Monday, March 18, 2013

What's the password?

When I was in college, I would regularly go to the gym to lift weights. I privately took some satisfaction in bucking the typical nerdy stereotypes - after all, what kind of internet shut-in can say that he benches more than 200 pounds, and not for the sake of sounding like a tough guy online?
It's the small victories in life, right?

After a while, I got to know some of the regulars at the gym - the other fitness junkies out on a personal journey to lift weights and get huge. Conversation usually revolved around proper dieting, lifting cycles, and the occasional story from one's personal life. A lot of these people were part of a school-wide bodybuilding club. They certainly weren't the sort that would spend a lot of time online, I thought. For a time I expected their online footprint to extend about as far as a Facebook page, and maybe an entry on the University's organization listings.

Then, one day, I saw a friend of mine - also an exercise enthusiast - talking to the president of the bodybuilding club. This was a pleasant surprise - after all, who doesn't like having mutual friends? Later, when I met up with my friend, I asked him how he knew the president.

He replied, "Oh, I noticed his shirt, walked up to him and asked, 'Are you aware?'"

I felt a little less special after that day.

"Are you aware?" is an internet meme. An inside joke. Most memes take the form of a humorous online quote, or a humorous picture, or a humorous any-other-thing-that-can-be-expressed-online.

This particular meme, however, is only native to certain parts of the internet, particularly the Misc. forum on

You'll have to excuse me for spelling out "you".

In fact, the express purpose of saying "Are you aware?" to someone is to find out whether or not they frequent Misc. It's an innocuous phrase - those who don't know what you mean will probably just ask, "Aware of what?" You can fabricate a response on the spot, ending any confusion.

But, if they do know what you mean, they'll let you know. They'll probably share funny things they've read on the forum with you. They'll probably spout some other memes indigenous to the Misc, such as "strong [X], brah", "Pepper your angus", or the now-widespread "Do you even lift?".

Because, you see, now they know that you're just like them. You like wasting time on the internet. You hang around the same online community and read the same jargon that they read. It's safe to reveal that you are, in fact, as much of an internet shut-in as they are.

Let's take note of another example of this, found with the SomethingAwful forums. If you think that someone in real life might be a frequent reader of SA but you're too reluctant to directly mention the forum to them, you can ask them, "Do you have stairs in your house?" Just like "Are you aware?", only your target audience would understand the real meaning behind the question. Reddit has a similar identifying phrase - the narwhal bacons at midnight. Though, considering how insane that particular phrase is, you might be better off just asking if other people go on reddit.

Seriously, what?

What outcome, exactly, are we avoiding by dancing around the question, "Do you go on Website X?"

Perhaps we don't expect non-members of Website X to know about Website X. Despite the large number of people online, the data on how people spend their time online remains fairly vague and general. It's nice to know that social networking is insanely popular, but how many people on Facebook also go on reddit? Sure, the converse question (How many people on reddit also go on Facebook?) is fairly trivial (probably nearly all of them), but it's difficult to overlay online populations on one another, because there's very little data collected on the subject. Alexa's online rankings give us insight into the popularity of specific websites, but we can only infer how individual demographics overlap between forums.

This all implies that, despite the ubiquity of the internet, it still isn't a good idea to assume that a stranger or casual acquaintance will know about your favorite website. The internet is simply too big - and its demographics are not sufficiently studied enough - to expect Website X to be a staple in other people's online diets.

Yes, I'll have the deviantart surprise. Complete with the poorly drawn furry porn.

So, what's the big deal if they don't know about Website X? There's no harm in accidentally asking an unaware bystander about your favorite website, right? Why would we hesitate?

The first - and probably more common - possibility is that it's slightly embarrassing to admit how you spend time online. If someone didn't know about Website X when you brought it up, they'd probably ask you, "What's Website X?" And how would you begin to answer that question? Maybe you'd start out by telling them that it's a forum, but what do you do if they don't know what forums are? Perhaps you could start by explaining the theme of the website - perhaps it's a site for game enthusiasts, or for news - but that may be insufficient in explaining why you spend so much time on it.

Eventually, you're going to have to explain to someone in real life that you - and hundreds of other people that you've never met before - converse with one another through text on a regular basis, and form an online community. Good luck selling that concept to the guy who primarily uses Facebook to creep on girls during math lecture.

But, let's say your conversational partner has an open mind, and decides to visit Website X to see what it's all about. What would they run into first? If it's an online community, then the content that they find is largely dependent on what other people have posted. This is out of your control. Maybe they'll find the website on a good day, where the post quality is pretty high. Maybe they'll find the website on a day where everyone's posting inside jokes and puns. Or maybe the first thing they see is the one inexplicable discussion about abortion on a forum generally about video games.

It doesn't matter how representative of the community their visit will be - but it will all reflect on you. You'll be the person who goes on that one website with the really creepy people. Even if you never interact with that subset of your online community, the stranger won't know the difference between you and them. That can be reason enough to keep your online habits on the down-low.

"So what have you been up to today?" "Oh, uh..."

But, there's a second reason why someone might not want to talk about their online community. They might not want to invite unwanted attention to the community itself.

An interesting example of this can be found with the /b/ subforum in 4chan. People who go on the /b/ subforum refer to themselves as /b/tards (pronounced bee-tards). This isn't the peculiar part - people who go on reddit call themselves redditors, people who go on SomethingAwful call themselves goons, and so on and so forth.

Members of /b/, however, like to throw around what they call Rules 1 and 2. These rules say that you are not to talk about /b/ with other people. There is no desire among members of /b/ to get new people into the forum. In fact, among /b/tards, the surges of new members in their forum has been referred to as (warning: link is not work-safe) cancer. They make a distinction between new members and old members, by the quality of provided posts. Mass-bannings in /b/ have been referred to as (again, not-work-safe link) chemotherapy for the "ailing" community.

Click to enlarge. A google search reveals some of their territorial bullshit.

This xenophobic attitude isn't even unique to /b/. You can see it in several online communities if you look hard enough. It's seen as a cyclical process - newer members find the community, and aren't versed in the parlance of the older members. The older members get upset by this, and they draw the line in the sand between old and new, "veteran" and "newbie". Sometimes old and new can integrate, but sometimes they can't.

The most fascinating instance of this can be found with what's now known as Eternal September. This story takes place in days so early for the internet that it could be called primordial.

In the '80s and early '90s, people who used online communications could do so through Usenet. Usenet functioned similarly to our common conception of online forums and chat rooms, but were fairly limited in scope. Typically, you could access Usenet if you were somewhere that provided a hosting server, which was generally limited to places like universities. This meant that the Usenet network would usually experience an influx of new members in September, coinciding with the beginning of the school year. Typically, after about a month of participation, the new members would figure out how to properly conduct themselves on Usenet, and life would go on.

Then, on September of 1993, AOL started offering Usenet support. Compared to the original members of Usenet, AOL users were the unwashed masses, unfamiliar with the old online community and generally uninterested in its etiquette. The influx of new users from AOL's opened floodgates proved too much for the Usenet veterans to handle, and their established online community was scattered to the winds.

Among these old, c'thonic circles of Usenet people, it is said that September of 1993 was the September that never ended.

And then, nearly 12 years later, a hilariously relevant (but completely coincidental) song came out.

People on the internet like their online communities - and they don't want other people shitting them up. For some people, this means that they will push for closed communities. Obviously, this is a dangerous attitude to have. But it exists, and it is as concerning as it is fascinating.

Luckily, such online xenophobia doesn't extend very far. Websites like reddit are fairly open to everyone - perhaps too open. The secretiveness that we observe among online goers is likely a mix of shame in spending too much time online along with the desire of keeping your secret garden a secret. It's likely more of the former than the latter. But these online terminologies that people use to refer to themselves are almost like passwords - knowing these terms grants you access to certain kinship.

But there's a certain contradiction here. I started this article talking about the example of Misc, a forum that is mostly populated by a demographic that nobody would expect online: the gym-goer. This brawny, athletic sort of person is part of the jock archetype in pop culture. But we'd expect online communities to be populated by more introverted, nerdier folk. What's going on here?

Maybe online communities are more popular than we give them credit for.

If the more athletic, extroverted sorts of people are now regularly visiting online forums, who's to say that other traditionally non-nerdy cliques of people aren't? And hey, what if this somehow coincided with the generalization - and lost meaning - of the term 'nerd'?

If this is the case, then the internet might be full of scattered and different online communities, functioning in unison but rarely interacting with one another. You might assume that other people around you couldn't possibly be nerdy enough to spend an appreciable time on internet forums, but perhaps those people think the same thing about you. Because of a misplaced sense of self-consciousness, everyone ends up perceiving their online habits as abnormal, and therefore not worth mentioning to other people.

So, if everybody's doing it, then why would anyone be ashamed at all? And what would be the point of online xenophobia if everyone's basically the same as you?

At this point, this is honestly all speculation. This should primarily give you one take-away: There needs to be more research done on how people spend their time online. I'd be curious about how many people would self-report going on forums regularly. I'd be curious about what forums people would admit going to. I'd be curious about what forum audiences overlap with one another. Maybe forums do indirectly interact with one another through the farther-reaching interests of individual members. What is the underlying network among internet communities, anyway?

Until then, perhaps the only way you can get people to open up about their online habits is to give them a sign that it's okay to open up about what they do. To give them a password. To ask them if they're aware.

Or if they have stairs in your house.

Or what time the narwha- okay no, nobody could really say that one. Right?


  1. I think a sizable portion of this idea can be better understood in the framework of Individual knowledge vs mutual knowledge, and how the ways we communicate change within each of those sets.

  2. If I'm understanding your proposition right, then you're suggesting that we could connect separate online communities on where spheres of knowledge overlap, presuming that individuals between those communities are the vehicles for that knowledge?

    I kind of agree with that. But it would be hard to tease out when some bits of knowledge seem near-universal. We couldn't use most memes as trackers, for example.

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