Twisted history

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It was good to catch up with an old friend the other night, now with wife and 4 year old son. The man (nameless for reasons you’ll soon understand) is living in the USA deeply embedded in the infrastructure of finance, networks and databases that know more about you than you probably know yourself.

But we were talking about cowboy days, late 80s; the BBS scene, hackers and crackers and the other side. We’d met on Twisted Pair, the BBS that spawned Twister, Twister 2, and all the daughters up to the ill fated Twister 5, the collapse of which led to this one way blog. I don’t think it’ll hurt to tell that Twisted Pair had a secret area, in which select people had their fun. Back then it was all Amiga, and I was a lamer HEX hacker, somebody who searched through the hexadecimal of software looking for combinations of numbers that did some thing useful.

The most useful hack I did was the very first version of Lightwave 3D running in PAL. It was part of the video toaster which was NTSC only and so I guess NewTek thought it pointless making it work in European countries. But they coded it so all I did was find the sections that addressed the display memory, redid the maths, and fired it up until all the bits worked. Like I said, nothing fancy, but much appreciated at the time. If you were around you might have seen a ‘booped’ version. Yes, like:

Actually just now I remember I did the same thing for the first Photon Paint but Deluxe Paint was beyond me. Bloody EA had hard wired it all.

We talked about where people had gone and their conversion to honesty. Most of them I only knew by their screen names. Watching his son playing games on a phone we were worried about what our generation had done – our children are looking through a screen at everything, although I think they will rebel and as teenagers go about smashing computers and shaking real hands. Good for them.

I had to tell him what happened to Twister; a mailing list which was rather good, but eventually a phpBBS which sucked rather badly. I told him there was even a splinter called ‘Exiles’ and he thought that was hilarious. BBS community was dead by then, and the forces that broke it are still getting worse; anonymity, envy, celebrity, “friend” counts and the sale of privacy. It probably has to hit bottom before it bounces back.

Nostalgia is anti-historical, it denies events to make a privileged viewpoint. That night we talked about chiggers the way others talk about vinyl, with just as much surety. Everyone thinks they are recalling something authentic when the exact opposite is true.

Right now, I can’t wait to get away from music. Much more interested in chiggers.

*Stop The Presses*

Notorious cybergoth and loss lead marketer Trent Reznor has finally realised that his online fan community is filled with jealous resentful people who are only there to try get a knife into him. (Thanks to Earthrid for this earth shattering news). Everyone here at Ellard (that’s me) is kind of proud and just a little sad that Trent has finally made the mental connection between anonymity, the Internet and death threats. Onya, big boy, always a few years behind but still doing great in the fame game.

But I’m sad that Trent seems puzzled as to what fuels this Iago-esque situation. Why are these hambeasts so MEAN about him getting a little love? Sit on grandad’s knee and I’ll explain.

You should have read the first post on this blog, because it explains what is going on, and that is YOU. You had an online community about YOU. People came to read about YOU. And for all the pretend gee golly gosh, you were trying to charm people into not noticing your arrogance. People are not interested in YOU, they are interested in THEMSELVES and you just happen to be a convenient way to define themselves as ‘fans’. The edifice must not be cracked and they will kill you to make sure of that.

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Fan is short for fanatic. Trent, do I have to tell you, this is not a good word? They want blood, and you have to keep providing it or they will make do with yours. Being a fan means you believe in the Wizard of OZ, and beat up that man behind the curtain. Truth is, they have always resented you, they only wanted to wear your skin. You can throw all the free downloads you like at people, it only inspires them to demand more free downloads and then your head on a platter.

But Trent, your post count on your own forum is 42. That’s kind of underwhelming for somebody who is bitching about their interactions with the great unwashed. I must have racked up thousands of posts over the 16 or so years we ran discussion areas and I did my damned best to make the majority of those years kick arse, because I am stupid and do things I love even when no one cool is watching.

If you are for real then I’ve got some advice for you: close down your band. Do something else. It won’t kill you, in fact you might be much happier. Sure, you ‘ll miss being Angry Cyberdude, but its all getting a little smelly now isn’t it.

Watch these films: The King of Comedy (Jerry Lewis plays ‘YOU’) and Stardust Memories by Woody Allen. Between those two, all will become clear. Seriously.

And get ready for the ones that play hardball. Trent, even when you say goodbye there’s a few that won’t give up. I’ve started forwarding messages and phone recordings to the police, hoping to get someone to leave me the hell alone or get a warrant. And I’m nobody. When you walk away, the crazies will be out baying at the moon.

Wonderful wonderful Rupert Pupkin…

So then, what was the experiment?

I have been surprised by the interest from academia in our ‘Twister’ communities. Twister 5 (which has very recently quit this mortal coil) had a smattering of researchers lurking in the background, probably hoping for some insights into creativity and Web2.0. Before that we had a few receiving the mails from Twister 3 and even a few brave souls prepared to risk their dollar on the KDX powered version Twister 4 (on ya Julian). But really, all involved are probably curious about what we actually learned from moderating Severed Heads ‘fans’ for 15 years. I can’t really justify the time writing a considered analysis here, but a few notes are worth jotting down.

Firstly the overall dynamic of our communities was that of web communities in general. Put a large number of people together in anonymity and they behave badly. The mailing list was least affected as the participants’ email addresses were disclosed (a rarity in these spam filled days). The BBS was the worst. The symptoms are familiar – trolls, flames, and an incessant round of ‘Now I’ve Got You, You Son Of A Bitch’ – some of the usual features on any BBS.

If there was one factor that was uncommon, it was the mixed message of having a ‘fan’ discussion area where the population was discouraged from being fan-like. People joined ‘because’ of Severed Heads, but then were told to talk about anything but. This was intended to defuse the usual band/listener relationship, which it did when we had a wider spread of people, but when trouble came it seemed to draw energy from that uneasy set up. Put very simplistically:

A: Hello, I offer you a free place in my house. Never mind my photo on every wall, I’ve drawn moustaches on them!
B: What’s the catch? There’s always a catch.
A: There’s no catch, and you don’t have to tell me what I nice person I am.
B: Well, what if I piss on your floor?
A: Hey!

Neither A nor B gets out of the relationship looking too innocent. It would just be better to admit that it’s going to be uneven, but make sure everybody gets something out of it.

If you’re an artist that’s thinking about starting a discussion group, forget it. It won’t work. The resentment will overcome any attempt at self effacement. Let somebody else do it on your behalf if they want, and then give them lots of support.

Fan is of course short for Fanatic. There’s a lot of energy in that role and not all of it good. Think of Stephen King’s Misery.

Next point is why the membership slowly declined over those years. Numerically it waxed and waned – at all times we were plagued with dead members. On Twister 3 we once purged all accounts to clean out those addresses that bounced – 270 were phantoms. Twister 5 had a parade of people that joined and never came back. I simply have no idea why they would bother.

What I mean by ‘decline’ is more subtle. The question is bundled in the answer – we lost high achieving, creative members as they had no more time to participate, we lost people who had children, we lost people that became empowered and disdained community. In fact the Twister membership is a very interesting snapshot of the Internet: up front all the early adopters and enthusiasts roughly in their 20’s, who slowly leave the space, which becomes filled with the very young and the middle aged. And the young go to Facebook.

A similar process is going on with music. Concealed in the argument about free distribution is a decline in enthusiasm – music that was once listened to intensely is now just part of a lifestyle. Why would anyone be on a band discussion list?

Leaving out a whole line of thinking here – jump to the chase – I am not surprised to see in Time Magazine this week a discussion of ‘authenticity’ as an upcoming social issue – except I am more concerned with the flip side – what I am calling the ‘virtual ghetto’ – it won’t be much longer before poverty is associated with online services – the wealthy will have paper, the poor will have PDFs – this will take its toll on all online.

If there was ever going to be a Twister 6 it would be made of bricks.