Image: Shutterstock

Twenty Years Ago, Trolling Was Repeatedly Posting ‘Meow’ in Usenet Groups

The 'Meow Wars' were a landmark in shitposting.

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Jul 8 2016, 11:50am

Image: Shutterstock

In a YouTube clip from an episode of American kids' show Mr Rogers' Neighbourhood, dating from 1971, a puppet named Henrietta Pussycat has flown into a rage. "Meow meow meow meow meow…" Everything Henrietta says is punctuated with meows.

A comment below reads, "I think the Internet needs to start a Talk Like Henrietta Pussycat Day. " If only they knew…

Twenty years ago, throughout 1996 and beyond, the "Meow Wars" waged on Usenet. Popular at universities, the non-centralised computer network consisted of news groups for specific topics and file sharing. "Meowers," as the early trolls were known, flooded these boards and derailed them with blocks of text, posting quotes from Monty Python or Beavis and Butthead, personal insults, and nonsense exchanges about a cat named Fluffy. The resulting conflict was a landmark in internet history, and possibly the birth of trolling as we know it.

The origins of this flame war are difficult to untangle. In January 1996, an abandoned board named in preposterous homage to the actor Karl Malden's nose had been colonised by a group of Harvard students. "Alt.fan.karl-malden.nose," known colloquially as "the Nose," was used as a message board for arranging lunch meetings and posting campus events.

Then a Harvard student and Nose regular named Matt Bruce posted to alt.tv.beavis-n-butthead (the "alt.*" prefix indicated a hierarchy of left-field groups offered without centralised control in addition to the main boards) and joked that the Harvard students would invade them. He is quoted on an archived site as follows:

"I suggest that we start either posting or crossposting to alt.tv.beavis-n-butthead. I also suggest that we use big words and perfect grammar, and refuse to write as the young ruffians in question speak… This could lead to some interesting 'dialogue.' "

"Sometimes people I've known for decades will make a 'meow' joke and I'm not sure how best to tell them how strongly I prefer they not do that"

It had been meant as a joke, albeit an arrogant one, but the Beavis and Butthead fans struck back. They drove the students from their online home, claiming alt.fan.karl-malden.nose for themselves as a base from which to invade further boards. One of the original alt.fan.karl-malden.nose members had the initials C.A.T., which inspired the invaders to adopt "meow" as their mantra. Thus commenced the Meow Wars.

I spoke to Bruce, having tracked him down through social media. He seemed to be still irritated and baffled in equal part by the memory of the meowers. "Sometimes people I've known for decades will make a 'meow' joke and I'm not sure how best to tell them how strongly I prefer they not do that," he told me.

Bruce clarified that most of the stories he's read about his own involvement in the wars are wrong. "I did not post the deluge of 'meow' posts attributed to me," he said. "Some people—to this day I do not know who—took offence at something I did post, and decided to get revenge by using my name when they spammed other Usenet groups." Fake Matt Bruces proliferated throughout 1996, apparently triggered by that single empty threat.

Among the Meowers was Jeff Boyd, aka "The 2-Belo," whose account of the Meow Wars, now hosted on another site, is one of the few online records left behind. Having contacted him through his blog, I spoke to Boyd over email and he shared his recollections. "Compared to the well-regulated hierarchies like rec.*, talk.* and so on, alt.* was completely wide open and without any official supervision," he said. "Users could create new newsgroups at will. So you'd end up with silly groups with names like alt.butt.harp and alt.fan.karl-malden.nose, empty joke groups that had no users but were present on a million servers worldwide."

Boyd told me he only joined the war effort after the initial meower raid on alt.fan.karl-malden.nose. Before that, he'd been part of the alt.flame group, "a kind of text-based Fight Club." Turned loose on a lawless early internet, "kind of like a ghost town in the Old West," Boyd remembers that, "There were now roving bands of outlaws—trolls—randomly cycling through newsgroups looking for poop to disturb."

"At the height of the trolling, my email address at Boston University became unusable, and the admins dropped all messages addressed to my account"

Usenet allowed for cross-posting to multiple boards. Boyd explained, "Trolls latched onto this and took it to the next level, posting junk and provocative articles to hundreds of groups at once, and scrambling discourse like a crazed chimpanzee at a telephone switchboard." One of these trolls found a random post Bruce had made referencing the Mr Rogers character Henrietta Pussycat, she of the "meow meow meow" speech, and circulated it. Boyd likens what happened next to "a phenomenon later known as 'going viral.'"

For Bruce, there was no undoing the damage. "After that, any time I reacted to the trolls it inspired them to do more," he said. Online life became suddenly volatile: "At the height of the trolling, my email address at Boston University became unusable, and the admins dropped all messages addressed to my account because it was such a high percentage of their inbound traffic."

Usenet had already been experiencing growing pains. In 1993, America Online started offering the network to its subscribers, triggering a so-called "Eternal September," in reference to the traditional influx of freshers Usenet would experience at the start of every college year.

But now its culture was under a more urgent threat: Popular groups were clogged with spam and rendered unusable. Boyd remembers moderators for some of the larger Usenet servers implementing automated cancelling of posts, enraging the students who already believed their right to free speech was under attack.

Were the meowers performance artists, or "anarchists, lunatics and terrorists" as alt. users were occasionally known? Were the meowers pioneers, the earliest practitioners of Anonymous-style online anarchy? Or were they just disenfranchised teenagers with too much time on their hands?

"I see an analogy between the meowers themselves and people who today would be on 4chan or 8chan."

In his book The Dark Net, Jamie Bartlett traces the behaviours of 00s troll communities such as SomethingAwful, Fark.com, and Slashdot back to the Usenet trolls' philosophy, including their "abhorrence of censorship—which was thought of as archaic and analogue—and the idea that nothing online was to be taken seriously."

Reading back over archived posts, it's clear that their actions were perceived as nihilism: One anti-meower user, defending the original Harvard group in February 1996, wrote that they were "not in the same vein as alt.fan.zoogz-rift" (one can only imagine what this board was meant for). He continued, "It is a group where people treat each other with respect.. I'm asking you quite politely not to fuck around with it, and I ask that for once you consider my request seriously."

The wars gave rise to their own distinct terminology, some of which has disappeared with time. I have never heard of somebody "plonking" their nemesis (adding them to a kill file), nor do we now talk of "sporgery" (spam posted under a falsified name), or "blatherers" and "spewers" (users who rant, overshare, and write too much). These terms have vanished, along with Usenet urban legends such as the "brain tumour boy" Craig Shergold (who wanted to break the Guinness World Record for most letters received), and the persistent rumour that the FCC wanted to tax your modem. Today, the name of arch-meower Raoul Xemblinosky only occasionally echoes around the web, though he is remembered among the most infamous trolls of all time.

But other meower tendencies endure to this day. Overblown forum signatures and ASCII art became commonplace during this period, favoured by meowers as tools of passive aggressive self-expression.

Screenshot of ASCII art from the Meow Wars

Multiple sources credit the Meow Wars with spawning the cascade attack, the neverending, time-wasting (and, for early Usenet users, money-wasting) posts which included back-and-forth meowing and Beavis and Butthead quotes (an alt.cascade group was formed for cascade fans, but predictably failed to contain them). The kill file, which filtered out posts from specified users, also became popular (also known, apparently, as the "bozo bin"). The term "spam" evolved before the Meow Wars from back-and-forth posting of the word "spam" in reference to the 1970 sketch from Monty Python's Flying Circus, but post-1996 it also came to define excessive and repetitive posting: Cascades and Fluffy spam helped evolve the practise.

The meowers were also known to attack "therian" werewolf role-players and self-identifying "otherkin," communities targeted by trolls to this day. The cries of free speech, similarly, haven't gone away, and it's worth noting that many of the Usenet members, and particularly the meowers, were students: This was another permutation of an ongoing campus debate, proving that the kind of mass outrage we see on Twitter is by no means a modern phenomenon.

Still hailed as "the original meower" and Commandante Meow Meow Matt Bruce (though I suspect he'd rather not be), Bruce remembers being accused of trying to censor other users, when his intentions were anything but. He said, "I see an analogy between 1990s Usenet and 2010s Twitter, as places where complete strangers interact with each other but easily assume the worst about each other. I see an analogy between the meowers themselves and people who today would be on 4chan or 8chan."

This would all justify remembering the Meow Wars today, but its page was wiped from Wikipedia after being nominated for deletion several times. The argument is made, fairly, that there are no objective sources: There is no "One True History of Meow" because everyone involved was a likely a troll. The debate directly questions the value of archiving online history, and even of writing–like this column–which examines internet culture. Several Wikipedians argued to preserve it: "This isn't just another flamewar," one member wrote. "This is the flamewar."

Still, traces remain: The archived Usenet logs on Google Groups, though difficult to search, document trolling during Peak Meow. And personal websites from the era, accessible through the Wayback Machine, record exchanges including the alleged first appearance of Fluffy, along with a trophy cabinet of troll copypasta.

For all their puerile humour, the Meow Wars engendered a manic creativity that was admirable. Operating under names like "metro-golden-meower," "Søn øf Spam," or "The Order or the Greasy Sombrero," each meower's attack doubled as a performance, a challenge to entertain as much as to enrage.

If this was the internet as the "Wild West," then its battles were fought over territory: Whoever could take up the most screen space was the winner. Some cascades contain no fewer than nine different ASCII art versions of the word "meow." Demonstrating absurdist humour, the meowers practised a crude online Oulipo, an unexpectedly visual approach within an aesthetically restrictive medium.

What's surprising is that the Meow Wars went on so long while lacking any ideology beyond that of "free speech." Even Gamergate pretends to have a mission—in the end, what was the goal of the Meow Wars?

"The Meow Wars was a tongue-in-cheek conflict between a bunch of people who refused to take anything seriously, and system administrators who took *everything* seriously," said Boyd. "Plus, it was a heaping helping of human nature—give a bunch of 19- to 22-year-olds a vast lawless online plain of unclaimed forest, and sooner or later it's gonna burn."

I think the Meow Wars should be remembered, because reading their history helps us understand trolling. Their examples leads us to certain irrevocable truths, such as that trolling is inevitable, as inevitable as cats on the internet.

Cats are the ancient ones, internet's old gods.

Meow? Meow. Meow.

Forum Cop investigates the ugliest of internet beef, getting to the heart of online squabbles and extricating facts from gossip in digital enclaves.