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JOHN SEABROOK: DEEPER THAN WHAT?

Essay by Caitlin Burke

Deeper: My Two-Year Odyssey in Cyberspace,
published by Simon & Schuster
Buy the book

JOHN SEABROOK GOT ON THE NET IN 1994 -- just before the masses did, he tells us -- and he followed a fairly predictable newbiehood. He got very involved in email, he got the bejesus flamed out of him, he had "cybersex" (no "f2f" encounters, though; he was married after all), and then he found a place where people ended up (mostly) liking him. He also made a homepage, well, he got someone to make it for him (maybe he's doing the updates himself).

John Seabrook had a pretty good gig. A technology correspondent at The New Yorker, he was writing a profile on Bill Gates. He had to wait a couple of months for his appointment, but in the meantime, he thought he'd try his new toys -- a modem and a CompuServe account -- and send the guy some mail. One result was the New Yorker profile "Email from Bill." Another was "My First Flame", published shortly thereafter. The next couple of years went by pretty quickly for John Seabrook, and he sums them up in his book, Deeper: My Two-Year Odyssey in Cyberspace.

After his landmark articles were published in The New Yorker, particularly "My First Flame", Seabrook became a topic on Usenet, where the dominant response seemed to be (as he describes to some extent on the WELL), "Gimme his email address; I'll flame him myself." Seabrook didn't just tell a subject how great his profile would turn out and then brag about it in print, he vastly overreacted to what struck Usenet veterans as a fairly normal, if uninhibited, response to "Email from Bill." And he did it in a way that underlined one of the aspects of email that he himself had remarked on as a drawback: the minimal opportunity cost of bothering someone who really has much better things to do. The relentless cluenessness of Seabrook's paranoia (he thought he got a virus through email -- GOOD TIMES! ensued) is as freshly horrifying today as it was when that issue of The New Yorker was hot off the press.

Deeper uses a frontier motif throughout. Seabrook has read extensively in 19th Century American history, and he has ancestors who homesteaded in "the West." This is clearly comfortable -- and well loved -- territory for him. One of the things he discovers, of course, is that "Cyberspace" is not the West, although eventually he does find a place to call home, a place in the West, even: the WELL Books conference.

Seabrook goes into impressive detail in describing the hostility to his New Yorker articles that he encountered on the WELL. He was described as someone who "stumbles over the complexity of the issues", "communicates [...] in a painfully uninteresting and self-centered way", who is "aggressively and dangerously stupid, not charmingly na´ve." He also goes into depressing detail describing his urge to flame these people, and he returns again and again to his lingering resentment of some of the individuals in question. He admits to a few "boners" in print, but he doesn't seem to understand that regarding him as "aggressively and dangerously stupid" is a sincere and well founded belief among Net-savvy people. So much of this information is so widely available, why does he persist in publishing such basic errors, like listing alt.* as one of the major Usenet heirarchies -- and omitting news.* and talk.*?

I remember encountering him in a WELL topic about Marty Rimm in 1995 and thinking, wow, he read, learned, and evolved, but it turns out he didn't. Deeper is peppered with cutesy IRC-meets-television-news terminology and memes from the WELL that Seabrook makes the mistake of identifying as Net terms in general. And he never even mentions his (IMO) finest moment on the Net: his thoughtful and comprehending participation in the Rimm discussions. I guess a transcript of some cybersex (in which Seabrook spoofs a woman) was more important.

Seabrook still participates in the WELL community, but for him the Net has a number of failings. It's too easy to bother someone you don't know. It's really more about getting attention than getting information. It's a place where the heady collegiality of getting a time-value publication to print simply can't exist. People are meanies there. For every "good" side, there's a "bad" side. Basically, John Seabrook doesn't "get" the Net. It isn't just that he stumbled onto the Infobahn like a typical Delphi refugee. It isn't just that even now, years later, he writes about the hostility he encountered on the Net with a resentment and aggression that seems brand new and almost poignant. It's mostly that he grew up with two paradigms for gathering information -- print and television -- and when the Internet failed to act like a book (or at least a good magazine), he rationalized that it must be a television, only it watches you, too. For John Seabrook, the Net is above all a stage. Retreating into the comfort of an on-line service, Seabrook never went any deeper than that.

Usenet had a low signal-to-noise ratio since long before 1994, but the early Web was a haven of resumes and pictures of regular people and their pets. Seabrook kinda gets this part when he says he tried to avoid the corporate sites and stick with the personal sites, but he only vaguely realizes that the days of "Hey look at me and my hotlist!" Web pages very rapidly gave way to free content in the form of fan pages and resource pages. And I'm not sure the guy who wandered into alt.flame looking for information about flames really understood that Usenet is in fact rife with that free exchange of information, too -- an exchange in which contributing truly is just as important as benefiting from the contributions of others.

There are, of course, many opportunities for collegiality on the Net as well, from the frothing free-for-alls of Usenet (admittedly, not an attractive example, but they sometimes work wonders, as in the remarkable combination of strangers' efforts that unmasked Marty Rimm) to the academic and Web-site collaborations that the Internet has allowed to flourish. (This magazine, for example, is produced on Sundays by two frantic people almost 3,000 miles apart, linked by a MUD session and various FTP, browser, and editor windows. That may seem less authentic to John Seabrook, but it's no less intense for us.)

Seabrook's vision of the Internet is alternately laughable and painful, a patchwork quilt of misunderstanding, narcissism, and occasional flashes of insight. Maybe mentioning the Rimm thread seemed a little too close to his journalist roots, but that represents a major miss, too. Seabrook seems rattled by the cacophony of the Net, which for him distills into flaming. He certainly seems to prefer the relative uniformity of such pay-per-hour services as the WELL. Internet media, with their beguiling ease and ironic immediacy, challenge our abilities to interpret information in a multitude of ways -- even when they're searchable, it's hard to manage the results. Usenet and the Web combine books and television and newspapers and letters-to-the-editor and billboards and folks on streetcorners in a way that sings GIGO louder than just about anything else our culture's technology has offered us. And if that's a bad match for Seabrook's book-paced (hide-bound?) sensibilities, well, sometimes the fault lies not in our stars but in ourselves.

John Seabrook continues to co-host the WELL Books conference, and his most recent New Yorker article is a profile of 15-year old rock guitarist Ben Kweller. No email is quoted in that article.

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