Computers: Graffiti artists go on-line: Network pioneers face the biggest threat yet - respectability. Michael Hewitt reports reactions

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The Independent Online
The 'information superhighway' has become worse than boring in the US - it has become respectable. There is big money to be made from wiring all the computers in the world into a single network, where somewhere, all the fun and information in the world is to be found. Rupert Murdoch, of the News International media conglomerate, and Bill Gates, head of Microsoft, the world's biggest supplier of computer software, are both sniffing around the field. But with corporate interest and respectability come corporate mores.

One large American network, Prodigy, even scans incoming data for profanities and automatically excludes offending messages. In some cases it is been over zealous. For example, Messrs Dick Crossley and Engin Shit - pronounced 'sehit' - have reported extreme difficulty posting anything at all, regardless of content.

Inevitably, such 'Disneyfication' of the information highways has provoked some users into parking in the cyber-washrooms and defacing their walls. Using choice abuse, they aim to get up as many virtual noses as possible and then move on, leaving a trail of four-letter words in their wake.

Probably the world's leading exponent of the art is a Merseysider who uses the nom de voyage of Fis. Other incarnations include Satan, Evil, Sooty and Father Christmas. Since 1991, Fis has managed to get himself expelled from virtually every leading conferencing system on the planet, as well as from hundreds of small bulletin boards.

'I post messages in order to generate maximum response,' he says. 'Sometimes just one simple obscene sentence can yield megabytes of replies. You have to remember that for the most part we aren't dealing with normal people. They're actually computer morons: network managers, freelancers and the kind who think they are Captain Jean Luc Picard because they're running Unix. These sorts I particularly enjoy provoking.'

Exclusion from Compuserve's CB system resulted from his claims to have heard Hitler's voice coming from the lavatory commanding him to flush swans down the cistern. Religious groups seem most put out by his end of message 'sig': the Lord's Prayer written backwards. As a result of this, he has received numerous threats to firebomb his home.

'The funny side is that in many cases I have actually made friends with the people that run the systems,' he continues. 'It's only if I, in some way, threaten their system that they'll go as far as to kick me off. For example, Demon Systems (one of the UK gateways to the Internet global information network) has given me several warnings, not because they object to what I say or do, but because of the increase in workload I've created for them. They like to answer all user complaints personally.'

But has he ever tried being courteous to people for a change? 'Why should I be friendly to people? Why be good? What is the point in morality? I just do what I feel like and what makes me happy. The voices in my head tell me to log on and annoy as many people as possible.' It is at this point in interviews that Fis usually reveals himself to be the Anti-Christ.

In unmoderated areas such as the Usenet newsgroups where anything seems to go, on-line abuse is common, though little of it of the quality pioneered by Fis. Most is standard lavatory wall rubbish, or the sorts of puerile insults traded in schoolyards.

What makes Fis's subtle blend of nihilism, scatology and bigotry so memorable is that he manages to lace it with humour, too. As a result, even people who bore the brunt of his insults and were instrumental in his expulsion from various systems, tend to look back on his days there with some degree of nostalgia.

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