Champagne and Strawberries = Vindication

Or, Have You Hugged a Forum Moderator Today?

Originally published about a decade ago, but still just as true today, if not moreso. “Living well is the best revenge.”

From 1988 until 1994, I was a SysOp (old-fashioned term for “Moderator”) on Genie. Most of you are too young, or too new to high tech even to remember Genie, but for a while there it was a hot competitor of CompuServe, back before there was such a thing as Prodigy or AOL or Earthlink, and long before the days of DSL. (I won’t bore you with those old sob stories about how we chatted on an ASCII text based system at 300 baud and thought it was blazingly fast, or how in the early days of “chat” on CompuServe, it was called “CB” to make clear the similarity to Citizen’s Band Radio, which had been all the rage not so very long before that…)

I was a Senior Assistant in the Writers’ Ink RoundTable. Writing.com is the closest thing I’ve found to such a warm, funny, serious, playful, supportive, argumentative, kind, snide, silly, close-knit community of writers online since Writers’ Ink. It even has the same hierarchy of newbies, old timers, Assistant SysOps, Senior Assistant SysOps, and Head Cheeses (not to be confused with head cheese, most of the time).

This was an unpaid and thankless job, much like I assume being a moderator anywhere is, and mostly a labor of love and addiction. I had assistants reporting to me, and I assure you they were paid every bit as well as I. For the most part, we had a blast interacting with the members of the RoundTable (or “RT” as I shall call it henceforth, to save typing). We ran writing workshops, held online conferences with famous authors (including Anne McCaffrey, Tom Clancy, and Michael Crichton, just to name a few), and we posted endless messages about writing and not writing and ways to avoid both. For kicks on a boring Saturday night, we’d play the online version of “Truth or Dare.” Dares often involved such things as sending the hapless victim over to a serious conference in the Political Science RoundTable with instructions to impersonate a radical left-winger (or right-winger, depending on the night’s topic) or to wander into the Science Fiction and Fantasy RoundTable (our natural rivals, since they laid claim to the SFWA members) and start a virtual food fight while nibbling on pickled alien eggs. Or smack someone with a trout. <:}}||||{{  They think they invented it in the SFRT; I was online the night it all started. I know who smacked who with the first ASCII trout.

Okay, so you had to be there.

Point is, most of the time, we didn’t have “troublemakers.” Troublemakers are rare when they’re paying $6/hour for the privilege of being online at all. All that changed, however, when Genie introduced the $9.95/month all-you-can-eat plan, in competition with Prodigy’s ridiculously cheap offerings and flashy GUI interface.

Suddenly, we had “troublemakers.” We had people who logged on and couldn’t figure out how to log off again. We soon had people who logged on and wrote scripts to keep them from logging off again. (Unlimited bandwidth is nice; however, someone’s got to pay for it, and at this rate, it wasn’t the members. But I digress…) It was all good, until the day I met R.F. I’d love to tell you his real name, but the lawyers won’t let me.

R.F. was bored one sunny Saturday afternoon. (It might’ve been a Sunday, but that’s not important to the story.) R.F. began to post, in the Message Board, “Is anybody online? Wanna chat?” Nothing inherently wrong with that, of course. Except that when he didn’t get an answer quickly, he did it again. And again. And again. In just about every topic on the board. Everyone ignored him, of course. I mean, if you see 100 messages that say “I’m bored, anybody online? Anybody? Wanna chat?” from someone who hasn’t even bothered to introduce himself or join in any of the ongoing conversations, are you gonna bite?

He started posting this in an ongoing, collaborative story that a number of us had been working on for quite some time. And he watched the thread closely; any time a new addition to the story was posted, R.F. would chime in with “Anybody online? Someone talk to me!”

Several of us emailed and explained how the Real-Time Conference Rooms worked. (Every RoundTable had its own RTC “chat” area, and GEnie itself had a whole area devoted to social chit-chat with many, many rooms – much like a tiny version of today’s IRC.) For some reason, though, R.F. had fixated on us.

I was young and stupid then. I dragged R.F. into the RTC chat one afternoon, and spent nearly four straight hours chatting with him, explaining how our little community of writers worked, and giving him hints on how to fit in if he wanted to be a part of it. At that point, I sincerely believed that he was a clueless wonder who genuinely wanted to belong. He even made a little effort at staying on topic and joining in some ongoing conversations in the Message Board. I felt that high that Evangelists must feel upon learning that a sinner has heard their words, seen the light, and converted. Halleluiah!

The next day, I was chagrined to see more drivel from R.F. “Why won’t anyone talk to me?” Fed up, I deleted his messages. He’d been welcomed, cajoled, ignored, warned… well, fuck it. Delete, delete, delete.

Next thing you know, I have mail. R.F. is going to report me to the New York Times, the L.A. Herald, the AP Newswire, CBS, NBC, ABC, the BBC… basically, anyone who’ll listen, and tell them how I’ve single-handedly stomped on, trampled on, mutilated and spindled his First Amendment Right to Freedom of Expression.

Yeah… whatever.

Fortunately for me, I was in law school at the time. I was not a government entity, nor was GEnie a public forum. That pretty much solved that worry. I had the absolute right to delete his ass and even lock him out of the RT, if I chose to be snotty about it. The contract holder for the RT, and GEnie itself, might have something to say about it (along the lines of “be nice to the nasty customer, because he IS a customer”) but basically, R.F. didn’t have a leg to stand on. I wrote back something to the effect of Fine, yeah, you do that – and next time you write to me, please cc: my boss. I’ve already sent him copies of all our previous correspondence.

And then I watched the news just to be sure…

Oh, yes, I did.

Somehow, and I don’t remember all the details now, R.F. managed to make a sufficient nuisance of himself that I ended up having to lock him out of the Writers’ Ink RT altogether. By then, I didn’t even care if my name was on the evening news. I’d had enough. I was tired. I was tired of trying to bring the lost wolf in sheep’s clothing into the fold, and tired of arguing with him about the First Amendment, and tired of being stalked and hounded in the RT at every turn. So I just slammed and barred the door. Next time he logged on, the electronic bouncer kicked him to the curb.

I’d never locked anyone out before. Never. I felt bad. My hands shook. But it was quiet, and things quickly settled back down to normal, and a number of people thanked me for taking decisive action.

Then I got a phone call one morning, on my way to work, from the Boss. Oh, what a softie he was! (This guy had the patience of a saint, I tell you. He’d back his assistants against all comers, but he was always the diplomat.) “I called R.F. on the phone last night. We had a little ‘man-to-man chat,’ and I think he’s straightened out now. He wanted back in, and I really think he understood what was expected of him. I’m confident he’ll behave himself now, so I let him back in.”

What? I thought. Oh, shit on a shingle. “Well, you’re the boss. If you’re sure…” I reminded him that I was going out of town, on a family vacation, and would not have a PC with me. He’d have to keep an eye on things and deal with R.F. personally, in my absence, should he start giving other staff members or member members a hard time.

I called my assistant long distance and explained. I heard a protracted groan on the other end of the line. “You’re kidding, right? They had a ‘man-to-man chat’? Is that even possible with R.F.?”

“Look,” I said, “if anything happens while I’m gone, you guys will have to deal with it. I’m betting R.F. does something to get himself locked out, or at least make S. wish he’d never let him back in, before I get back. And I’m dying to know what that is. So here’s the deal. If S. has to lock R.F. out again, I want you to call our hotel and order a bottle of their cheapest champagne sent to me by room service. That’ll be our code. Since there’s nothing I can do about it from there, I might as well drink champagne and get some kick out of it.”

We got to the hotel about three days later, and there was no message. No champagne greeting upon our arrival. All was well. Or was it?

A couple of hours after checking in, there was a knock on the door. My husband had gone downstairs for a drink with a friend and former coworker, and my daughter and I were getting ready for bed. I pulled a robe around myself and peeked through the peephole. It was about 9:00 PM! Who would be knocking? Ahhhhhh. Yes, room service. A very nicely dressed waiter bearing a silver tray, upon which was a silver ice bucket bearing a bottle of champagne, and – what the hell? A huge, crystal bowl of strawberries. Fresh, luscious strawberries – probably forty of them – each as big as a small plum, and each one utterly perfect and unblemished.

Oh, dear God, what had R.F. done now? There was even a card, “signed” by R.F.!! “Having a grand time, glad you’re not here!” I took the tray, and immediately called my assistant, K.

“Okay, what’s the scoop?”

She laughed and asked me to give her a minute to catch her breath. “Well, the minute R.F. got word you’d left town, he started posting messages all over the board with the lyrics to ‘Ding, Dong, the Witch is Dead!’”

“Hah! But that surely wasn’t enough to get him locked out.”

“No, it should’ve been, but of course it wasn’t.”

“Well, what did it?”

“He posted a message in the main Message Board topic consisting of a thousand blank lines.”

I didn’t get it at first. “1000 blank lines? So? What was the point of that?”

“Think about it. Most of the members log on at 2400 baud or less. At 2400 baud, it takes about 5 minutes for a blank message that size to scroll across the screen. By that time, most people think their PC has just locked up, so they force a disconnect, reboot, and log on again.”

“Oh, God.”

“Wait, it gets better. Because they never finished reading the message, it’s still marked ‘unread.’”

“And it happens again.”

“You got it. People have been calling customer support, thinking it’s a system problem.”

“So S. locked him out?”

“For life.”

“So much for their little ‘man-to-man chat.’ S. must be terribly disappointed.”

“Yeah, he is.”

“Okay, that explains the champagne, but K., what’s with these incredible strawberries??”

“Oh!” K. laughed. “That’s on the house. Paid for by the hotel. When I got room service, I explained the whole story to them. They agreed that the champagne was good vindication, and threw in the strawberries for free!”


Don’t think I learned my lesson. Oh, no. I went on to run a forum on another network, and later took a real, paying job with them as a Product Marketing Manager.

That company went bankrupt four months later. My boss assured me that he wasn’t disappointed in me and that “Jesus Christ himself couldn’t have saved it.”

As if that weren’t enough, I went on to run another forum on the Internet for just over a year, until they realized they didn’t have to actually pay their Moderators – they had people lined up begging to do it for free. (I think the word I’m searching for here is “masochists,” but that would be admitting I was one, wouldn’t it?) There are various reasons for wanting to be a Moderator – some involving “phenomenal cosmic powers!” but most stemming from a much simpler desire to be active and helpful members of a community they’ve come to love.

Would I ever do anything like that again?

Please don’t ask me. I’m weak, and they don’t have a Twelve Step program for online addiction yet.


Ironically, not long after posting this the first time, I was appointed a Moderator on Writing.com (and I still am one there). You just can’t kick some habits.

Send a note of appreciation to your favorite Moderator(s) today. Sure, it’s a prestigious position and lots of fun, most of the time. But if you’ve never been one, you have no idea the shit they put up with and how very much it means to have a little note saying “Gee, you do a great job around here. Keep it up!”

HollyJahangiri

Holly Jahangiri is the author of Trockle; A Puppy, Not a Guppy; Innocents & Demons; and A New Leaf for Lyle. You can find her books on Amazon at http://amazon.com/author/hollyjahangiri. For more information on her children's books, please visit http://jahangiri.us/books.

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4 thoughts on “Champagne and Strawberries = Vindication”

  1. LOLLOL – I ran a classic rock music board called rock-talk.us for years. It’s amazing what “anonymity” does to some folks. But all-in-all it was a fun time for most – if not all – of the regulars – even the SCREAMERS were kinda fun.

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