21st: Let's Get This Straight

Let's Get This Straight columnist Scott Rosenberg traces the travels of a list of humorous haikus from the pages of Salon to anonymous e-mails all across the Net

By Scott Rosenberg
Published February 25, 1998 1:00AM (UTC)
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By now we've all heard and digested the aphorism that "information wants to be free." It's no longer much of a surprise when "information" created by a real writer with a name and a face turns up on the Net's newsgroups and mailing lists in anonymous form. This happened recently, for instance, to Salon cartoonist Tom Tomorrow, whose surreally hilarious recasting of the Monica Lewinsky affair in Dr. Seuss doggerel started circulating widely earlier this month -- shorn of any attribution. (Tom posted a note about the situation -- to forestall being accused of plagiarizing his own work!)

Still, information's new freedom -- hell, its profligacy and libertinism -- can still take one aback. Consider the case of Salon 21st's Haiku Error Messages -- a hugely popular installment of our 21st Challenge contest series that inundated us with hundreds of entries. We posted the results on Feb. 10. A week later, Charlie Varon -- who with his writing partner, Jim Rosenau, creates and judges the Challenge -- received an e-mail from his brother-in-law containing the entire list of error message haikus. Charlie's relative had received the haikus -- stripped not only of any reference to where they'd originally appeared but also of the individual names of their authors -- from a humor mailing list; oblivious to their origin, he thought they'd make a good idea for a new 21st Challenge contest.

Now, if you've been online more than a nanosecond you know that funny stuff will make the rounds on the Net and there's nothing anyone can do about it: It's too easy to press the "forward" button; there are too many newsgroups and mailing lists; office life is often so dull that we grasp at any amusing diversion. Furthermore, as last summer's "Kurt Vonnegut" graduation speech incident showed, funny writing will circulate much faster if you remove the original byline and append that of some beloved popular author.

Nobody claimed that our haiku error messages were written by Kurt Vonnegut. But somewhere along the line in the first couple of days after we posted our contest results, somebody did cut and paste them into an e-mail -- and laboriously removed the names of each haiku's author. Information, apparently, also wants to be anonymous.

Within 48 hours of our Web page's posting, the error haikus were hopping from mailing list to mailing list and newsgroup to newsgroup. They wound up on alt.support.headaches, misc.fitness.weights, rec.arts.poems, alt.fan.tom-robbins and alt.fan.pratchett (where the poster announced she'd "nicked these from a professional list I subscribe to"). Sometimes they were credited to Salon, but the original removal of the writers' names was never remedied.

Though it'd be easy to fulminate about the evil practice of grabbing copyrighted material and reposting it across the Net, it'd also be futile. And though Salon would certainly prefer that folks read what we publish on Web pages that we serve, we aren't likely to sic lawyers on people who recirculate our material when they're not doing it for a profit.

What still puzzles me is the motivation of the original poster, the ur-copyist who carefully excised the names of the haiku writers. Why take the extra time to, uh, anonymize these ditties? Was he concerned that leaving the names in would somehow make him more culpable for his little act of information liberation? Would the names interfere with readers' enjoyment of the humor? Or did he just want the haiku to look like instant Net folklore?

Of course, the deeper you dig into a story, the more ambiguous everything gets. In the course of researching this column my searches turned up an example of an error message haiku that predates our contest. This version of a "404 File Not Found" message was posted to a mailing list in 1996 (it originated at a server at MIT):

I ate your Web page.
Forgive me. It was juicy
And tart on my tongue.

Honest, no one at Salon was aware of this page's existence until yesterday. But given this evidence, we can hardly claim to be the first to conceive of this delightful form. Nonetheless, just as we have linked here to our MIT source, simple courtesy suggests that you tip your hat to the creator of something that charms you enough to want to share it with your friends. The same technology that makes it so easy to forward funny tidbits makes it just as easy to preserve their credits.

Come to think of it, "Information wants to be free" didn't just spring out of the anonymous ether. It seems to have been first used -- or at least first committed to print -- by Stewart Brand in his 1987 book "The Media Lab": "Information wants to be free because it has become so cheap to distribute, copy, and recombine -- too cheap to meter." There is a corollary, too, often forgotten by those who quote the line: "[Information] wants to be expensive because it can be immeasurably valuable to the recipient."

I won't presume to know whether our error message haikus themselves want to be free or expensive, anonymous or attributed. But if you receive them from a mailing list, tell the forwarder that you know where these poems live and who wrote them, would you?

Scott Rosenberg

Salon co-founder Scott Rosenberg is director of MediaBugs.org. He is the author of "Say Everything" and Dreaming in Code and blogs at Wordyard.com.

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