Shortly after noon, James Rutt begins erasing himself.
Rutt, chief executive of Network Solutions Inc., the Herndon-based company that keeps the master directory of Internet addresses, has connected his desktop computer to the Well, a California-based online service that he had used as a virtual corner bar since 1989. He visited daily to chat, joke and spar with members of one of the sharpest communities in cyberspace.
The Well is a talker's paradise, with thousands of discussions grouped under hundreds of topics: politics and media, parenting, cigar, Grateful Dead and sex, and, simply, weird. And Rutt was a huge talker: Contributions from "jimrutt" over the years print out to more than 200 pages.
Anyone who pays a few dollars a month could join the Well and read it all:
The personal postings about Rutt's struggles with what he calls the "battle of the bulge," having dropped from 360 pounds to 180 in 1997: I am now almost exactly half the man I used to be.
What Rutt calls his "Goldwater Republican" politics, with a Limbaugh twist. For Clinton, whom he voted for in 1992, he has no use. It's his character. The guy was a draft dodger, he is a liar, he is a hypocrite . . . Harsh words, especially for an executive at a company that got its prominent role in maintaining many of the essential functions of the Internet directly from the federal government.
And there's that other stuff, like the discussions in the "sex" conference. It's not like those America Online chat rooms that are basically cyber singles bars; like everything else Well-ian, it's about talking, exchanging views, getting off the best lines. But still: taint nuthin' quite like a fat girl with a libido. take one of those over one of them boney old thangs any day.
Now, under his computer screen he has taped a warning: Do you want to see this on MSNBC?
He doesn't. Not there, and not anywhere else either. Since taking over the top spot at NSI in May, he has worried that the rough-edged banter he engaged in as a private person might be too, well, personal -- or even cause trouble -- for the CEO of a prominent corporation, one that maintains a major role in the underlying structure of the Internet and one that has an often-strained relationship with the federal government.
Most top executives of high-profile corporations reveal almost nothing of themselves: We rarely learn more than their public relations team wants us to know. Their scripted public pronouncements hew closely to the company's message of the day. They are opaque.
On the Well, Rutt is virtually transparent.
So he types a simple command -- "mass_scribble" -- and hits the "enter" key, starting a small program. A message on the screen informs him that it is about to delete every message that he has ever contributed and asks, "Are you absolutely sure you want to do this?" Without hesitation, Rutt punches another button and the program begins churning, entering each conference and searching for anything from jimrutt, deleting the text from any that it finds and leaving a one word message: "scribbled."
Ten years. Gone.
When he applied for the top job at NSI, Rutt talked up his participation in such forums as proof that he was the right choice; in his first letter to members of the Internet community as CEO, he bragged that he is a "bona fide 'Net head," not " `a suit' who could just as easily have wound up at a disposable diaper business."
Few senior managers in today's corporations have spent time in online discussions, but Jim Rutt won't be unusual for long. Students now practically live online, as do many younger workers. Web sites such as AltaVista and Deja.com store online postings for years on their own computers. Tomorrow's executives and politicians could be building a record of a new kind of youthful indiscretion: not just who they kissed or what they took, but what they typed.
"The Internet never forgets," said James Alexander, an executive at eWatch Inc., a New York-based company that monitors the Internet for corporate clients.
People need to learn to comport themselves online with the same care that they take in their face-to-face dealings in the real world, suggests Howard Rheingold, author of "The Virtual Community," a meditation on online life. "It's important that people understand the consequences of their online behavior, that something that feels like an informal and ephemeral conversation is actually more permanent, more like publication than conversation," Rheingold says. "We have absolutely no training in how to act in this new social environment, and the result is chaotic."
Already, other workers are finding themselves haunted by their online statements. A Washington area lawyer who works at a regulatory agency but asked that his name not be published dropped out of one heated online debate after a participant threatened by e-mail to send the messages to his superiors: "I don't think it would help your career if I was to dump all this information on somebody you work for . . . If you don't shut up, that's where it's going to go."
"That shut me up," the lawyer said. He abandoned the forum, which focused on free-speech issues. "What I'm afraid of is they would remember that and I would have a black mark." he said. "Maybe I already have a black mark -- I wouldn't know if I do. It might affect what kind of assignments I get or what kind of promotions I'd get."
Experts in employment law say few states protect workers from persecution for their opinions and statements. "In most states most of the time it's perfectly legal to fire people for off-duty behavior that has absolutely nothing to do with their job," said Lewis Maltby, director of the national employment rights office of the American Civil Liberties Union.
Twenty-nine states have passed laws granting some protection to employees for off-the-job actions such as smoking or drinking socially, and only three -- New York, Colorado and North Dakota -- have protections that Maltby considers broad and strong. In the 21 other states, Maltby jokes, "take your passport to work, because you're not an American citizen between 9 and 5."
The Well, at least, offers its members some measure of privacy through a long-standing but somewhat vague policy known as "You Own Your Own Words," posted at the entryway to the system and abbreviated in discussions as YOYOW. Because the Well is built on proprietary software, it also provides latitude to users who want to remove their comments from the discussions -- something that is all but impossible in the broader world of Internet discussions. Rutt said he felt relatively safe there, even in his prior job as a high-level official at Canada's Thomson Corp.
And while pundits often decry the anonymous nature of the Internet -- summed up neatly in the New Yorker cartoon that proclaimed "On the Internet, no one knows you're a dog" -- the Well is one of those places that do not allow anonymous posting; over time, and after reading screen after screen of text, Well denizens "know me better than my next-door neighbor knows me," he says.
Rutt, the son of a D.C. police officer and raised in Prince George's County, had been hooked on the online world since 1980, when he first checked out a fledgling service called the Source on his Apple II+ computer. He eventually decided the Well was a "perfect place to hang out," with a moderate-to-left political ambiance that's different from other online forums, which tend toward the conservative or libertarian. "What do I really want to do -- go someplace where there are a lot of people that agree with me? I like a good fight."
He sits at a massive table in his Herndon office drinking a Mountain Dew, his bushy mustache making him look a little like the mountain man he evokes in his postings about a utopian vision of simple, sustainable living. He settled in Loudoun County with his wife of 18 years in a home heated with a wood stove; he's gained back about half of the weight he had lost by 1997, rendering his frame slightly portly and his smile a touch beaver-ish. Next to his mini-stereo sit CDs by Bruce Springsteen and country singer/Texas songwriter Robert Earl Keen -- artists from different points on the musical spectrum who both know plenty about hard living, hard luck and having fun.
While some on the Well have been outraged by Rutt's take-no-prisoners debating style, at least one member appreciates the wit behind the shouting. "I had him pegged right away -- I could see the grin on his face shinin through the text," Jack King, a D.C.-based Well member who works as senior legal editor at Criminal Justice Weekly, said in an e-mail interview. "He's a funny guy, a kind of right-wing Lenny Bruce with the nerve to stand up and say children should have a mommy and a daddy and guns do too stop crime and what this old Free World needs is a good $15 cigar."
Rutt believes that Internet living will someday be so commonplace that rough discourse might not be held against onliners -- and might even help bring a little more openness and honesty to society. But not yet. "At the end of the day," he says, "the world isn't quite ready for it."
Rutt knows that his postings are about to be used in a news story -- and that these are among the tamer comments. He says he doesn't mind that they will be published in the context of a broader story about online life, even joking that publication of the "fat girl" quip means "I will be overwhelmed with well-padded, high-libido Internet groupies."
In the days following the scribble, he said he received frantic e-mails from a number of people he knows from the Well. They knew of the case of Blair Newman, a Well member whose mass scribble in 1990 preceded his suicide. "Are you okay? Are you okay?" Rutt says, imitating the frantic tone of some of the notes. The Newman suicide, he says, "set this precedent that your virtual-hood and your meat-hood are more linked than they probably should be."
But he wasn't doing himself in, or even going away. After a hiatus that began when he got the Network Solutions job, Rutt returned to posting on the Well last month. He says he will be careful to keep himself out of trouble, avoiding statements about his company that could get him in trouble with the Securities and Exchange Commission, eschewing the truly outrageous and avoiding stands that might cause friction in his company's ongoing relationship with the Clinton administration. In other words, "a persona that's reasonable for a semi-public person."
Still, he says with a smile, "Of all the posts, I'm not sure I wouldn't post any of them today -- though I'm not sure I'd be so explicit about the commander in chief at the moment."