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March 02, 2005

Keep the Forum Civil (fiction)

I honestly don’t know if I will do many fiction pieces on this site. This piece was written for a message board I frequent, and appeared today in their creative writing forum.

“They gave me no choice,” Witop said, swinging his feet up onto a corner of the battered old classroom desk. “None at all. The state cut back funding, and so the university made commensurate cuts. We got this project through Poli-Sci research funding, originally, and add-on funding from Psych and History. Everybody got cut. We're done as of the end of classes, today.”

The six students in the front row were never shy, but Halyer was the first. He always was, the idealist bleating in the dark. “What about interim funding?”

Witop shrugged at him, holding Halyer’s gaze like a cobra does a mouse. “With what? The ads we started running? Oh, it's true — we do pay our bandwidth bills. Barely. But we got to be a victim of our own success. The more people who signed on as members, the more page-hits we got. The more hits, the more bandwidth we used.”

Shoulders, the capitalist: “Weren’t the ads pro-rated, based on hits?”

“Some advertisers were, yes. Others don’t, on the bulk-rate plan.” Witop sighed. “In the end, we were losing money. Everything we had from the college was going into stipends, for you people to act as forum moderators. Because of the 24-hour nature of message boards, the dean could see that part. What he can’t see is paying monthly fees to the present web host. Either we do it on the cheap, through Computer Sciences — and give it away who we really are — or we give it up entirely.”

Shoulders again: “What if we voluntarily take a cut in stipends, to cover bandwidth?” Three of the others turned on their seats and stared at him. Shoulders sank back on his own, defeated.

Witop was regretful but brisk. “It wasn’t much of a stipend, but it helped with course fees and the like. I’m sorry. The dean’s mind is made up. I’m supposed to pull the plug, before they end their business day over there.” Witop glanced at the classroom clock. “Make that an hour from now.”

“It's been fun,” Amber said brightly.

Ever the optimist in real life. Witop nodded cheerily. “That it has.” He grinned. “And you were good as the wicked witch.”

She grinned back. “I hated myself, most of the time. God, what a bitch she was!” The rest of the team laughed, nodding. She had been all of that, a 19-year-old white Jewish American Princess who’d successfully bamboozled 4,719 message board members into thinking she was Spicer, a black retired mail-carrier who hated the world as much as herself.

“So what now?” Dunn asked, from over in the corner.

“We pack our toys and go home,” Halyer said darkly. Everyone smiled. It was his last shot at playing Thompson, the other forum doomsayer. “We go on-line and threaten to kill each other, and—”

“No,” Witop said quickly. “Dean's orders. Straight from the man himself. The site shuts down without notice. These things happen. It won’t be the first time.” Witop popped the top on his laptop computer and then fired it up, watching the desktop icons cascade into place. “If the truth be told, I think the dean is afraid of what you’d say. That someone would give it away, we were just a lab experiment.”

Finally the FORUM icon came up and Witop clicked on it, opening the folder with other icons, the shortcut to the message boards themselves and the route to his administrative panel controlling the whole set-up. “I was just learning how to block by IP number, too,” he drawled, and several people laughed. “But you have to admit, banning the trolls by their e-mail addresses let the worst ones come back in, and gave the rest of you something to talk about.”

“Not to mention us,” Dunn said, “when things got slow. I must have burned up a hundred screen names, in six months alone.”

“Didn't we all,” Witop said. “We’d scarcely get a handful of posts, and then ‘admin’ would have to ban you. Jessica Mitford would have loved that one, eh? The American way of cyber message board death.” He entered the admin password and opened the control panel. A few keystrokes later it was done, no more posts allowed from anyone except himself.

Witop stared down at the screen, then back up at these reluctant cyberwarriors, the core of people he had recruited from two Poli Sci classes to help him run this message board. At first they’d created all the posts, until Witop learned about web advertising and then the “civilians” showed up. Now there were 4,719 registered members — and now with one keystroke he’d just locked them all out.

“I want you to know that I think all of you did excellent work on this,” he said frankly. “It's not easy pretending to be so many people. At least, doing it convincingly. Opposite genders, political parties — religions as well. I’m giving all of you an A+ for the course. It was a real hardship on some of you, keeping the late hours.”

“Pizza and coffee helps!” Dunn said.

“More like beer,” Amber said archly. “That thread you started about legalizing incest was pretty whacked-out.”

“Please!” Witop said, cutting it off. Everyone laughed. That one had gone to the Dean’s Office, after the web host at the time had cut them off from service, based on a dozen complaints from legitimate users. It had taken one of the geeks in Computer Science to straighten that one out, somehow erasing various archived copies of that thread which appeared in several sites around the Internet. Then they’d had to rebuild their audience at the new web host, another six months of hard work these kids had all performed so well.

“It’s better this way,” Witop assured them. “If they can’t post, they can’t complain. We just fade away into the ether.”

He swung his feet down off the desk and stood up and stretched, a short man with a big belly and far too much hair for a man in his late fifties. “Anyway,” he drawled, “it's been fun, but I’ve got a meeting in 20 minutes. Thank you again for all your work.”

And after ten minutes more of small-talk, they finally all left the Poli Sci 413 classroom, leaving Witop alone with the faint hum of the wall clock and some vague noise through a partially-opened window. He listened for a moment and then caught the thump of a marching-band bass drum. God save them, the band was better than the team.

He sat back down at his laptop and now called up another shortcut in the admin folder, the one linking him to the control panel for one of the two new web-hosts. A few minutes later he had completed the shift, transferring the existing web site to a third new server and host. At most, the civilian users had been inconvenienced for about five minutes. Witop then opened the panel for the second site, this present one they’d all been using. He found the section for banning people by their IP-numbers, then cut-and-pasted a list of numbers from a document on his desktop. ENTER.

Done. The PS413 team could go to the IP number they’d all been using, but all they’d get would be simple 404 message, the page could not be found. Regular users — the civilians — would click on their own link and see the same message board, but never know they’d been rerouted, pointing them to this third and newest site. Witop smiled, hunched over his keyboard. If any of the PS413 kids ever tried entering the forum name and not using their IP-number connection, then there’d be questions. Better start hatching answers, in that unlikely possibility. Maybe a name-change. Turn it into a poll among the civilian users, drawing a few of them in as moderators in the process.

Witop thought a moment and then started a new thread on the old board in its new location.

Due to the severe arguments between certain longstanding members of this forum, I have made the decision to sever their memberships, forthwith. Those names will appear in black on your screen, as I complete the banning process. Please keep the board civil.

ENTER. SEND. Shut down the control panel. He’d have time tonight to actually ban all the screen names and e-mail addresses for the kids in this class . Witop clicked one more icon and now was in the hated Outlook Express mail system that his biggest advertising client preferred.

OK, it’s done, he wrote. They think we’re shut down. I’ll kill their accounts, tonight, to be sure, and upload the new ads for you. Witop out.

He stretched again and powered down the laptop.

The site was now making over $250 a day in advertising revenue, not just covering bandwidth. Nice change for the product of someone else’s work, play-acting they were other people, on the anonymous and creative World Wide Web.

Witop was humming as he shut the laptop lid and got up again. Time to go talk to the dean again, this time about running a small-business site.

Posted by Weaselteeth at March 2, 2005 10:45 PM