Editor's note: Stevan Harnad wrote the following essay in 1987 while at Princeton just as the Internet we know coalesced into being. It describes his first experience with a troll and then a flame war on a USENET bulletin board. I repost it for three reasons: 1) As Clive Thompson put it when he tweeted the essay yesterday, "some things haven't changed!" Which is satisfying to my brain at least. We *have* a culture on this here Internet, for good or ill. 2) Going back to such a finely observed primary document lets us feel the strangeness of the Internet again. This was something new unto the world! 3) I wish Harnad's term for Internet discourse -- skywriting -- had caught on. From his place in cognitive science, he intuited early on that Internet culture was something like a return to oral culture, as you can find summarized in his later paper, "Back to the Oral Tradition Through Skywriting at the Speed of Thought."
I want to report a thoroughly (perhaps surreally) modern experience I had recently. First a little context. I've always been a zealous scholarly letter-writer (to the point of once being cited in print as "personal communication, pp. 14 - 20"). These days few share my epistolary penchant, which is dismissed as a doomed anachronism. Scholars don't have the time. Inquiry is racing forward much too rapidly for such genteel dawdling -- forward toward, among other things, due credit in print for one's every minute effort. So I too had resigned myself to the slower turnaround but surer rewards of conventional scholarly publication. Until I came upon electronic mail: almost as rapid and direct and spontaneous as a telephone call, but with the added discipline and permanence of the written medium. I quickly became addicted, "logging on" to check my e-mail at all hours of the day and night and accumulating files of intellectual exchanges with similarly inclined e-epistoleans, files that rapidly approached book-length.