Newbie Bashing

Is the Internet dangerous to newcomers?

| Web Specials Archives

Thanks to large commercial services like America Online, ordinary folks are arriving in cyberspace by the busload. But not everyone is thrilled about the newbies and the 'suburbanization' of the techno frontier they represent.

In 'Don't be a Newbie,' an article in the debut issue of I + Way (June 1995) Michael Finley traces the term to the British public schools, where it means 'new boy.' Anyone who recalls the cruelty of junior high school knows what greets novice Internauts oblivious to the etiquette of spamming, punctuation, and 'asking stupid questions.'

Sometimes this cruelty is taken to ridiculous extremes. In an article in the Boston Phoenix (April 21, 1995) journalist David Wright describes the subculture of America Online bashing -- a phenomenon that started with, a newsgroup that began as a place to discuss overpricing, censorship, and technical glitches, and is now also a forum for cyberterrorism against anyone with an AOL address. Using the underground software AOhell, bullies force AOL users off line, mail bomb their accounts, and lift their credit card numbers.

While AOL haters' concerns with issues like gatekeeping and the commercialization of cyberspace are understandable, their frustrations are too often misdirected at the tastes and inexperience of common cybertravellers. AOLers are especially scorned because they are seen as the online version of the ugly American tourist with 'plaid shorts, black socks, and a camcorder,' says Wright. 'Why America Online Sucks' and several other anti-AOL Web pages deride the 'excessively cute graphics,' 'idiot-proof software,' and point-and-click formats that make America Online the Internet gateway for the masses. They also snub people for whom AOL marketing disks 'stuffed into magazines' and 'featured on the sides of McDonald's Happy Meals' can be the only welcome wagons to cyberspace available.

Plain old nastiness can also come into play. AOL bashing is the 'the only socially acceptable form of bigotry left on Earth,' says one prankster of his favorite pastime. Populist Clifford Stoll, author of Silicon Snake Oil: Second Thoughts on the Information Highway, argues that techno-elitism is the real problem. 'If I had to choose,' he told Wright, I'd rather have all the bumbling AOL users than some of the more malicious people at the bigger computers who have real power to abuse the Net.'

Original to Utne Reader Online, July 1995.

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