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ALEPH: The Rise and Fall of a Virtual Community
The Internet is touted as a place where people of diverse types and scattered localities can come together to work, play, and socialize in the spirit of the common good, congregating in all manner of self-organizing groups often known as "virtual communities". As many Net gurus will tell you, e-mail lists present an excellent environment for the construction of such experimental communities: distribution is handled automatically, list subscription can be strictly controlled (if desired), and the asynchronous nature of the medium enables subscribers to participate at their own pace, in their own unique way.
To many people (including myself), this sort of structure represents total creative freedom, and perhaps the best environment yet designed for shared human labor and social expression. In 1993, I was a key participant in one of these working environments - a progressive hothouse of furious metaphysical speculation called firstname.lastname@example.org - where I learned that such freedom is not without its cost.
The Ambistructure of Aleph
One way of looking at an e-list is to liken the entire structure to a single massive mind, speaking to itself in a holographic and self-reflexive way. If this model were applied to Aleph, the diagnosis would have revealed a schizophrenic physicist/mystic, compulsively obsessed with the idea of codifying the twin universes of mind and matter into a single massive body of semiformal systems theory. The early days of Aleph, like those of most creative projects, were marked by feverish bouts of prolific brainstorming, and by an overly-broad definition of our interests and activities. There were no hierarchies and no official titles, just various "electronic citizens" adding the contents of their minds and hearts to this strange portable public forum. In general, Mitch Porter provided the basis of our scientific research, while I dug up the arcane works of mystics and Heath Rezabek ("free agent .rez") rallied the creative forces of Alephian text-artists.
Among the various tasks Aleph set upon were the Fixion project (an exercise in cooperative writing and creative role-playing, devised by .rez), the study of Applied Memetics (the means by which ideas spread from mind to mind), the creation of The Alephian Lexicon (a huge collection of useful terms and redefinitions from the realms of philosophy, science, and mysticism), Alpha/Omega (Mitch's idea for a global event heralding a huge worldwide networked Millennial Climax), Gaia 2000 (an experiment in the creation of real-life organizations based upon our fictional structures), and the formation of the HyperQabalah (an interactive Qabalistic Tree of Life). Ultimately, the Alephians assumed, this massive body of knowledge would result in the creation of what we called the AAleph - a relativistic online model of the universe. Unrealistic? Perhaps. Insane? Probably. But none of this stopped us from working. Aleph was unleashed upon the unsuspecting Net in May of 1993; by the end of July, our archives contained over three megabytes - 800 pages - of dense and self-reflexive text, loosely referred to as The Alephian Current.
In the first week of August, the list began receiving essays and letters from someone who called herself "Doctress Neutopia." She immediately proved herself to be a prolific writer, highly imaginative and not prone to holding back her opinion. The writings of The Doctress dealt consistently with issues of sexism and the oppression of females by males, and were generally of tremendous length and great personal investment. In shorter e-mailed notes, she spoke of adding a love saga to the rapidly-developing Fixion project. She also told us she was looking for "the A/O (Alpha/Omega) Man," who would join her in rule over the Earth when the Lovolution came. (In an early letter to me she asked if I was that man; a little stunned, I bounced back Mitch's address, figuring she was looking for the author of A/O.) Day after day, her writings poured in, screenful after screenful. She seemed to care little for our already-developing lines of work, preferring instead to stick to her own campaign and agenda. For a week or so, her words seemed illuminating in a unique way; her over-the-top, egocentric, dyslexic metaphor seemed intentionally postmodern, and her research skills were undeniable (even if her prose tended toward hyperbole). The Doctress was unconditionally welcomed to the list. Relatively speaking; Aleph had found another weird sister.
Upon acceptance, her tone changed almost immediately. As I soon found out, she was not one to submit herself to the communal-editor approach we fostered; the slightest criticism of her words would send her into a rant, and heaven forbid if that criticism come from a male! Beneath her hard-edged rhetoric, it soon became apparent that another thread existed: as she often revealed in her own poetic works and letters to the list, The Doctress was actually an extremely sensitive person who had been imprinted by various unfortunate incidents throughout her life. She was very badly wounded, very much in pain, and quite possibly out of touch with reality. As her words rolled in by the bufferload, she began painting for us her feverish visions of a "Neutopian Society" with herself at its apex; a world in which males were subservient to females. The issue of subservience was key - there had always been Alephians of both sexes, but sexism per se had never been an issue. Some Alephians became outraged by her continued presence, and several of them unsubbed from the list. Others supported her views but tried to convince her to adopt a more sensitive viewpoint. Some of us ignored her posts altogether, and, in their own naive neohumanistic ways, some of us assumed they could help her.
War in Cyberspace
Alone or in groups, the Alephians tried every possible means of communication to rationalize with "The Doctress." Her writings were analyzed, edited, ignored, attacked, defended, spoofed and satirized; she was contacted in private e-mail as well as in our public forum, and even spoke to a few of us live, via IRC channels and telephone. In synchronous dialogue - such as the five-hour telephone conversation we once had - she was quite personable, even engaging. In realtime, it was possible to nip potential misunderstandings in the bud, saying, "No no, I meant this," or "Why did you use that word?" But back online, driven by the juggernaut of her cybernetic persona, she again assumed her autocratic and ignominious tone.
Publicly, diehard Alephians tried to ignore her posts. In private e-mail, the same group worried about the future of the list. Certainly, we could have removed her "forcibly," but we didn't want to do that. Moderating is a tricky job, requiring a strange new social skillset (one which I'm not really sure I've developed completely), but the general consensus was: (a) if we kicked her off the list we would be acting like the "fascists" she often accused us of being, and (b) if anyone could actually help this woman, it would be us. While we brainstormed and deliberated, further arousing Neutopia's temper, the Alephian Current was becoming a socio-sexual flamewar. Things move very quickly in Cyberspace, and a reputation for a low signal-to-noise ratio can be a real subscription-killer.
On August 20th, Neutopia played out her gambit. I logged on that morning to find another e-comm from The Doctress in my .inbox, ominously entitled, "Urgency - THE COUP OF ALEPH." I opened the message and read. A sick feeling crept over me as I took in The Doctress' words; she was attempting to take over the list! In paragraph after ranting paragraph, Doctress Neutopia was dictating what the list was about, what our goals had become, and what our individual functions were, where we would strike, whom we would contact, and - of course - eliciting her call for the deific A/O Man who would sit beside her on the planetary throne. Her massive agenda called for investigations of NASA and military science institutes, microbiological research projects on the state of Gaia, phreaking and cracking maneuvers intended to "free" the Internet, public lectures and performance events, reports on extraterrestrial contacts, video documentaries, book summaries, activist mobilizations, recruitment projects, press releases and publicity campaigns, all aimed at the Neutopian goal of taking over the world.
For the next few weeks, what traffic remained on Aleph stumbled and halted. The Fixion project did its best to continue, but our dwindling population was making it difficult to maintain our original velocity. A month after the "coup," Neutopia was still arguing with nonsupporters, and our ongoing research projects had ceased entirely. Our subscription base was next to nil. Having spent hundreds of dollars in Aleph-related phone calls over the previous few weeks, Mitch and I were both seriously indebted to our respective phone companies and were having difficulty getting online. Soon after, free agent .rez and the Fixioneers moved on to another site (email@example.com), and the Alephian Current, for all intents and purposes, came to an end.
The Doctress hung around for a little while after the dissolution but apparently found the lack of company disenchanting; she eventually discovered other e-lists, and recently began posting to Usenet. The funny thing is; sometimes I miss her.
Aleph still exists today, although lately it's held little more than a slow-motion conversation on "quantum consciousness" and a number of press releases reflected there from other lists. Mitch and I are back online regularly again, although neither of us is racking up linetime like it's going out of style (quite the opposite, in fact). As we enter the summer of 1994, a number of old and new friends have come around; there are signs that the Current may be unceremoniously returning to life, but cautiously, and in a totally new form (the cliche might be "sadder but wiser"). We haven't yet determined our "policy" regarding subscription denials, killfiles, and electronic coups ;-) , but like the futuristic telecommunications commercials constantly remind us: "We will."
The moral of our story? Draw your own. Perhaps simply, "Caveat Listor."
[Originally printed in SAM'S PUBLISHING's Tricks of the Internet Gurus]
"So just give up and admit you're an asshole, You would be in some good company."
- Ani DiFranco