The Medium & the Message
(hennhaus: Hard Baud)

(Originally published April 3, 1997)

The Medium & the Message

The name she used was ‘Barb’, and she was a thorn in my side.

“Hello,” she’d say, “this is Barb.”

It was a fairly innocuous greeting — certainly not offensive — but cause nonetheless for panic when we heard it. We’d estimated that Barb was perhaps twelve years old, and it was for this reason alone that we kicked her off the system countless times during our shifts. For a twelve-year-old, she was remarkably tenacious.

Telephone ‘chat-lines’ are little more than glorified phone-mail systems run by computer software, storing voice into memory and awaiting touch-tone input at prompts. The public greetings of those currently online, such as Barb’s ‘hello,’ were what other users would use as criteria in determining if they wished to send a recorded response to the greeter — or if they wanted to send a ‘live chat’ request.

As system operators, these greetings were what we endlessly cycled through in determining their validity or suitability. We disconnected users whose greetings contained profanity, or whose intent was left little to the imagination. We disconnected men on the women’s line — women used the system free — and the occasional woman (despite her having paid) from the men’s line. More commonly, however, we removed under-aged girls from the system; most commonly, it seemed, Barb. Under-aged males were by comparison rare; the payment process aided in weeding them out.

An under-age girl on the system was dangerous; men who were paying a set sum for each minute of access had just cause to complain after discovering they’d invested ten of those minutes talking to someone currently in grade seven. A far greater danger, however, was the possibility of no complaint whatsoever — that the arrangement was deemed acceptable by the parties. And thus we were vigilant.

There is danger, too, on the ‘Net. Some time ago, a boy in the States killed his parents because they cut off his Internet access. A woman specifically sought out and found someone on the ‘Net who would bind her up and kill her. A man and a woman — though the ‘woman’ was a man — met online, and then in person, to carry out a suicide pact. At least one of the 39 Heaven’s Gate suicides was drawn into the cult by its Web page. Women at three universities received anonymous death threats from a 21-year-old student who — happily — was caught and charged with uttering death threats, extortion and mischief.

A policeman investigating the man-transvestite suicide pact blamed the Internet for their deaths; they wouldn’t have met, otherwise. True, but had the ‘Net not been available, they would have used other media to seek out same-minded individuals, as would the woman who wished to be murdered. Patricides and matricides have historically occurred for markedly petty reasons. The bulk of most cults’ members are initiated through personal contact, rather than through advertising. Anonymous death threats, too, long antecede the Internet, though the ‘Net — as does a photocopier — enables multiple recipients.

The ‘Net expands communications, but no matter what medium is used, the communicants are sometimes dangerous.

On one shift, an operator confided to us that she’d heard a young girl accessing another company’s telephone chat-line had met a man and he had killed her. We shuddered.

“Hello,” said a voice through my headphones, “this is Barb.”

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Copyright © 1997, 2006 by John Rudzinski. Note the date the column was originally published; any links contained therein are probably outdated.
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