October 1998
s m u g
Alexis Massie

Alexis Massie is the publisher of Afterdinner, and co-creator of Regarding.com She scrupulously maintains a personal site called Anthology and has the distinction of being the final mysterydate, because Leslie is tired of getting stood up by famous people who promised they would write for her. Next month mysterydate takes on a new life, but now please enjoy the fine words of the lovely and charming cyberlebrity Alexis Massie.

Chat Her Up

A girl at the coffee shop once asked me what I do for a living. So, I told her. "Oh! The Internet! I was on the Internet just last week!" She exclaimed. "I was in a chat room, but I didn't like it very much."

"That's understandable." I replied, warming to the topic. It's so rare that I find anyone who actually wants to discuss these things, outside my usual circle of email friends and newsgroup buddies. "Chat is a lot like a crowded party, but with one very important difference -- you hear everything that everyone is saying, no matter where they are in the room. Seeing that online chat is mental rather than audible, the din becomes skim."

I paused, very proud of that. I made a mental note to use it in my next column.

"The key enjoying to online chat is taking the disparate lines and incongruous sentences and mentally grouping them to form complete subjects."

"Ugh." She replied. Still, I persisted.

"No, actually, it's very interesting! Take for example, any segment of an online chat." I took out a notebook, flipped to an appropriate passage, and read.

"I heard D* sing. Oh yes I did." "Where can I buy one of those chimps?" "Yeah. I caught a man in my bush earlier today. His binoculars were just all wrong." "And how was he?"

"In this case, the only lines that might interest me would be the first and last, assuming that I was interested in the singer and not the chimp or the person we certainly hope is a bird watcher. The rest, I'd skim. Were this an actual party, of course, the noise of those other conversations would fade into a murmuring din. The skimming, in the case of an online chat, is just the brain's way of retaining a comprehensible continuity, just as the ear reduces competing conversations into a din. See how we adapt to the needs of the communication form? Isn't that neat?"

She looked at me blankly, hands limp around her paper coffee cup.

"It's a skill you acquire with practice," I explained. "To its credit, it's a delightful study of the language. You wont find non sequiturs or unintentional insults of this caliber anywhere else. If a person were to find themselves lonely and bored at 3 o'clock in the morning with truly nothing better to do, they might conceivably take their chat history and reread a conversation without skimming. If they did, they would find line after line of nonlinear narrative collected in a manner which seems almost random but eventually reveals a form singular to the online genre. In a sense, it is organic art, an unintentional creative process generated unwittingly by scattered participants on a global scale without the restrictions of time and place, resulting in a 'Choose Your Own Adventure book written on the fly without a conclusive ending."

"On the fly?"

I blinked. "Yes. Dynamically generated on an as-needed basis. Non-static."

"Like electricity?"

"Um. No. Anyway, I don't actively chat these days as often as I lurk, collecting the histories of the conversations for later study. I'm interested in language, you see. My personal web site..."

She interrupted me, her face showing more interest. "You have a home page?"

"I prefer 'personal web site,' as it's more accurately descriptive of my work, but yes I suppose you could call it that." I cleared my throat. "As I was saying, my personal web site contains a series of short entries whose only true context is the date in which they were written. By reviewing the writings, you can see the way my style has changed over time from simple narrative to touch on the more artistic expressions of post-modernism, though meshed with a sufficient touch of self ridicule and an eye-catching design to make it sell."

"I have a home page. I got it for free at Geocities."


"Chat is stupid."


"It's a bunch of complete strangers and all they talk about is where they live and half the time they don't even spell that right."

"Well, yes. But considering the phenomenon conceptually..."

"It's still a bunch of complete strangers talking about where they live. I like my home page. I write journal entries like yours and my family can go in and read how I'm doing."

This was too much. "I don't write a journal. A journal is a diary. That's not what I do. I'm pushing the boundaries of the medium. I'm expressing myself artistically."

"Oh." She blinked into the silence. "Do you know how I can get a guest book for my site? I really want one, but I don't know how."

I sighed. "You wont find one on Geocities," I replied. "There are some resources, however, for people in your situation..."

In the end, conversations between geeks and normal people always come down to tech support. And that's fine. We're used to it.


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