Before there were Internet forums, there were newsgroups on Usenet.
Before there were trolls, there were “flamers.”
And before all of these things, there were cats — because this is the Internet, and the cat is its spirit animal.
What many contemporary Internet users forget (and what’s worth remembering on International Cat Day, which, FYI, is today) is that the Web’s earliest cat lovers were also some of its earliest high-profile victims of harassment and trolling. They were also, incidentally, some of its earliest advocates for reform.
First, a quick history lesson! The world wide web, as we currently know it, didn’t arrive until 1991. But before then, as early as 1980, people could exchange news and messages over a forum-like system called Usenet. Most of these early adopters belonged to academic, governmental or industrial institutions — think grad students or HP employees. But the fact that these people were technologically minded did not prevent them from having other interests: By the early ’90s, Usenet had more than 4,000 newsgroups — and one of the popular pet groups was about cats.
This group, rec.pet.cats, generally discussed mundane topics like veterinarians or cat-feeding routines. But in 1993, something changed. Trolls from another newsgroup, alt.tasteless, flooded the warm-and-fuzzy forums with truly gruesome stories about killing and torturing cats. Many of their posts are still archived via Google Groups.
One woman, posting in rec.cats under the misleading subject line “Family problems with cat,” went on to relate an awful — and hopefully fake — account of her 10-year-old son killing the family pet and eating its innards. (“Getting REALLY fed up with weird a–h—- on the Internet,” responds one user, in August 1993.)
Another poster, purportedly an undergrad math student in Ontario, complained that his cats had kittens and he needed a good way to kill them. Users suggested electrocuting them or burying them alive. (“Please, tell me this is a sick joke,” one woman wrote. It was.)
In another thread, later in ’93, a man embarked on a lengthy, inflammatory investigation of what drugs cats can and cannot eat. The man’s signature line — because everyone had a signature line in the early ’90s — included the phrase “a good cat is a dead cat.”
There were death threats. Impassioned debates about the extent of the First Amendment. Promises to deliver Usenet postings to local Humane Societies, system admins and “postmasters” — you know, that gloriously antiquated term for the people who run e-mail servers. Earnest questions about cat allergies or pet food quickly devolved into flame wars; flame wars frequently grew personal, political or violent.
“I got mail from people telling me that they wanted to cut me up with knives, that they were going to tie me up and watch me squeal like a pig,” one cat-lover, Karen Kolling, told Wired in 1994. “I got one message where the guy had enclosed my work address.” She got phone calls, too — anonymous phone calls in which the caller said nothing, just listened to Kolling panic.
Stories like this aren’t terribly unusual now, of course: Trolling is a given on most Internet forums, uncivil discourse is generally the comment-section standard, and the kind of harassment Kolling faced is well-documented across a range of social media platforms — if, in general, not well-addressed.
The amazing thing is that, in 1993, Kolling could actually do something about it: She reported the most malicious users to their Internet-providers, who threatened to suspend their accounts. Perhaps more incredible is the fact that, since then, the character of Internet discourse hasn’t much changed.
“This whole thing says something interesting about the character of the Internet,” Kolling said at the time. “There are folks who think the Internet is like the Wild West, where there are no rules and you can do anything.”
An apt criticism in 1994 — and 2014, too.