I got an official-looking e-mail message the other day from America Online. The company informed me that it had "received a report regarding a violation" committed by me on Oct. 2, 1999, at precisely--it nailed this to the second--"10:34:12 PM EST." AOL noted that a record of the infraction had been "placed on the account."
Any current or former grade-schooler understands the icy fear that seized me. A hall monitor had turned me in, and the crime had been entered on my Permanent Record.
The complaint detailed the nature of my malfeasance with unnerving specificity, but it didn't have to. I knew what I had done, and I knew when I had done it.
Here is what had happened:
Some days before, I had signed on to an AOL sports chat room. It was my first time in a chat room of any sort. Basically, chat rooms are electronic free-for-alls in which enthusiasts converse on a designated subject in real time. The chat room I had signed on to was for NFL football.
I watched, benumbed, as the messages rolled by, without beginning or end, nearly one per second. The rules of the chat room encourage superficiality, because no comment can be longer than 92 keystrokes. So I expected superficiality. Still, I was not prepared for this:
You cant be serrious, you moron.
Broncos is GIRLS WEARING BRA'S AND PAINTIES.
Jets rule. Patriouts suck!
GIANTS NEED A RUNNIG BACK WHOSE FAST.
Giants will loose today!
There was no actual "chat." It was mostly people hurling syntactically mangled opinions and accusations.
There was a dreadful fascination to this. It was not like rubbernecking at a car accident, exactly. It was equally repellent, but more inane. It was like watching a moose attempt to mate with a tractor.
Perhaps I should have quietly backed out of the room. That would have been the prudent thing to do. And, frankly, the decent and reasonable thing to do. It was only a football chat room, after all, and the people in it seemed perfectly happy in their play.
But . . . something . . . drew . . . me . . . in.
I found myself reaching for the keyboard. I found myself typing:
Anyone a fan of latter 19th-century French impressionist painters?
I'm not sure what I was trying to do, exactly. Strike a blow for American culture, maybe. Stir the pot. Have some fun.
There was no reaction. The flow of banality was not stanched.
I tried again:
Boris Pasternak rules!
Anyone here concerned about the situation in East Timor?
I worry about blurring of fact & fiction in E. Morris' biography of Reagan. Agree? Disagree?
These, too, drowned, though someone did ask:
Hey, what's YOU'RE problem?
I saw he was right. I was being hostile. This embarrassed me a little. I was about to retreat when something interesting happened. The boss of the chat room (many AOL chat rooms have volunteer "hosts" who police the room for dirty words, etc.) ominously informed all participants that there was a way to eliminate from their screens the words of any person they found annoying.
I was pretty sure he meant me.
Now that steamed me. I typed: Are you all idiots? Is there intelligent life out there?
And then something bad happened. The host went a step further: He muzzled me. I could still see my messages on my screen, but no one else could see them on theirs. I felt like Reagan, when his mike was turned off at that debate. No, worse. I was Bobby Seale, gagged at his own trial, trussed in his chair like a raw chicken.
Before gagging me, the host had suggested I download AOL's Terms of Service Agreement, which I later did. Mostly, it prohibits vulgarity, hate language, specific "anatomical sexual references" and other objectionable discourse, but there is also a section about "off-topic" chat, which is deemed disruptive. Among the off-topic chat specifically forbidden is . . . "discussion of or complaints about AOL Terms of Service policies, discussion of and/or complaints regarding freedom of speech issues . . . ."
The gauntlet. Hurled at my feet.
Suddenly, I became Thomas Aquinas, John Locke, Henry David Thoreau. I began to practice chat room civil disobedience, elbowing my way into various sports rooms, issuing similar "off-topic" messages, all about literature, art and politics.
It was after one of these chats that I received the AOL e-mail, warning me that further violations could result in termination of my AOL membership. The unnerving part was that the letter quoted my transgressions, saved by AOL and sent back to me:
Hooray for Jean-Paul Sartre.
Yaaaaay E.L. Doctorow!
I like Kafka! Anyone with me?
I was just hoping to get someone here a little embarrassed by the level of discourse.
I phoned AOL and talked to a spokesman, Rich D'Amato, who said my main offense had been disrupting the chat room with material "not germane" to the topic. (This was interesting. Here is a company that has not yet figured out a foolproof way to prevent me from getting unwanted e-mail solicitations for XXX Pre-Teen Pee-Orgy Freaks!! XXX but that will resolutely defend me from unwanted intellectual advances.)
D'Amato said my comments might have been considered germane if they had occurred naturally. For example, if I had been in a college football chat room and typed that I had read a biography of Bear Bryant, he said, the talk might naturally flow to "literature."
Bingo. If AOL wanted germane, I would give them germane.
During a pro football chat, I read a message about a team's propensity to punt, and responded thus:
Punting reminds me of boats, which remind me of rivers. We should save the rain forests, yes?
The AOL host warned me that I was being naughty.
Then, in response to a comment about sportscasters, I noted that TV commentary reminded me of Van Gogh, because of the unrestrained and arguably excessive use of color. I asked if there were any Van Gogh fans around.
The host put the muzzle on me.
Last weekend, I signed onto another sports chat room. This was during the game between the Dallas Cowboys and the Philadelphia Eagles. At one point, someone reported that Cowboy star receiver Michael Irvin had sustained what appeared to be a devastating spinal cord injury. One chat room participant, who was not a Cowboys fan, gleefully suggested Irvin might die. Someone else boarded that bandwagon.
I typed what I thought was the most germane comment possible:
Does anyone here believe in God?
There was a momentary cessation of chatter.
"I do," someone said. Then another.
Then someone named Lou responded impassionedly that he believed in the holiness of Jesus Christ. He said it twice.
The AOL Host warned him he was violating the Terms.
Lou kept sending messages about Jesus. Other people online were complaining about him, and baiting him, but Lou was undeterred. He wrote that he believed Jesus was a sports fan. He said Jesus had actually accompanied him to a game. Lou was pretty smart, and funny.
The Host threatened to gag Lou.
I scribbled down what Lou wrote next, verbatim: I will leave if you can't say the holy name of Jesus Christ, who created us so we could watch football.
The Host gagged Lou.
I protested, loudly and repeatedly, that Jesus is sports talk. I pointed out that athletes are always crossing themselves, and otherwise invoking the Almighty.
So then The Unheavenly Host gagged me, too.
What are we to make of this?
On the one hand, you can take the position that AOL has the right to police its chat rooms as it wishes, and that if people want to communicate in grunts and monosyllables, that is their right, too. This would be the pragmatic and reasonable stance.
On the other hand, you could contend that if society willingly cedes its sports chat rooms to the rabble, it is only a matter of time before our libraries will shelve only comic books and our opera houses will schedule entire seasons of pro wrestling. You could argue that it is the duty of every American to resist this small incursion with all his energy. This would be the elitist, pretentious, obnoxious position.
Like Thoreau and Aquinas and Locke before me, I take up pen and wonder aloud:
What if on any given day--today, perhaps--many people with good grammar and spelling signed on to AOL sports chat rooms? And what if they--through the power of their thoughts, nothing else--wrested control of the rooms, for just one night? Would it not be possible to do this without violating the Terms of Service Agreement, by talking about sports at such an elevated level, and with such insight, that the discourse would become downright . . . cultured?
And what if everyone did this at the same time tonight?
Say, 10 p.m.?
Gene Weingarten is a writer and editor in The Post's Style section.