cookies there somewhere, so it’s not all bad)…presuming God lets me in despite all of this, I want to sit there in the clouds and look down into the world below and watch the dude who is carving ASS into the stalls of bathrooms. I want to *understand* him, because I am convinced that if we can uncover the motivations of the ASS dude, we can probably end war and disease and stuff. By then, of course, it will be too late, but the ASS dude nags at me, even now, and I desperately want to understand him.

    The problem with ASS of course is that it doesn’t ordinarily start a flame war.

    Even the dumbest among us must be puzzled as to the motivation of a person taking the time to scrawl ASS when he could have scrawled anything he wanted, such as the phone number, sexual proclivities, home address, or a primitive diagram of his enemies.

    Beyond which, if you’re carving something into a stall, those “S”es are pretty complicated – as anyone with an Etch-a-Sketch knows, you want to avoid curves, especially if you’re in a rush.

    Oftentimes they appear in KISS-like script, as lightning bolts, like Hitler’s SS. But this is so lazy, it rarely elicits a response.

    What it does, however, is pollute the stall. Suddenly, it becomes *okay* for everyone else to start mucking it up, like a vacant lot in the inner city. One guy dumps his couch, and you have sanitation anarchy. I’ve watched it happen.

    Crude diagrams, however, have started incredible flamewars. A particularly crude drawing in a bathroom at the Rutgers College library in the early 90s began a massive flamewar which descended (I kid you not) into arguments between conservatives and Marxists on the issue of homosexuality (homosexuality being a particularly popular issue of contention in public restrooms). Conservatives and college Marxists don’t really argue in each other’s idiom, so the discussion becomes about semantics, and you’re in for a very, very long ride. The thread eventually covered both walls of the stall, the cinder block wall at the back, and the door. It was only when every inch of space was gone and the conversation continued to the outside of the stall that building maintenance put an end to it but somehow cleaning it all off – which depressed and disappointed me, I might add.

    The initial crude, faded, Bic pen drawing eventually drew people in so much that the two sides were bringing indelible markers with them to argue. The conversation participants actually *threaded* the discussion using different colored markers and clean spaces between point and counterpoint. The Marxist(s?) used a red marker, and the conservative(s?) used a black one. My least favorite phrase in the English language right now is the beyond-overused term “perfect storm,” so it is important that you understand that my use of it here has not a small amount of gravity:

    This was a perfect storm of marker ink, ideology, sexual identity, and the human digestive system.

    Somewhere in New Jersey, a bunch of ideological partisans (and me) prepared for a bathroom stall flamewar when leaving their apartment/dorm in the morning. People had to *remember* to bring their marketrs to give the nine yards to a bunch of Commies or Fascists *in a bathroom stall*.

    I, of course, had to visit this stall daily to follow the course of the argument, so I am not being critical. You couldn’t tear me away. It was the most interesting bathroom stall I’ve ever done my business in, and the fact that I recall it to this day is a testament to that fact. You don’t see a lot of bathroom graffiti written *in paragraph form with proper indentation*.

    Oddly, the toilet itself was spotless. It seems boorish to me to enter a bathroom stall for the purpose of a flamewar without also doing your business, but that’s a tangent I’m not going to go off on. It’s not fair to the lonely, neglected toilet, to begin with, and it is also bad form overall. I am unsure as to whether people were merely entering the stall for the purpose of debate and therefore not using the toilet, or whether they were being gentlemanly and sportsmanlike by cleaning up after themselves.

    Getting back to YouTube, I’ve noticed that there is an equivalent of the ASS scrawler. In the past year no less than 10 unrelated videos I’ve watched have had flamewars attached which started with someone writing:

    your gay

    And always with wrong form of “you’re”. Someone usually responds with “Real intelligent comment, dickhead.” and then it snowballs from there. The original “your gay” guy rarely shows up anywhere else in the thread, which often goes on, sometimes, for hundreds of messages. It is unclear as to whether the poster is addressing the person who posted the video, or someone else in the discussion, but it clearly doesn’t matter.

    And as you pointed out in your blog entry, it’s often not even specifically directed at a point in the story these discussions are attached to, nor, as a thread evolves, are the responses even directed at the people who started the controversy. It is always respondents to respondents who start bickering with each other, generally over nothing to do with the story the discussion is attached to. Then others jump in, and then, metastasis.

    The aliens who pick through the ruins of our civilization will write an interesting report. I have no doubt that the ASS dude will at least be a footnote in the “inconclusive” section of the report (and I would add that ASS in the context of the high scorer on your local Asteroids arcade game makes far more sense than the bathroom scrawler; at least we can understand that the high scorer was limited to three alpha characters).

    Reports of analysis of the internet will indicate that threads were split into two categories of people – those who have “no life” and “need to get out more and kiss a girl” and people who spend an equal amount of time on the internet haranguing people about having “no life” and encouraging them to “get out more and kiss a girl.”

    They will puzzle over the two camps of people who are involved in trolling incidents. (The troll himself will be a footnote; I have no doubt that every intelligent civilization in the multiverse is fully familiar with, and overrun by trolls, though they may take different forms.) The analysis will say that there has always been a greater volume of text posted on the internet identifying trolls and insisting that people regard the poster as a troll, and not to respond to them, as there is actual trolling text itself.

    The aliens may in fact make an error in their analysis, missing the initial troll altogether and concluding that, in fact, all flamewars begin with the term *plonk* or a more verbose equivalent of it.

    If anyone asks me about this (and they won’t), my statement on these matters would simply be that while I think everyone has a right to use the internet, the vast majority of people on it *don’t deserve to.*

    Elitist? I don’t care; that’s how I feel.

    As for graffiti, it pisses me off, except in bathroom stalls, where I encourage it.

    Except for the ASS guy. He’s an enigma. Some have theorized that perhaps humanity is on the cusp of evolving to a new kind of form and that the growing incidence of Asperger’s Syndrome and Autism are markers for this, but it seems to me equally possible that we’re headed in the directio n of idiocracy. Perhaps Asperger’s is a sign of genetic despair, and that in fact, the ASS dude is our future.

    Internet message boards such as digg’s, do not make me hopeful.