"msgs: Messages"

by Benjy Feen


Calvin: I used to hate writing assignments, but now I enjoy them. I realized that the purpose of writing is to inflate weak ideas, obscure poor reasoning, and inhibit clarity. With a little practice, writing can be an intimidating and impenetrable fog! Want to see my book report?
Hobbes: "The Dynamics of Interbeing and Monological Imperatives in Dick and Jane : A Study in Psychic Transrelational Gender Modes."
Calvin: Academia, here I come!

People talk about cyberspace as if it were the future, but cyberspace is here -- this is it. People live online in this world, and make friends there, and work there and play there.

Amy Bruckman

These pages are ©1997 Benjy Feen. Reproduction without permission is expressly denied.

msgs: Messages

In the late summer of 1996, a conferencing system called msgs (pronounced "messages") was developed on a privately owned Linux computer system on the Internet. In the eight months which followed, over 14,000 messages were sent, sometimes 200 or more a day. The bulk of these messages were posted by a total of 17 frequent users (defined as users whose total number of messages accounts for at least 100 messages, or about .7% of the total). Four of these users are responsible for over 1000 messages each; two of these are nearing 2000. Clearly, msgs has something to offer. Being one of the users, I have some insight into the salient qualities of the system, but the sheer bulk of the text makes analysis both fascinating and frustrating. In this work, I hope to examine msgs as both a social phenomenon and an application of computer-mediated communication.

The Software

Msgs is actually composed of two programs: "msgs," the original program, and "vmsgs," a more visually-oriented full-screen version.


Msgs is a very simple program: it simply displays messages one after another, pausing after the header is displayed to allow the user to decide whether to view that message based on its length and subject matter:

Message 14156:
From techno Sun May 11 16:12:04 1997
Subject: the end of p-chem and biochem
(4 lines) More? [ynq]
Hitting the return key displays the message itself and goes on to the next one:

Message 14156:
From techno Sun May 11 16:12:04 1997
Subject: the end of p-chem and biochem
(2 lines) More? [ynq]
I feel drained. And hungry.
Message 14157:
From chakha Sun May 11 16:32:10 1997
Subject: Feeling a little. Y'know.
(7 lines) More? [ynq]
To write a new message, the user types msgs s, enters the subject of the messages, and then types the text. The program automatically adds the time and date information.


Vmsgs is a much more sophisticated program: it uses a full-screen menu-based environment, indexing and displaying message information to allow the user to scroll among the available messages or read them one-per-page.

The screen also updates itself as new messages arrive. For this reason, many users start vmsgs and leave it running in a window while working.

Vmsgs also features a sophisticated reply system similar to that used in Usenet newsreaders, allowing the user to quote previous messages in their own entries, or reply by e-mail instead of publicly. Some users prefer the original version to vmsgs because the full-screen mode encourages verbosity:

Damn new fangled vmsgs, it's destroying the legacy
by allowing big posts. Posts are supposed to be small
and mindless, a screen long if you have something
absolutely crucial to say.

The Users

The 17 frequent users of msgs break down into three groups:

Most of the UIUC students know one another, and see each other on a fairly daily basis. Only one of the Bryn Mawr students knows any of the UIUC users, and of the four Chicago residents, one knows only one UIUC student, while the others know most of the UIUC students and visit on a fairly regular basis.

This breakdown explains relatively little about the posting frequency of the users; the more illuminating fact about the users is that fifteen of them work in computer technical support positions which require them to sit at a computer for several hours a day. Many of them use msgs as a time-filler, especially the seven who work as "help desk" consultants -- a job notorious for being both boring and high-stress. These users welcome any break from routine: as one user said,

Message 3:
From bucky Sun Aug 18 00:09:35 1996
Subject: Third msg!

Woo hoo!
Now I have a better way to screw around
while at work...

The users tend to be very computer-savvy (8 of them are UNIX system administrators) and politically left of center. Only one is neither enrolled in a college nor a graduate. Most of the users grew up in or around Chicago.

I asked some users how they felt about msgs as it pertained to their lives. The following response came from a Bryn Mawr student from Chicago who went to high school with some of the UIUC students.

It's a way for me to keep in touch with my friends
in distant locales without needing something to say.
If we were all in a physical community -- coworkers
or schoolmates or something -- we'd all know details
about each other's lives by osmosis.

Here msgs is attractive because it allows a dialogue which is not necessarily information-oriented, but typically is relationship-oriented. The average message is not particularly personal; the writing style is declamatory, exclamatory, or often narrative ...

I had to talk to a dean today to keep from
getting kicked out of school

... but rarely is it divulgent; one doesn't see heart-to-heart messages which reveal matters of significance in a user's private life.

It's my philosophy that computers don't really
change discourse but find new media for it. e.g.
people have always talked--the phone just provided
a new way to do it, and its own set of rules and
standards; a new way for humans to express
themselves, but what they are actually
expressing is nothing novel.

It seems that the role msgs fills is that of public forum, town square, village pub, or graffiti wall. As another user added,

msgs just provides a group of people with a new way to
talk to each other and exchange ideas. Becky and I talk
about xfiles, you C-Uers talk about xfiles, but on msgs
we can talk to each other, unlike email or an online
realtime chat thingy. realtime chat happens occasionally,
but by accident. email is too private.

The Text

The dialogues which take place via msgs are amazingly broad, but the majority of messages can be grouped into a few different types:


As previously noted, most of the users work with computers, a field known for making an art of complaining.

Message 14310:
From chunk Tue May 13 13:11:24 1997
Subject: the guy who's working here now is a moron.

he showed up 45 minutes late to his shift.he never
LEAVES when i come in for mine, and he hogs the
computer for the first fifteen minutes of my shift.
he's always doing stupid things to the mac to make
it a pain to use. he's currently shouting "i'm the
MAN!" and alerting everyone in the site to his idiocy.
Complaining is perhaps the most frequent use of msgs, but somehow it doesn't produce a negative environment. Instead, the effect seems to be a strengthened sense of community. A particularly funny or poignant complaint often provokes discussion, but the satisfaction of simply venting one's frustrations is enough.


Philosophy may be too highbrow a word, but much of the dialogue on msgs begins with some provocative or reflective comment about some aspect of life. Much "philosophical" commentary doesn't warrant response, but most users seem content to post with or without reply. This is unusual in the online world; most dialogue requires some kind of backchanneling to encourage the author to continue, but the nature of msgs as a bridge between friends and acquaintances appears to diminish the need for feedback of this kind.

Message 10044:
From stamprox Tue Feb 25 15:52:57 1997
Subject: what truly sucks in the world

is people who pass judgement. The religous right, the
neo-nazis. Racists. Anyone who judges a person without
looking into their souls. It's wrong, it's unfair, and
it's silly.
(There were no responses to the above message.)

Message 10056:
From clynic Tue Feb 25 18:05:26 1997
Subject: Re: things gone horribly wrong in our world

I say kill all the fat people.
(A pro/con discussion ensued.)


Users of msgs place a premium on humor, and some users enjoy posting funny or at least bizarre messages.

Message 8136:
From foxfire Tue Jan 21 17:00:04 1997
Subject: Computer fees...

New Support Fees by incident:
Calling me with a question --- $10
Calling me with a stupid question -- $20
Calling me with a stupid question you can't quite
articulate - $30
Implying I'm incompetent because I can't interpret
your inarticulate problem description - $1000 +
punitive damages
Insisting that you're not breaking the software,
the problem is on my end somehow - $200
A unique genre of communication has formed in the msgs community: the practice of writing strange, irrelevant, or inexplicable messages for fun. Some of these aren't entirely irrelevant; often, the message may be a reference to an in-joke. In-jokes tend to encourage a sense of belonging. In this case, in-jokes may refer to previous messages, events local to Bryn Mawr, or be understood by as few as two people. In fact, it's possible that messages which seem completely inexplicable are in-jokes intended for an audience of one -- the author! The following message could be one such in-joke, as there were no responses and the message is completely without context.

Message 3802:
From chikita Sun Nov 10 14:36:06 1996
Subject: Hey Kyle, aren't you jewish?

Yeah, I think so! I prefer syrup.


Discussions of the TV show The X-files are very popular, especially on Sunday night immediately after the show ends. Since all three of the geographically separate groups watch X-files simultaneously, the show presents a common topic for discussion accessible to any user, not just the ones who managed to attend the last party in Champaign. These discussions run surprisingly deeply, and represent what may be the most intellectual feature of the discourse.

Message 3302:
From simeen Sun Oct 26 18:29:01 1996
Subject: Scully's fascination with Skinner

Have you ever noticed the way she LOOKS at him?
It's like a 4th grader with a crush on the teacher!
I think we're going to see an episode which
addresses the attraction.

Message 3303:
From kymi Sun Oct 26 18:39:37 1996
Subject: Re: Scully's fascination with Skinner
I knew it.

You smoke crack. If there's anything between them,
I'd be pretty damn amazed. (But did you notice
the way she interacted with Max in the episode
immediately before his abduction? She acts kind of
big sisterish -- or is it something else?)


There's a strong element of self-awareness in msgs. The users often wax contemplative about the dialogue which they are constantly creating, and a sense of achievement as the total number of messages continues to rise, thousand by thousand. The paths and forms that the dialogue takes are unpredictable, and I do not doubt that much of the appeal is the curiosity and interest about what might happen next. Msgs has earned a foothold in the daily off-line lives of its users; one Bryn Mawr user even reported having a dream featuring a UIUC user whom she had never met!

Message 13591:
From derek Thu May 1 22:26:38 1997
Subject: Re: WELL article in Wired...

I've spent a little time on the well, and it is
like msgs and usenet combined - topic based,
but generally short and conversational. I did look
at msgs in a new way. Not to sound goofy,
but this really is an online "commnunity" of sorts.
We're all doing different things, but spend a good
chunk of the day interacting. Maybe not "community"
..how about "ragtag gang of hoodlums".


One of the unusual aspects of this study has been the awareness of the users that their culture was being examined in a scholarly fashion. Many of the users checked this web site as it was being produced and offered advice, addenda, and helpful criticism.

Message 14530:
From chafe Thu May 15 02:19:30 1997
Subject: your msgs project

I resent being characterized as politically
left-of-center. There, I said it. Otherwise,
Benjy, that thing is shaping up nicely.


Website Provider: Outflux.net