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Cyber Nielsens

In cyberspace, fans go to war
for their favorite programs

By Zack Stentz

Here comes the future, and you can't run from it
If you've got a Web page I wanna be on it.

Billy Bragg, "Waiting for the Great Leap Forward"

IN THE PAST, being passionately enamored of a particular program meant boring friends and co-workers with a blow-by-blow account of last night's episode, perhaps accompanied by sending (probably unanswered) letters of appreciation to the creative minds responsible for putting the beloved show on the air in the first place.

But the emergence of the Internet and online communications has made possible an entirely new range of TV-centered obsessive behaviors, including Web-page building, online fan newsletters, and news and chat group participation. As Marge Simpson put it, "The information superhighway made it possible for all of us to know what some geek thinks of Star Trek."

Sometimes, online fans have even been called upon to defend shows threatened with the Damoclean sword of cancellation, as with 1994's well-organized but failed campaign to save My So-called Life (unfortunately named Operation Rescue).

Of course, the shows themselves under discussion tend to reflect the peculiar likes and dislikes of the mostly male, mostly young online community, and predictably skew toward programs featuring science fiction, animation and silicone-enhanced women.

Baywatch, The X-Files and The Tick all receive much attention in cyberspace (sometimes in conjunction--the denizens of two groups recently engaged in a nasty flamewar over the relative merits of their two favorite Andersons, Gillian and Pamela), but you can look in vain for a Matlock Web page or a newsgroup devoted to The Commish.


MOST FASCINATING, though, are the bitter Internet rivalries that spring up between fans of rival TV shows, and the lengths to which fans go to when fighting each other online. I had the good fortune to stumble on these cyberspace conflicts at the same time as I was reading entomologist Edward O. Wilson's essays on interspecies ant warfare, and was struck by the parallels between the two phenomena.

The mostly college-educated denizens of the Usenet newsgroups probably wouldn't be happy to have their behavior compared to that of nearly mindless six-legged insects, but from enforcing uniform behavior among one's own troops (the lists of Frequently Asked Questions) to launching raids on each others' territory (posting "flames" on enemy Usenet newsgroups) to attacking and defending the rival Queens (the shows' writers), the similarities are impossible to ignore.

Probably the longest-running and nastiest of the TV cyberwars is the continuing battle between those two syndicated space stations, Star Trek: Deep Space 9 and Babylon 5, with each show's partisans displaying a fascinating inability to keep away from their opponents' newsgroups.

An entire subspecies of fan seems to feel fulfilled and at one with the universe only when he (and I do mean he--this seems to be an exclusively male behavior) is busily composing inflammatory "Deep Sleep 9" or "Babble-on, 5" messages and posting them in the newsgroups of the program he hates in hopes of inspiring as many angry rebukes and responses as possible.

Fans of the latter show, in particular, seem seized by a fervor that far outstrips the merits of their rather mediocre program, the cast of which displays a woodenness rarely seen outside of Headwaters Forest (far be it from me to resist the urge to participate in the mudslinging). But just in the way that boring, ascetic Christianity was boosted past its flashier Mithraic and Greco-Roman rivals by resurrections, transubstantiations and other physical manifestations of divinity, so have the Babylon 5 faithful been fortified by the periodic appearances of their beloved deity, series creator J. Michael Stracyncski.

The brain behind the televised Lord of the Rings/H.P. Lovecraft pastiche regularly appears online to pump up his show to fans and explain the last episode's convoluted storytelling and plot implausibilities. It's as if God himself had an AOL account with which to settle doctrinal disputes over predestination and original sin.

Star Trek creator Gene Roddenberry remains unavailable for consultation, at least until someone bothers to run a T-1 network connection to the Hereafter, but Deep Space Nine writer/producer Robert Wolfe has recently started appearing on the alt.tv.startrek-ds9 newsgroup to interact with admirers and detractors alike.

"I've been reading the newsgroup for about a year and a half, and participating for a month or so," Wolfe told me. "I just figured I would have appreciated it when I was younger, being able to ask questions of the writers on my favorite programs."

After dealing with some of the surlier Babblers, though ("They use and abuse science-fiction conventions to the point of making the show look silly and juvenile," one recently wrote), poor Wolfe might wish he had stuck to answering fan questions the traditional way--on the convention circuit from sweaty fat guys in spandex costumes and pointed ears.

Taking a step back from the passionate exchanges over the relative superiorities of acting, writing, and direction, the tenor of much the online exchanges left me feeling drained, depressed and thinking about Wilson again.

Aside from studying ant behavior, that scientist is also a leading proponent of sociobiology, the theory that many animal and even human behaviors such as competition, aggression and altruism are not learned but wired into our very DNA.

I had formerly agreed with Stephen Jay Gould's Marxist critique of sociobiology as offering a superficially reductionist and deterministic view of human nature, but looking at the newsgroups, I'm not so sure. If humans are willing to engage in vitriolic written combat over something as trivial as a TV show, than maybe we're not as far removed from a nest full of stinging fire ants as we'd like to believe.

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From the January 2-8, 1997 issue of Metro

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