Jeff Schult and Nicole Chardenet

If "A celebrity is one who is known to many persons he is glad he doesn’t know," as H.L. Mencken once put it, an Internet celebrity is best described as "A famous life-form known to many persons who are deeply sorry they ever heard his name." While some would wonder if an Internet celebrity is Courtney Love or Larry Pournelle masquerading behind some anonymous numerical Compuserve address, Internauts know the most famous names in Net culture are the ones that prove no matter how pathetic your so-called life is, you too can find enduring legend by sheer virtue of being the most obnoxious person in cyberspace.

The contentious collection of loud and sometimes exceedingly raucous newsgroups on Usenet demonstrate that the most efficient way to do this, of course, is to post your insane views to one newsgroup and then cross-post to at least twenty others having nothing to do with, say, your belief that the dreaded Toronto Cabal is out to persecute you. Canadian Bob Allisat invaded an Australian newsgroup, and then cross-posted everywhere else to enlighten Netizens with his bizarre views on politics, Internet censorship, and the environment. But he’s also convinced that a group of Toronto Internet service providers are out to control his life, and perhaps not-so-coincidentally, a real-life international cabal of outraged Usenetters has formed for that very purpose. Toronto is, incidentally, the alleged "Net Kook capital of the world," according to the Australian web site "Net Kooks" by Morris Jones.

"False Christian Scum" may remember fundamentalist Steve Winter from his North Carolina Pre-Rapture BBS when he cut his holy molars on Fidonet, from which he got banned twice and which only grudgingly took him back after threats of lawsuits, a tradition he’s continued on the Internet. (Were Winter not already a Christian, he would make an excellent Scientologist.) So many people dislike the raving reverend’s one-man jihad against anyone he considers a false Christian—and that seems to include damn near everybody--that False Winter Scum forge messages by him and send them off to newsgroups populated by innocent Christians, neo-pagans, atheists, New Agers, and anyone else discussing religion, making it difficult to tell the difference between forgeries and the One True Steve Winter diatribes.

His harassment of alt.org.promise-keepers has resulted in that group going moderated, essentially run by a designated leader whose job it is to filter out unwanted kook spam like Winter’s; regulars on Christnet groan to see his name; and he’s attempted to sue several Internet providers who canceled his account after his continuous net abuse. Winter claims, naturally, that his on-line notoriety stems from religious persecution: "A certain group of net scum have created that image…The depth of human debris and religious filth who comprise my antagonists, and their tactics, should tell you something that I perceive that you are overlooking entirely. Why do you perceive that they feel the need to censor me? Could it be that I am exposing the false Christian filth from their own Bibles?"

It’s the sort of thing that makes you click your tongue disparagingly and spit, "God, do these people have any life at all?" While a real-life celebrity is admired for his looks or her talent or some heroic effort performed, Net celebrities are almost always the sort of people you just know never had a date for the prom and got a lot of wedgies in high school.

Home-grown Yankee Steve Boursy first drew attention on the New England hierarchy of political groups, where he’s earned the reputation as a "plug-puller" by complaining about posters who disagree with him to their employers, sometimes successfully getting their accounts pulled. It’s earned him the dubious honor of his own newsgroup, alt.fan.speedbump. (The nickname Speedbump allegedly originated with the signature file of someone whose account Boursy once got canceled. The offended party offered the standard disclaimer thereafter that opinions expressed therein were not necessarily those of his employer, and that "Anyone who does not understand this without explicit statement should consider a new career as a Speed Bump.")

But Sanford Wallace, entrepreneur of the endlessly irritating CyberPromotions, founding member of the Internet E-mail Marketing Council and the reigning king of Spamelot, earns his Netoriety not in Usenet but with the bandwidth-wasting junk e-mails he promotes despite widespread hatred on the Net. He claims that CyberPromotions does remove peoples’ names from mailing lists when requested, a contention critics dispute. "I’m a self-proclaimed nice guy," he says, "but what we do is market over here, and a lot of people just hate the way we market." "Spamford" denies allegations on the Web that his company Promo Enterprises was largely responsible for the passage of the "junk fax" law, although he admits "we can probably take responsibility for the reason why e-mail is being discussed in Congress." He claims he’s about to unveil a new global remove filtration system shortly which will allegedly make it easier to get removed from the numerous domains, pseudo-domains and other untraceable origins of much of his customers’ annoying spam.

But how can anyone possibly sell anything this way? "The truth of the matter is, some people are very responsive to this type of advertising, and third party research has indicated that 7% love to receive this and 43% hated it," he says. "For the direct marketer, a 7% response rate is considered very good." It costs one-one hundredth the price of direct snail mail, for which the average return is 1%, or 2% on a very successful campaign.

Having to out-obnoxious clearly more seasoned pros doesn’t bode well for our dream of becoming famous on the Net—which admittedly is largely due to our never having annoyed anyone sufficiently. Although recently an acquaintance e-mailed us asking if, as "Internet gods," we could find on the Web a Chinese baby for less than $20,000, which is what she was quoted by a central Connecticut adoption agency. Gee, you think we’ll get famous if we advertise on all eighty million Usenet groups for a bargain-basement Chinese baby?

Jeff Schult and Nicole Chardenet, who will surf the cybermalls for a blue-light special on Oriental infants, can be reached at jeffbot at this domain

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