Newbie Bashing

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
alt.aol-sucks, 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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