alt.fans, 25 years later

Greg Benford’s essay in Reason about online discourse largely holds up

In its January 1996 print edition, Reason published “alt.fans,” an essay from physicist and sci-fi author Gregory Benford about the emergence of the internet in the public consciousness as “the current hot metaphor for fast change, broader horizons, and info-deluge.”

At the time, I was Reason’s Washington editor, and my friend (and boss at the time) Virginia Postrel reminded me of the article during a recent phone chat. After re-reading the piece, a lot of Benford’s predictions hold up. Some don’t — though he foreshadowed the possibilities, including the prospect that widespread use of the internet as a publishing platform could lead to toxic discourse.

Benford’s prognosis also suggests how we (the sometimes excessively online) might clean up the sewage, at least in our own digital backyards.

Benford said that the internet’s gushing enthusiasts (for instance, John Perry Barlow: “the most transforming technological event since the capture of fire”; Louis Rossetto: “the Digital Revolution is whipping through our lives like a Bengali typhoon — while the mainstream media is still groping for the snooze button”) were getting ahead of themselves. 

Considering that time’s technology, and its pace of development, it made sense. Web browsing was clunky … at best. Marc Andreessen’s Netscape Navigator debuted in October 1994. Internet Explorer followed in August 1995. By the next year, Navigator controlled 86% of the browsing market. Then Microsoft bundled IE with its operating system, provided IE for the Mac OS, crushing Netscape … at first.

Netscape open-sourced its code, creating Mozilla, which led in 2002 to Firefox. Then Apple developed Safari, etc., etc., etc. 

All this took place before the first smartphones were developed.

From Benford’s late-1995 perspective, digital nirvana seemed revolutionary — unless the ‘net had some historic analogy. 

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Maybe it did, he said.

Around 1930, a small new phenomenon arose in Depression-ridden America, spawned out of the letter columns in science fiction magazines: fandom. Though today the term means any gathering of enthusiasts, fandom evolved in the science fiction community. Strikingly, it anticipated much of Net culture.

He then drew parallels between the early phases of fandom (enthusiasts swapping letters through U.S. mail) and the internet (Al Gore’s, er, the Department of Defense’s ARPANet was launched at a handful of national laboratories and then spread to universities before going commercial).

Chain letters became fanzines. (Benford and his twin brother Jim founded Void, considered one of sci-fi’s first literary zines, in 1955.) In the Reason piece, Greg notes you could find the keyboard version of an emoticon — :) :( and ;) — in ‘50s zines.

In the internet’s infancy, emails spawned listservs and electronic bulletin boards.

Zines, especially the amateurish ones, also had their flamers. Benford anticipated this tendency worsening on the web as it became more ubiquitous. “Egalitarian forums can have notoriously low signal-to-noise ratios. In the electronic agora, a mob often drowns out Socrates.”

Looking at the article with 2021 hindsight, it’s remarkable how much Benford got right. Then again, he has an uncanny ability to connect dots and make stunning predictions. 

Two years earlier for Reason, he wrote “The Designer Plague,” a thought experiment in which a malevolent gang — in this instance, environmental radicals seeking to depopulate Earth — created an unstoppable virus in a lab meant to wipe out millions. 

“An airborne form of, say, a super-influenza. The Flu from Hell, carried on a cough, with a several-week incubation period, so the plague path will be hard to follow.” 

It would be spread by infecting animals — turkeys, pigs, fish, chickens, he hinted. 

How could you design an unstoppable plague? By modifying RNA

Cloudy crystal ball

Benford’s crystal ball missed a couple of online developments, though: the handheld connected portable device anyone could own; and ubiquitous free social media outlets.

Gene Roddenberry’s clever team of writers envisioned a tethered version of Siri or Alexa a decade earlier:

Smartphones/tablets and social media platforms put the knowledge of millennia in the hands of billions. We often don’t share this knowledge wisely. 

Benford thought online editors (aka “content curators”) would arise as access to the internet expanded. Much as zines for a general audience — the genzine — developed as fandom matured.

A Net genzine would probably begin as a "Best Of" feature, with pieces gleaned worldwide and labeled by interest-area. The better ones will go pro, requiring a fee to log onto the edited database. Authors will get paid. To raise quality, editors will start to demand revisions of raw Net material, using the carrot of payment. Genzines will become labyrinthian magazines.

Indeed, much of this happened. Periodicals have migrated from dead-tree to online. Web-only outlets — in the public-affairs sphere, Slate, Axios, Vox, FiveThirtyEight, Breitbart, Daily Caller, etc.* Subscription-only online publications — The Dispatch, The Bulwark, Weekly Dish, Sinocism, Letters from an American, and more.

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Even so, the tone of uncurated online discourse is often toxic. Moral grandstanding tries to browbeat rather than persuade. Some of the loudest complaints about online incivility come from fellow grandstanders. They seek to cancel speech mainly from the speakers they disagree with.

Raging into the void

The good news about toxic discourse is that most of us aren’t extremely online. The most recent Pew Research Center polling about U.S. social media use, from April, shows Facebook and YouTube claim the most users who visit several times daily, 70 million and 60 million, respectively. Both platforms offer much more than political commentary. Roughly 14 million U.S. adults — 6.9% of the population — say they visit Twitter, usually considered the most poisonous outlet for social comment, several times a day.

Yes, messages conveyed on these platforms are amplified offline. But the people making the most noise are greatly outnumbered by those who either don’t care or never visit the sites at all.

Networks spread encouraging news as cheaply as they distribute nonsense and garbage. Greg Benford noted that sci-fi ‘zines figured out how to weed out much of their toxicity. Social media users can do the same, one person at a time, by tuning out if necessary, or by refusing to give clicks and shares to those who propagate the poison.

As Benford wrote to close “alt.fans,”

Wired's Kevin Kelly thinks that the Net will become the dominant force in our culture. I rather doubt it. … But if Kelly is right or even half-right, an eye cast to our past is even more relevant now.


*Note: A reader let me know Politico produces a print edition, distributed free in D.C. The emailed version of this story listed Politico as online-only. Sorry about the error.