Thread to End all Threads

by Robert Nagle on 12/4/2008

in observations,Privacy and Security

Last Saturday I came across a single post on a forum. This forum was one I had never heard of, and the subject was something I had also never heard of. Someone had linked to it from another site, and I found the subject to be of immense interest.

I am not going to mention the forum or the subject of the forum thread (for various reasons).  But I wanted to add that the forum thread consisted of 1311 different posts from maybe 100 different people). The forum post itself consisted of 130 pages, and the subject was so provocative and controversial and potentially embarrassing that I feel confident that –for the moment at least —  this forum thread was the definitive word on the subject in the world.

Admittedly, I had more than just a passing interest in the subject, and not a subject with which I would like to be publicly identified (this was a common sentiment among forum posters). In fact, I never knew such a phenomena existed, although now that I saw the body of research about it, I now realized that it explained a lot of things about the world. (A wikipedia page was recently started on the subject, which though incomplete, would surely contain a more exhaustive treatment of the subject  as time went by).  I feel  confident that this little known subject will be more widely known in the next 10 years (maybe to the point of it being a household term). People of all educational backgrounds had posted something on the thread, from different parts of  the world. At first, only those directly involved in the matter started posting, but once the forum thread acquired momentum, all kinds of people were posting, including those only tangentially involved to the subject at hand.

Many people had anecdotes to contribute, and experts provided lots of detailed analysis and commentary. Some even appeared to unmask the charlatans who had already posted previously on the thread; others merely provided links or more academic evidence. The single forum thread consisted of about four years of posts, and in fact, there were several links to several different forums discussing the issue in parallel, as well as forum threads which had started in response to this one.

Many felt compelled to share personal experiences on the subject (some were entertaining; most were heart-rending); Others simply posted to express their gratitude at having found a bunch of like-minded individuals. Several posts inquired about people who had posted earlier in the thread (30 or 40 pages ago). Were they still following the thread? Or had they abandoned the thread altogether? One poster pointed to the disappearance of several frequent contributors as a positive indication that the individual was no longer seeeking help.   Some reflected on the philosophical implications of the phenomenon; others claimed we needed to raise awareness and even insist on more public research on the subject; Some merely felt that the forum posters were making too much of a big deal about something. Some just misunderstood one another’s points and showed only a half-understanding.

Some raised ethical questions; some expressed sympathy for those directly affected;  some proposed solutions (both impractical and commonsensical). Some expressed the hope that because this forum thread exists, a solution was possible..and even likely. Some indicated that a solution was still impossible, but the most one could hope for was greater understanding and steps to prevent the problem from becoming larger. Some gave reports about experiments they tried (with both positive and negative results). Some said the problem was too intractable for easy solutions. Some felt the government involvement was necessary and inevitable.   Others felt that naive and a little dangerous; they argued that this subject would continue to exist on the peripheries of the law.

Some were starting an academic career to study this phenomenon; others were gathering evidence to suggest the problem was no longer an isolated one. Still others just wanted practical advice about what steps to take in response. Nobody in fact knew…although everyone had theories. On the same thread there were victims, perpetrators, professionals, amateurs, entrepreneurs, intellectuals and moralists. Several had been dealing with the subject for decades while others had only encountered it for the first time and were amazed to find others. Amazingly, because of the esoteric nature of the subject –but also because of the obscurity of the forum itself, everyone was polite to one another and willing to facilitate honest discussion. In fact, though, the subject matter itself was so inflammatory that it seemed only a matter of time before the discussion become less civilized and more insulting.

It took me several days to read all 1300  posts (and  hyperlinks). In fact, the forum was so unwieldy and referred to so many previous posts that I ended up pasting the entire forum onto a single text file for easy reference.  I confess, I don’t really understand a lot about the subject, though after reading through,  my level of understanding had improved dramatically.  I certainly don’t regret stopping everything I was doing to read this forum from start to finish–though I wish there was an easier way to skip through posts.  I felt inclined to add my own opinion, though to be honest, my insights paled before those who had contributed before. Nonetheless, I probably will contribute at some point and will surely keep up with the thread over time.

Because of the unwieldiness of the thread, some proposed breaking the single thread into several; others started entire blogs about the subject containing excerpts of the discussion; some people went off onto tangents (if only because the subject affected everybody and everything even in an insignificant way). Perhaps I will buy a book on the subject — though none currently exist. Still, academic journals were starting to cover the subject though not with any fresh insights (and certainly nothing that wasn’t already mentioned in the forum). After a while, it became clear that the amount of new insights by people were diminishing; people simply were updating with more information and links and anecdotes or simply to show how their viewpoints have evolved. After completing the 81 page thread in its entirety, I felt comforted and certainly not alone–although I just wasted half the weekend reading the thread from start the finish (with two naps in between). Even though it’s not a subject to dominate my mind (for now at least), I admit to having enough curiosity to keep up with this thread over time…at least until people stop adding to it.

I know I’m being coy by not divulging the subject matter. Yes, this forum was for real, and that’s what this very post is about. Still, as I write this post, I realize that I’ve come across at least 5-10 forum threads of similar length over the last year–feeling the same shared perceptions and determination to unmask the truth. When surfing the Internet, you don’t wish to insert your public identity into a forum as provocative as this one; it is far easier to lurk or to post under pseudonyms. All of these were great discussion threads, full of insight into humanity and creative thinking–enough to make me optimistic about human inquiries.

Yet, during all this time, I sat reading in the darkness,  thinking, wondering, dreaming.

June 2010 Update. Checked the forum again. It was locked as of February 2009 (3 months after I posted this piece). Google shows 44,000 search results for the phenomenon.

August 2012 Update.  200,000 search results for the subject, and Google shows that the original forum has dozens of threads about the same subject, while threads in other forums are beginning to show the subject as well.

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