Misunderstanding Cyberculture: Martin Rimm and the ‘Cyberporn’ Study

In Academia, Government, Politics, Technology by J Michel Metz1 Comment

Time CoverThis is a paper that was peer-reviewed and presented to the annual Popular Culture Association conference, Las Vegas, NV, March 1996. Images and links, obviously, were not included in the original. Any strange artifacts in the text were a result from the rescue attempt to save the article from potential file corruption.

Full Citation:

“Misunderstanding Cyberculture: Martin Rimm and the ‘Cyberporn’ Study.” (with Rod Carveth). Paper presented at the annual Popular Culture Association conference, Las Vegas, NV, March 1996.

“CYBERPORN EXCLUSIVE: A new study shows how pervasive and wild it really is. Can we protect our kids – and free speech?”

So read the cover story in the June 1995 issue of Time magazine. The cover included a headline screaming “Cyberporn” and featured a full -page photo of a wide-eyed child illuminated by the glow from a computer screen. Inside, the feature story was illustrated by pictures of a man with is legs wrapped around a computer seemingly having sex with it, and a child being tempted by a computer screen with a lollipop on it.

The Time cover story was based largely on a content analysis study conducted by Martin Rimm, an electrical engineering major at Carnegie-Mellon University, and published in the Georgetown Law Journal. The story proclaims the study “tells us about what’s happening on the computer networks, [and] also what it tells us about ourselves.” Following the appearance of the Time article, the study’s findings received considerable media attention. Mike Godwin of the Electronic Frontier Foundation debated Ralph Reed of the Christian Coalition on ABC -TV’s “Nightline.” Then Rimm’s findings prompted a heated debate on CNN’s “Crossfire” between officials of the Christian Coalition and the American Civil Liberties Union. Radio talk-shows across the country sought to interview Rimm. A picture of Rimm, posed in front of a computer displaying Carnegie-Mellon University’s home page, ran in newspapers everywhere.

The Time story was just the thing for those, like the Christian Coalition, trying to regulate the Internet. U.S. Senator Charles Grassley, R-Iowa, waved a copy of Time on the Senate floor as he asked for support for a bill titled the “Protection of Children from Computer Pornography Act.” “This study raises important questions about the availability and the nature of cyberporn,” Grassley told his Senate colleagues. “I want to emphasize that this is Carnegie Mellon University. This is not a study done by some religious organization analyzing pornography that might be on computer networks.” Sen. Dan Coates, R-Indiana, co-sponsor of a bill to censor pornography on the Internet, cited the study in an opinion article published in The Washington Post. Rimm received an invitation to testify before the Senate.

The Internet community responded to the story with a vigor rarely seen. Led by Wired magazine editor Brock Meeks, Vanderbilt management professors Donna Hoffman and Thomas Novak, and Electronic Freedom Foundation legal counsel Mike Godwin, the community ripped the study apart. Within days, the mainstream media began to pick up on the critiques, as well as rumors about Martin Rimm himself.

Rimm’s study was trashed as being “shoddy” research, and Rimm was revealed to have a history of con artistry and media manipulation. In the aftermath of the media frenzy, Rimm was disinvited to appear before the Senate, and Carnegie-Mellon began an investigation into his conduct while doing the study. In the court of public opinion, however, while small follow-ups appeared in the Washington Post and The New York Times, quoting a few of the study’s critics, the damage to the reputation of the Internet community was done.

“L’Affaire Rimm” raises a number of issues about how the media cover the Internet, and how the media report social science findings. More importantly, this incident illustrates a clash of cultures — the Internet culture, the emerging culture of commercial online users, and the traditional media culture. The vast majority of Americans know little about the Internet; for them, online activities are shrouded in mystery, and they look to the traditional media for information about the new media. The vehemence with which the Internet community attacked Martin Rimm and Time reporter Philip Elmer-DeWitt reflects not only a frustration with misinformation being spread about the Internet, but also a frustration with the shifting of cultures on the Internet itself. The free-wheeling nature of communication on the Internet and its community is slowly being replaced by more regulation brought about by the onslaught of users accessing the Internet through commercial online services. Before examining this culture clash, this paper first briefly reviews the Rimm study, its carriage by the media, and the criticism leveled by the Internet community.

The Rimm Controversy

Marty Rimm’s research endeavors had an impact almost a year before the Time article. Rimm had written a paper about online pornography. He even had a special angle: instead of spending time going into adult BBSes and looking at pictures, he did a computer-assisted linguistic analysis of the descriptions of the files, which meant he only needed to look at a few pictures to make up his mind. He quickly learned what everybody already knew — there were lots of “dirty pictures” online. Rimm passed on his findings to the administrators at CMU, who were distressed to find that the school’s Usenet news feed gave students access to erotica.

Although the idea there might be “dirty pictures” on the Internet had probably occurred to the authorities before,the issue came to a head when they realized that some of these pictures had recently been declared obscene by a Tennessee court. Rimm warned university officials that they may be inviting legal problems. University administrators responded by announcing that they were banning student access to some portions of the Usenet, saying they had no choice. To ignore the problem could subject the school to criminal prosecution, they said (Togyer, 1995, September 5).

The decision prompted an uproar among the students, who felt that they had a right to read and view whatever they wanted, without interference from the university. Time then ran a piece about the scandal at CMU.

Philip Elmer-DeWitt apparently met Rimm while covering CMU’s attempt to ban the alt.sex.* hierarchy from “Andrew” (the CMU computer system). Rimm is mentioned several times in that November 21, 1994 Time article, “Censoring Cyber-space,” and is identified only as a “[CMU] research associate.”

Time’s identification of Rimm as a CMU researcher helped open all sorts of doors for him. Cathy Ruemmler, current editor-in-chief of the Georgetown Law Journal, noted that the journal’s previous editors never really asked about Rimm’s credentials when he submitted the study.

Ruemmler said that the Rimm study and accompanying articles in that issue, written by legal experts, were intended as a “mini -symposium” on pornography and the Internet. “The Journal, in publishing this, was trying to further debate and promote discussion about the issues that were raised.” (Togyer, 1995, September 5). The Journal didn’t have the study scientifically reviewed, because it wasn’t concerned with the scientific methodology behind it, only the legal issues it raised. “We didn’t have a lot of reasons to be concerned in that sense. We didn’t have reason to be suspicious,” Ruemmler said. _”How the data was gathered is an internal Carnegie Mellon concern.” _ (emphasis ours).

Marty Rimm

Had the Georgetown Law Journal and Time magazine checked out Marty Rimm, it would have been clear that the data presented by Rimm was more than “an internal Carnegie Mellon concern.” When Rimm was a junior in 1982, his class voted him most likely to be elected president of the United States. The next year, they voted him most likely to overthrow the government.

Marty Rimm comes from a family that is large and well-connected in Atlantic County political circles. State Tax Court Judge Marvin Rimm is Marty’s uncle. Margate Commissioner Sigmund Rimm is his first cousin (once removed). The late Superior Court Judge Benjamin Rimm was his great-uncle.

In the early 1980s, as a student at Atlantic City High School, he conducted a controversial study that concluded 64 percent of the school’s students had gambled in casinos. The study was reported in The Wall Street Journal and prompted state legislators to raise the minimum age for gambling in casinos from 18 to 21 — even though 18-year-olds enjoyed the right to buy lottery tickets and bet at racetracks. The next year, working with the New Jersey Council on Compulsive Gambling, Rimm reported that a survey of students at three high schools from around the state showed that 46 percent of their students had been to Atlantic City casinos. After several years of school and international travel, Rimm returned to the U.S. in 1987, graduated from a craps dealers school and went to work in the city’s casino industry in 1988. In 1990, Rimm self-published a paperback novel, “An American Playground,” which portrayed the seamier side of the city’s casino industry. Rimm researched the industry by working various casino jobs as a craps dealer, pit clerk and security guard.

It appears that Rimm was suspected by state investigators of pulling two creative — and potentially expensive — pranks on the Trump Taj Mahal Casino Resort in 1990. The New Jersey Division of Gaming Enforcement (DGE), which polices the Atlantic City casino industry, launched an investigation that centered on “An American Playground,” which Rimm self-published in 1990.

On June 22, 1990, a Taj Mahal employee noticed fliers on the windshields of cars at a Northfield, NJ shopping center announcing that anyone who bought the book and presented it at the Taj Mahal would receive $25 in coins. The flier was printed on a Taj Mahal letterhead, and had Trump himself hailing the publication of Rimm’s book as “one of the most phenomenal literary events of the 90s.” The manager of a bookstore at the shopping center later told DGE officials that Rimm had called three days earlier to ask how the book was selling, and said he was preparing a major effort to promote it.

Rimm denied any responsibility for the fliers. Two months later, while Rimm was still under investigation in connection with the fliers, the Taj Mahal was the target of a much more elaborate hoax. For its grand opening earlier that year, the casino had sponsored a contest called “Raja’s Riches.” Customers who filled out a card were eligible to win prizes such as a Rolls Royce Silver Spur car or $10,000 in cash.

In August, the casino was deluged with calls from people who had received letters informing them that they had won the car, the cash or other prizes. Some had been told they had won the Taj Mahal itself. Like the fliers, the contest letters were printed on Taj Mahal stationery and looked authentic. The fliers claimed that at the award ceremony, Trump would give a speech titled “Whorehouses of Emotion,” outlining his vision for Atlantic City.

By the following month, the casino had been contacted by 408 people who had received letters informing them that they’d won the car, the cash or other prizes. Even after the casino publicly announced that it had been the victim of a hoax, there were threatening letters from lawyers representing recipients of the letters. The casino was also contacted by consumer fraud investigators in the home states of some of the would-be winners.

DGE reports indicate Rimm was the only suspect in the case. He seemingly avoided DGE sanctions when he notified the agency that he would let his casino license lapse, and not renew it. Agents also found that Rimm had falsified employment applications. Rimm admitted, “There were times over the past several years when I was pressed for work, and as a result exaggerated my prior employment experience in such a manner as to appear smoother and more impressive.” (Robinson, 1995). Rimm left his job at Bally’s Park Place in November 1990, moved to Pittsburgh and began work on his bachelor’s degree in electrical engineering at Carnegie Mellon.

The Information Embargo

Rimm shopped his study of pornography on the Internet to several sources. Rimm offered Time magazine an exclusive advance look at the study. Philip Elmer-DeWitt said Rimm approached the magazine and offered Elmer-DeWitt (whom he had met earlier) an exclusive on the study after Georgetown Law Journal agreed to publish it.

“It was a deal Rimm and I worked out,” DeWitt said. “He called me and said he was publishing this in Georgetown Law Journal and would we be interested in it.” DeWitt said Rimm asked whether the magazine “would do it in a big way,” but received no assurances. “I said we wouldn’t make any promises, but we were very interested,” DeWitt said.

Rimm signs secrecy agreements with Time, the Georgetown Law Journal (who published the study) and ABC’s Nightline, giving them exclusive rights to the study information. The deal had the effect of guaranteeing widespread publicity for Rimm’s study without including the comments of any possible critics. Prior to publication, the Rimm study had undergone no peer review process, which, while not required in law journals, would normally occur to verify the methodological validity of any major statistical research. In advance of the study’s publication in the Georgetown journal, Rimm asked several Internet researchers to critique the legal footnotes. When he refused to provide them with the entire study, they refused.

Among them are Vanderbilt University business professors Donna Hoffman and Thomas Novak, principal investigators of a five-year research program on marketing the Internet called “Project 2000.” Hoffman first heard from Rimm when he contacted her and expressed an interest in her doctoral program at Vanderbilt. Rimm sent Hoffman a pre -publication summary of his study for review. She was shocked by what she saw. “I thought it was a parody of a study,” she said. (Togyer, 1995, September 11).

Hoffman, Electronic Freedom Foundation legal counsel Michael Godwin and David Post, a professor on the Georgetown law faculty, heard about the impending story in Time and approached Elmer-DeWitt with their concerns about the quality of the research. Time refused them refused access to the study citing Rimm’s secrecy agreements. The Journal would only release abstracts and the study’s footnotes. Rimm has pointed out that the study was academically reviewed by three legal experts, and their comments were published in the Journal alongside the study.

Some of the legal experts who were consulted, though, were shown only excerpts from the paper. David Post, an expert in Internet law, said that the former editor-in-chief of the Journal came to him with technical questions about the study, but refused to show him the paper itself, saying that Rimm had forbid it (Robinson, 1995, August 29).

Some time later, Elmer-DeWitt admitted he shouldn’t have published the story with Rimm’s restrictions. “This was a major report out of a prestigious university, published in a leading law journal, and, it seemed to me, a legitimate hook for a story that tried to put the issues it raised in some perspective. I’m sorry that so many thought it failed to do that.” (Meeks, 1995).

Thus, DeWitt was aware that many in the Internet community had serious reservations about Rimm’s research and his conclusions, but was willing to bend to Rimm’s wishes and hope that the study lived up to Carnegie Mellon’s reputation.

The Story

Rimm’s findings were published first in an 85-page article in the Georgetown Law Journal titled: “Marketing Pornography on the Information Superhighway.” What Rimm said he found was startling. Among his conclusions: * 83.5 percent of the images posted on the Usenet, which serves as a community bulletin board where Internet users can post and retrieve anything they like, are pornographic. * Child pornography and other images of abnormal sex are “widely available” on Usenet and the World Wide Web, which is the fast growing hypermedia part of the Internet that allows users to view images and even video on-line.

Rimm claimed that the Internet was rife with easily accessible pornographic images. His study included “917,410 sexually explicit pictures, descriptions, short stories, and film clips.” Elmer-DeWitt’s Time piece referred to the research as a “significant” and “exhaustive” study, by “Carnegie Mellon.” Time wonders “how the Carnegie-Mellon report will affect … the cyberporn debate” and notes that “conservatives … will find plenty” of “ammunition.” It is a Carnegie -Mellon report in the same way the senior thesis of a typical Harvard student is a Harvard University study. Finally, Time suggests that Rimm’s study will be a “gold mine for psychologists, social scientists, computer marketers, and anybody with an interest in human sexual behavior.”

The Publication Aftermath

“The view of the Internet community was that this man did not want his manuscript peer-reviewed, but by God, he’s going to get it peer -reviewed.” (Togyer, 1995, September 11) Literally dozens of major researchers, reporters and net veterans have sprung into the fray. Among the complaints raised about the study: 1) Rimm used data gathered from privately operated adult bulletin-board systems (BBSs) to make generalizations about the Internet a wholly different entity.

Time┬áreported that “there is an awful lot of porn online” basing that claim on the “917,410 sexually explicit pictures, descriptions, short stories, and film clips” that were “surveyed.” in the study. However, the 917,410 files do not represent porn online, but a selection of files from adult-oriented BBSes. None of these 917,410 files came from Usenet or the Internet. Further, of the 917,410 files, all text and audio files were deleted from analysis, and only a very small number of images were actually examined. The actual number of descriptions of images retained for the content analysis on which the study’s conclusions are based was 292,114.

In comparison with the claimed 917,410 “pornographic files” located on the adult BBSes, only 2,830 potentially pornographic images were found over a four-month period on the Usenet. In addition, out of the 11,576 World Wide Web sites examined in December 1994, Rimm found only nine Web sites (eight one-hundredths of one percent) that in his opinion contained what could be classified as R- or X-rated. Adult Visual Material. is thus blatantly misleading and irresponsible.

Time writes that 83.5 percent of images in Usenet binaries groups are pornographic; however, this number is simply wrong. What Rimm actually wrote was “Among the pornographic newsgroups, 4,206 image posts were counted, or 83.5 percent of the total posts.” This is based upon 17 alt.binaries groups that Rimm considered pornographic and 15 alt.binaries groups that Rimm considered nonpornographic. However, Rimm does not provide a listing of the names of these groups, so there is no objective evidence of whether these groups are, in fact, pornographic. Also, no information is provided on the degree to which these 32 groups comprise the complete universe of Usenet imagery. 2) Rimm invaded the privacy of Andrew users by monitoring which newsgroups they had read. There is a logfile called “.newsrc” in each Andrew user’s directory that shows which newsgroups they’ve read, which they’re subscribed to, and when they last read them. Most Andrew users are either unaware that this file, exists, are unsure how to block access to it, or don’t care who looks at it. CMU Computing Services uses this file to compile the “arbitron” rating statistics for each newsgroup, but anonymizes the user information. However, on most Andrew accounts created prior to this year, this information can be accessed with just a few Unix keystrokes. Even Rimm, in his study, acknowledges that his compilation of the statistics “raises significant privacy issues.” (Togyer, 1995, September 11).

Hoffman says that in both his study of the adult BBSs, in which Rimm was able to obtain the names, addresses, and credit card numbers of the BBSs’ users, and in his study of Andrew users, Rimm breached standard scientific practice. She says he should have gotten permission from his subjects to study them and cleared the study with the University. According to the Carnegie-Mellon Student Handbook, “accessing and using files in another person’s directory when not expressly permitted to do so by the owner is a violation of that person’s privacy.” (Togyer, 1995, September 11)

“In other words,” said Peter Madsen, director of CMU’s Center for the Advancement of Applied Ethics, “CMU does have community rules that protect the individual privacy of directories. Even if one can access them, it would be a violation of community standards.” There’s even concern that Rimm misrepresented himself to BBS owners to gain access to confidential information about subscribers.

Rimm controlled access to the study so that it could not be peer -reviewed before publication. In a response published on the World Wide Web, Rimm said that Hoffman and Novak are upset simply because they weren’t asked to review the study. “We did not solicit Ms. Hoffman’s or Mr. Novak’s advice because we did not consider them experts in either computer pornography or the law,” wrote Rimm. Rimm blasted the lengthy Hoffman and Novak critique, saying it was written in haste, and charged that Hoffman and Novak are “overstepping their bounds.”

In fact, both Hoffman and Novak hold PhDs in psychology. Hoffman observed, “Marty Rimm was furthering this notion of It’s a filthy disgusting place out there. Basically, this study says, ‘I looked at stuff on adult bulletin board systems and found, to my horror, pornography!’ I mean, duh!” (Togyer, 1995, September 11)

As Hoffman points out, no outside party with a technical background was allowed to review the paper before its release — on Rimm’s orders. “This guy wrote a bad research paper. It’s obvious that Marty Rimm, who’s a master manipulator, is operating out of this ‘one-to -many’ model of disseminating information,” said Hoffman. “He controlled access to the study, and he hoodwinked [Time technology writer] Philip Elmer-DeWitt, but he was not able to control the people who had a voice on the World Wide Web.” (Togyer, 1995, September 5) .

Rimm attempted to conceal his status as a undergraduate, and instead portrayed his research as officially sanctioned by the University. “This [study] was positioned as something from a research team at Carnegie Mellon,” she said. ~The evidence is voluminous and points very clearly to an agenda,~ calling Rimm’s method of getting the study published “subterfuge.”

Critics also charge that Rimm’s background suggests an agenda and raises questions about his credibility and objectivity. 5) In addition, Brock Meeks discovered that Rimm has published, apparently using the same information garnered during his research, a 64 -page book: “The Pornographer’s Handbook: How to Exploit Women, Dupe Men & Make Lots of Money.” Though Rimm has said the book is a “satire on the pornography industry which was never printed, published, distributed or sold to anyone,” Meeks suggests that Rimm used to assist the adult BBS owners in improving their marketing — while churning out a study that expressed concerns because the “pornographers” in the online world were becoming better at marketing (Meeks, 1995; Robinson, 1995).

Overall, said Hoffman. “I think we did a good job of trying to control the damage. If he [Rimm] had been allowed to read this stuff into the Congressional Record or been allowed to testify, it would have been a lot worse.”

Rimm responded that he was being pilloried by a band of critics who have a single issue on their agenda — guarding the Internet and other computer networks from government censorship and regulation at all costs — and who lack the academic credentials to understand his research.

“A lot of the critics are either lawyers or psychologists,” he said, adding: “It’s not possible to do a study of pornography on the Internet without being attacked by someone with some agenda.”

On August 8, 1995 in response to the growing criticism about the study, CMU provost Paul Christiano announced the formation of a 5-member faculty committee to conduct an investigation into “the study’s scholarship and the methods by which data were acquired and used.”

The irony is that Rimm’s study and Congress’s efforts to block obscene material on-line may, in the end, increase the demand for high -tech pornography, said Michael Noll, a professor of communication at the University of Southern California. “Pornography on the Internet is no more a problem than what you see in a video store or on 42nd Street in New York,” said Noll, who is working on a book on modern communications, including the Internet. “The more you try to prohibit it, the more valuable it becomes,” he said. “We’ve been down this road before.” (Brainard, 1995).

Journalism and Social Science

The critique of the Rimm study by the Internet community was important because the Time cover story gave the Rimm study national credibility. The critically important national debate over First Amendment rights and restrictions on the Internet and other emerging media requires facts and informed opinion, not hysteria.

Communication researchers as far back as Paul Lazarsfeld have noted, one of the major functions of the mass media is the surveillance function — the ability to warn readers/listeners/viewers of potential dangers in the world.

From time to time, however, media coverage of a scientific or social scientific finding is dysfunctional. For example, the media were partially responsible for creating the scare over the swine flu, the result of which was that thousands of people were needlessly vaccinated. The media also exaggerated the dangers of the pesticide Alar as a possible carcinogen. In the social science arena, reporting of preliminary results of a Yale University study that claimed women over the age of 30 had little chance of finding a marriage partner spawned a panic.

If it is difficult for a professional journalist to evaluate the validity of such research, it is reasonable to assume that many of his readers might have similar difficulties. Clearly, anyone with an undergraduate course in social science research methodology would have seen the shortcomings of this study. A close reading of Rimm’s study shows that its methodology as analogous to walking into a book or video store and rating its content based solely on what is for sale in the adult section. The Rimm study is not “an exhaustive study of online porn – what’s available, who is downloading it, what turns them on….” but a limited analysis of descriptions of pornographic images on selected adult BBSes in the United States. The study findings cannot be generalized beyond this narrow domain.

Elmer-DeWitt quotes Rimm as saying, “We now know what the consumers of computer pornography really look at in the privacy of their own homes,” … “And we’re finding a fundamental shift in the kinds of images they demand.” However, the study says nothing about what consumers look at in their own homes (or anywhere else). It did not examine consumer behavior – it only counted aggregate download counts of descriptive listings of images available on adult BBSes.

Although download patterns would be expected to correlate with viewing, the study doesn’t measure the extent to which individuals actually looked at the images (or, indeed, whether they looked at all). Additionally, the study provides absolutely no evidence for the statement that there is a “fundamental shift” in demand for certain types of images.

Time says, “There’s an awful lot of porn online.” But in fact, Rimm’s own figures suggest that the amount of pornography on Usenet and the World Wide Web represents an extremely small percentage of the total information available on the Internet. Rimm surveyed only a handful of newsgroups to arrive at this figure. “A more accurate interpretation is that 83.5 percent of the images posted to 32 alt.binaries newsgroups came from 17 groups that Rimm determined were pornographic,” write Hoffman and Novak. Time further neglects to clarify this by noting that the vast bulk of Rimm’s study concerns files that reside exclusively on adult BBSes. Very few of these BBSes are actually connected to the Internet.

Time reports that “only about 3 percent of all the messages on the Usenet newsgroups [represent pornographic images], while the Usenet itself represents 11.5 percent of the traffic on the Internet.” But Time neglects to take the interpretation to its logical conclusion, which is that less than half of 1 percent (3 percent of 11 percent) of the messages on the Internet are associated with newsgroups that contain pornographic imagery. Further, of this half percent, an unknown but even smaller percentage of messages in newsgroups that contain pornographic imagery or newsgroups that are “associated with pornographic imagery” actually contain pornographic material. Much of the material that is in these newsgroups is simply text files containing comments by Usenet readers. Time speculates that pornography is “different” on computer networks, and although the Rimm study suggests this, as well, absolutely no evidence is presented to support this hypothesis.

At the least, Time magazine should have sought the detailed opinions of objective experts as to the validity of the study. Time further compounded this error by making other erroneous statements about the nature of pornography in cyberspace, and in some cases, even misinterpreted Rimm’s results.

Cultural Conflict

Beyond the problems of mis-analyzing the study’s methodology and statistics, the media reports miss the sociological significance of Rimm’s study. The media reports of the research came at what the Internet community saw as a critical time in the network’s evolution. The Senate had just passed what many in the Internet community called a draconian bill outlawing obscene and indecent material on the Internet. When the Time article came out, the bill was under consideration in the House.

The study also came out during a time when cultural tensions had exploded on the Internet. In the spring of 1994 when America OnLine, the fastest-growing videotex service, opened up its gateway to the Internet, thousands of users flooded the network and its facilities. Almost immediately, the AOL “newbies” crashed the party, bringing on them the ire and outrage of veteran Internetters (Metz 1995).

For months the conflict ensued. AOL users began signing up to distribution lists and harassed the users who had established a community on them. Usenet became flooded with AOL members who refused to read the FAQ (Frequently-Asked Questions) lists. Internet Relay Chat (IRC) became inundated with AOLers who behaved like boorish, disrespectful tourists. All of a sudden, there was an influx of the Ugly American OnLine.

Letters were written to AOL system administrators about the errant members in hopes that the administration would start buckling down on those who refused to be considerate or adhere to “netiquette.” When and if that didn’t work, some veterans took matters into their own hands. Some began writing programs that would seek out messages to Usenet lists that came from “aol.com” (the Internet address for AOL) and delete them. A less vicious method was to simply establish a “kill file,” where messages from those addresses would be deleted in an individual’s account. Nonetheless, the battle lines had been drawn, and the war was well underway.

The problem went far beyond a lack of understanding of technological procedures. That would have only been a mere annoyance, but almost immediately the new people — more often than not from AOL – – began criticizing both the content and the established community of the list. It was not uncommon to read “You ppl [people] suck!” or “You are all losers!”; several people received personal messages from the offending parties on a regular basis. Internetters began sending mail bombs — hundreds upon hundreds of copies of the same extremely large file — to the offenders. People began letter-writing campaigns to AOL system administrators. Still others began their own harassment campaigns.

Though there is some debate as to what the exact numbers of Internet users are, there is no question that the number of users logging on to the Net has been growing at at exponential rate. A summer 1995 study by Neilsen reported that the Internet had 30 million users. According to the FIND/SVP 1994 American Information User survey, however, only 3-4 of the estimated 30 million Internet users are “consumers”; the balance are “institutional” users from academia, business and government (“Consumers comprise,” 1995).

The surveys suggest that the Internet is approximately doubling in size each year, and has been doing so for at least the past six years now. In other words, each year there are as many new people on the Internet as all the people on the Internet the year before. In addition, the market using the Internet is an attractive one. The typical online family, according to NPD Group, Inc., has a 34-year-old head of household (the average household’s is 40); with a median income of $54,440 (77% above the national average); and is likelier than not to have a college education (56% are graduates). (“Online Profile,” 1995).

Historically, the growth of the Internet has proceeded in three stages: the pioneers, the settlers and the people of capital.

The pioneers were people of science, engineers, mostly, who were concerned with the need for defense. The original network proposed and accepted (which was to become the ARPANET and later, Internet) was designed by individuals who had a notion of linking together computers for the sole purpose of communication.

These scientists and programmers initially worked through the funding of the federal government (commissioned by the Advanced Research Projects Agency — ARPA) to explore the possibilities of branching out a new form of technology which would enable people to work together despite great distances. They ran demonstrations of the new network to other ARPA contractors, sites, and research institutions. In order to enhance awareness they began mandating use of the network site. As knowledge about the new territory grew, those who had forged the new ground began to give way to the new “settler” who came to the land in order to work it for survival.

These settlers came in the form of academics and scientists who were using the machines for the purpose in which they were developed: sharing resources and communicating with one another. Those who used the system more and more began establishing comfortable communities in which interests were shared, such as SFLOVERS (Sterling, 1993). Others, such as Jeff Kell, wrote a program which would enable him to talk to more than one other person at a time, thus establishing the beginning of Relay.

In total, these two groups of people (“Internetters”) believed that the realm of the Internet was limitless. There seemed to be enough room for all types of people to coexist peacefully. Communication was the goal, and it was easy to believe that usually the ones they would find to talk with would be similar “cybernauts” — explorers who tended to be interested in technology that the mainstream population eschewed. The Internet was seen by these two groups as a public good, an expansive hinterland that could be shared by all.

Now, the electronic frontier witnesses the infiltration of system owners and users in who see great financial potential in the Internet, especially large information corporations. As Elmer-Dewitt succinctly put it in an earlier Time article, the Internet “was not designed for doing commerce, and it does not gracefully accommodate new arrivals – – especially those who don’t bother to learn its strange language or customs or, worse still, openly defy them” (1994, p. 52). The notion of paying for information goes directly against the tenets of the purists, who subscribe to the old hacker belief that all information should be free and access to computers should be unlimited and total (Levy, 1984).

The problem between Internetters and AOLers is that it is an intercultural conflict. For instance, America OnLine is a system which is paid for by the individual subscriber, and as a result they have come to expect easier interface with the information they seek. A point-and -click mentality is obviously prevalent, as evidenced by the sheer confusion when exposed to the command-line structure of Internet navigation. The fact that users of AOL have to pay for their service is important: they feel that they have a “right” to certain information because they pay for it.

Additionally, the time they use to access the information costs them money, so it is understandable that they might have little patience for a steep learning curve in obtaining information. On the other hand, Internet users for the most part do not pay for their service. The funding for their accounts comes from either academic institutions, commercial connections, or governmental subsidy (2).

As a result, they do not have the anxiety caused by financial reasons to learn how to navigate the Internet in a quick and efficient manner. Thus, the key factor here is not money, but time. Both groups use the computer to communicate, but the value placed on time and learning the acceptable norms of behavior is remarkably different. Thus the conflict between AOL and veteran users comes from a clash of cultural norms and expectations. Additionally, the Internet was born from chaos, developed under the notion that there wouldn’t be any centralized command center (3).

Over the past 25 years, the Internet has allowed itself to be a snap-on infrastructure, not unlike the attachability one usually ascribes to Lego pieces. Such is not the case with videotex, where there is a definitive hierarchy which governs the amount of access one has to any part of the system, not to mention what topics one can talk about or what words one can say.

It could be argued that those subscribers of videotex services do not wish to have the freedom to roam the sprawling infrastructure of the Internet. Log on to the Internet and we find a bureaucrat’s worst nightmare. There is no organization, no friendly icons to help him figure out where he is or where he’s going or even where he’s been. It is a world that changes with each host computer. The command line interface with the Internet is less than user friendly; it’s downright user-hostile. There is none of the familiar orienting signs that one can come to expect from the videotex services. So therein lies the major differences between the people who use these systems. The Internet demands an acceptance of (some would say resignation to) a certain amount of trial-and-error. There are help files available, but usually they are located in areas of the network which paradoxically require a certain level of comprehension about the net which comes from reading the help files first. This type of wandering around uncharted pathways breeds patience and, indeed, caution not to step on people’s cybernetic toes. Videotex, on the other hand, treats the accumulation of information with all the impersonal nature of having a pizza delivered. Information — and the people who deliver it — are mere commodities to be dealt with in an expedient manner. At the time of this writing, AOL users are beginning to feel more welcome on the Internet, despite unbridled hostility in some areas (e.g., some Usenet newsgroups). There is a deep prejudice between the two groups, however, which leads to some questions about future interactions with other CMC subcultures.

AOL might have just been an anomaly. Since the spring of 1994, both Compuserve and Prodigy have connected successfully to the Internet without creating such a stir. Compuserve, for example, has been particularly helpful for Internet users, as its proprietary image file format — GIFs — is well-used and, along with JPEG image compression, has become the standard for transferring image files across the network.

Even assuming that the AOL/Internet controversy is an isolated incident, the fact remains that there is something much more important occurring within cyberspace than what individual users can do. Up until recently, there has been a great deal of attention on the capabilities of the network: what there is to see, what there is to do, what will soon be possible when the Information Superhighway brings the Internet to its most powerful incarnation.

Now, however, we have to see the Internet for what it is: more than just a medium for communication, but also a purveyor of society and culture. This, ultimately, is where we must look to first when we start to examine the impact of increased commercialization on the network in the upcoming years. The final resistance of such an event will come from within the network rather than from the echelons of government. If anything, the AOL/Internet conflict should indicate that there is a powerful force of people lying dormant for the moment, but willing to ferociously protect its territory should the need arise.

The earlier Internet culture seems to have succeeded in supporting the development of a variety of communities without any imposed-on-from -above rules of usage. The Internet infrastructure provided a foundation of connectivity and transport, and the users managed to build the community structures they need on top of that foundation. These communities created their own rules, abided by them for mutual benefit, and found ways to exclude disruptive intruders.

The Internet culture has enjoyed an existence marked by freedom from long-distance costs, freedom of association, freedom of speech, and a reasonable degree of privacy and security. The next version of cyberspace, however, will have a commercial basis, and more formal rules and regulations regarding the behavior of its users are likely. When the Canadian courts banned press coverage of the Karla Homolka-Paul Teale murder trials, a newsgroup (alt.fan.karla-homolka) emerged to illegally circumvent the ban (Davey, 1994).

By contrast, America Online has contacted the FBI and terminated several of its subscribers’ accounts after other members complained about child pornography being passed around online. The service’s CEO posted a message last January warning other potential transgressors that their accounts would be terminated and authorities notified if illegal activities are detected. (“AOL Gives …,” 1995). This is not to say that the earlier Internet culture condones child pornography, but it would have been an anathema to them to bring in a government agency to regulate the behavior of its members.

In December 1995, Compuserve disconnected its subscribers from 200 newsgroups suspected of dealing in pornography. The complaints about the newsgroups came not from someone in the United States, but from federal authorities in Germany. Lacking the technology to deny access only to German subscribers, Compuserve shut down everyone’s access. Doing so help them protect their presence in a commercially valuable market. Thus, the fears and frustrations of the Internetters about the dissemination of the Rimm study were not unfounded.

Computer-mediated communication involves more than just using a technical tool; it is a process for creating social relationships. In order for these two user cultures to peacefully co-exist, they are going to have to try harder to share and understand each other’s reality.


Hoffman and Novak’s “A Detailed Analysis of the Conceptual, Logical, and Methodological Flaws in the Article ‘Marketing Pornography on the Information Superhighway‘”)

Brainard, Ned (1995, June). “The Philip Elmer-DeWitt Award for Bad Internet Journalism”

Hoffman, Donna L. & Thomas P. Novak (1995, June), “A Detailed Critique of the Time Article: ‘On a Screen Near You: Cyberporn‘”

Post, David J. “Preliminary Discussion of Methodological Peculiarities in the Rimm Study of Pornography on the ‘Information Superhighway.'”

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Togyer, Jason (1995, September 5). “‘Cyberporn’ study… ECE grad under fire” The Tartan (Carnegie-Mellon University student newspaper)


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