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...A Cyberculture Period

Gordon Fletcher
Paper presented at "Wip-Lash", Department of English, University of Queensland (1999, August) .

The World's Longest Sentence is (was) located at http://math240.lehman.cuny.edu/art/

This paper examines the World's Longest Sentence as a phenomena and artifact of cyberculture. In undertaking this examination I claim that cyberculture increasingly represents and describes the culture of 'us' - with all the problematic and cryptic possibilities that this implies. In presenting the sentence as an historical narrative of the development of cyberculture I am also claiming that there has been, over the 5 years, or so, of the sentence's history, a significant cultural shift which has taken cyberculture from a subcultural description to an integral - but not necessarily the most significant - element of mainstream culture. These developments are not unique or particularly original - 'we' (that problematic pronoun) have been immersed in media-inspired culture for at least thirty years. Our awareness of being within a cyberculture and the significance of that cyberculture has admittedly happened at a much more rapid pace. However, even this accelerated rate of change, should not surprise us. Media culture, itself, has brought both the expectation for rapid cultural change, albeit sometimes somewhat superficially, as well as the facilities with which to acheive it.

The world's longest sentence is a web-based project housed at the City University of New York and designed by Douglas Davis and Gary Welz as the 'World's first collaborative Sentence". It was arguably originally conceived of as a type of experimental performance art piece that utilised the then (for 1995) relatively underpopulated web. The sole criteria for contributions to the sentence was that they could not include a full stop. As the use of the web has increased and the number of links that point to the sentence have also multiplied the contributions have increasingly shifted from a consciously 'arty' perspective through a 'tech-head' phase while people experiemented with including links and the forbidden full stop to something much broader and less defined.

The sentence historicises the convergence of cyberculture with other earlier cultural configurations by echoing the sentiments and thoughts of its participants through the period of its operation. The sentence is also a tangible representation of the cultural complexity, inconsistency and contradictions that constitute the qualities of this cyberculture. For the development of anthropological based understandings of this cultural phenomena the sentence provides an ethnographic source that would be potentially impossible to gather in any other context. The sentence in this way echoes Geertz when he claims that ethnography "has become the the art of thick description; the intricate interweaving of plot and counterplot as in the work of a major novelist". The sentence, by virtue of its quality as a sentence and in this narrative sense, also captures a temporality and linearity that is not readily found with contemporary more comprehensively 'hypertexted' documents.

The size of the sentence consigns any single contribution to being only a small facet of the whole sentence. However, this does not trivialise any individual contribution, each articulates the depth and range of cyberculture as a cultural phenomena and assists in revealing the extent to which individual lives and experiences intersect, overlap and parallel each other. It is also a reflection of the complexity of cyberculture that these intersections and linkages have been revealed in a variety of quite distinct ways - and in ways that certainly expand upon the more trite observations regarding the World Wide Web and hypertext. There are, for example, continuous monologues in which apparently new contributors take up the thread of a previous contribution as well as internal references to earlier contributions. One of the most significant concerns shared by a range of contributors (or conceivably one very persistent contributor) is what could almost be described as the anxiety over not being able to include a full stop in the sentence. This is presented in a number of ways including pleading, "please let us submit, I do submit I do I do I do, please let us submit a dot DD so we can include links in our postings", resorting to grammatical authority, "This is not the World's First Collaborative Sentence; it might, however, very well be the longest continuous concatenation of words forming a legible text with complete omission of periods (and I concede that for most purposes, people would accept this as a good working definition of a sentence; nonetheless, they err)" and to bizarrely veiled threats, "Okay, this is it ....this is the end....i swear I _WILL_ do it...i will end this thing all I have to do is TYPE THAT DAMN PERIOD...I'm just crazy enough to do it... Aw,hell, forget it.....".

This positions the sentence at the centre of an uneasy set of tensions. As intitially a subcultural 'thing' there is a sense of collective ownership conveyed through the earliest contributions. These contributors imply that the sentence reflects a particular sensibility and their contributions often seek to reinforce this awareness and claim. This collectivity is most readily displayed when individual contributors run their own thoughts on from previous contributions often completely blurring the different contributions as distinct elements of the sentence. For example...

"This is another lustless technical test before all hell breaks lose with artists contrbuting scatological prose and poetry, but is this really art, or is it so what else can be said, anyway and more and more and more but what difference is this making WELL ISN'T IT JUST FUN TO WRITE TOGETHER LIKE THIS millenial exaggerations overstate our singularity,basic humanity is as lonely as (I'm feeling a bit spacy) there are a lot of things that could be said, but i don't know what to say but i want to say it my father is coming near have to stop now he always comes upstairs like this in the middle of the night dust follows dust in the endless progression of biological kitchen-ware"

This spirit of subcultural identity is shortlived, both within the sentence itself and within cyberculture more broadly, and may indicate that the earliest contributions were made by friends and associates of the sentence's progenitors. It does not take long before the sentence acquires it first limerick, its first piece of graffitti - "CHRIS WAS HERE!", it first rude, although somewhat obscure, joke which is ironically juxtaposed against a discussion of hermenuetics and the first piece of white noise, a continuous line of 'm's.

These attempts at individual signposts - at creating distinguishing features and landmarks - in the body of the sentence introduces a range of responses. Each new contribution seemingly intent on outdoing all previous efforts at leaving a distinguishing mark. Postings appear in Spanish and Polish, bold headings are introduced, contributors begin identifying their geographical location and hypertext links appear. Among these contributions is one that is repeated three times as a bold header which claims that, "This is far too spontaneous for Canadians We prefer our Babel towers a little politer than this Sorry". Without commenting on this tentative definition of a national psyche, perhaps equally curious, given the spirit which shapes the earliest contributions, is the first hypertext link that still works in the sentence - a pointer to the Whitehouse's home page.

The excitement found in the early spirit of community that shaped the sentence is rapidly overcome by the anarchy generated in many Free-for-all sites. The anarchy of the sentence, however, is an overstatement in comparison to the more commercially orientated Free-For-All (FFA) sites that operate on the downside of web business opportunities. FFA sites are the web equivalent of pyramid selling schemes that have two purposes - to expose a web address to as many 'eyeballs' as possible and to gain permission to use an email address in order to send out commercially orientated messages. These sites are often extremely large - many claim to add 15000 links a month and there is a heavy representation of links that contain the words 'Fast Cash', 'FREE', and a surplus of consecutive zeros usually in association with a dollar symbol. Perhaps more revealing are the number of links on any free-for-all page that point to other free-for-all pages and the links which start "Webmasters get 100,000 visitors now". I am always reminded of a paragraph from a Dr Seuss story when I read and see these particular versions of e-commerce ...

"In the vale of Va-Vode, Five foot-weary salesmen have laid down their load. All day they've raced round in the heat, at top speeds, unsuccessfully trying to sell Zizzer-Zoof Seeds. Which nobody wants because nobody needs. Tomorrow will come. They'll go back to their chore. They'll start on the road, Zizzer Zoofing once more."

The impact that this form of self-referential e-commerce may have on the rest of 'us' is somewhat disturbing because unlike the characters in Dr Seuss's book there does indeed appear to be a market for the web equivalent of Zizzer Zoof seeds. However, I digress. The more fictional and non-sensical aspects of e-commerce are, as they say, another paper.

The sentence provides a starting point for interpretating and understanding cyberculture in a way that could as readily be applied to these other sites which are equally representative of cyberculture. The sentence embeds the difficulty of interpreting 'culture' and 'community' as meaningful modes of contemporary analysis. Because, in contrast to the clearly commercial motives of Free-For-All sites, the sentence represents a happenstance collection of contributions that do not necessarily share any social or cultural qualities except single and fleeting contributions to the sentence itself.

It is significant in discussing the sentence as a cultural artifact that its design largely denies the possibilities for quantitative analysis in any meaningful manner. Even a concordance of the entire sentence is a somewhat fraught task with the large number of Korean contributions. Perhaps more of an issue for this approach is the inability to specifically isolate individual contributions from the sentence’s entirety. Quanitifiable interpretation is impeded too by the increasing use of web page programming 'tricks' within individual contributions. As a result large sections of the latter 'chunks' of the sentence consist of large red rectangles containing the word "Censored" or alternatively large blue rectangles with the words “Nothing to Say”. It is a curious parallel with the media culture analogy that the sentence too has proceded from the 'black-and-white' of text to the colour of word montages.

This inability to quantify the sentence also reflects its relationship to the cyberculture that it represents. It is a 'big picture' and chaotic view of cyberculture which privileges us with many conflicting qualities but does not expand or provide any detail of particular lives or 'things'. Leach, writing about social anthropology, expresses a similar concern, "Only in very rare instances are anthropological monographs written in such a way that the reader can pick up a comprehensive feeling for the alien cultural environment in which the events described take place. Yet in the absence of such an atmosphere an overload of detail simply intensifies incomprehensibility." Despite the apparently poly-vocal basis for the sentence this sentiments appear to be applicable here also. In viewing the world's longest sentence we are examining a map of cyberculture. Yet it is at this representational and spectacular level of detail (or its lack) that many of the myths that surround the Internet and cyberculture are dispelled.

The sentence encourages anonymous contributions and in its intent, at least, appears to subscribe to the critiques of the Web regarding its anonymity - The “no-one knows your a dog” cliche. However, the contributers themselves have individually sought to 'break' this aspect of the sentence's design. Most surprising of all, is that when provided with a space in which anything could be said without fear some of the most revealing and startling contributions are actually 'signed'.

"... in the upper peninsula of michigan which is where i live not the up no i am not a youper as they say i am a near detroiter yes the murder captial of the world well yesesssssssssss anyway i was saying about the fungus this sentance and the one in the upper peninsula **************** have a lot in common it think and so there i am thinking about spreading and how i go to thin and how far i can go really since i am already 47 years old on sunday that's april 18, 1999 i was born sandra lee mumberson in mt clemens michigan and then i grew up and became an adult and as everyone knows that ain't all it's cracked up to be now is it and i wish i kneew how to change the font on this thing so people could see it better i mean that's what i stopped at were those places where one drew attention to oneself but maybe its better to just schmooze along really someone will reead me eventuall y okay that's the way it is the squeaky wheel gets the grease and all that and really i am pretty good at this and people have always told me so that i just can keeep going going going going going going until the world evaporates or i get tired but really i could sometimes just sleep all day long and go on and on and on that way in the dreamland and maybe something is getting done but i doubt it and now my name is sandy gerling and has been for more than twentyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyy fiveeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeee years s sssssssss s s s s s s s s s s s but will not be for long cuz my husband is a recovering drug addict and says i make him want to use and its all so sad isn't it this truth to strangers and i can say anything but won't go into my sex life or /and my wants in that area because i am of a different sensibility than taht but i will say that i doooooooo hoooooopppppppeeeeee i get some soon cuz its a tad irritating to use a vibrator all the time when the real thing would be the best i digress so on to the next bit or bits and time is running out because i have to go home and make some dinner for a frien and this has been a blast and i can't wait to see it and just realized that there are many people i don't want them to see this but opps too late well i guess i could take some of it out but then what fun would that be always saying nice things so to my stupid idiotic husband of min go fuck yourself on a fucking needle full of diladid for all i care you suck bigtime and not to leace with this i will once again sya about this fungus among us its great and in the world now this longest sentance collaberation a dream a myth a reality a fungus spreading "

Without wanting to trivialise this particularly revealing collection of thoughts, contributions such as this cast an air of ethnographic honesty over the sentence's contents. Cyberculture, it seems, also does not distinguish public from the private or the sacred and taboo from the spectacle of consumption in what might be called a traditional sense. The sentence is public - it is accessible - however, it remains private through obscurity, distance and volume. While we now know about details of Sandra Lee at close detail what impact or meaning does this have? To draw upon a media analogy, the potential embarrasment of exposed flesh exhibited on 'World's Funniest Home Videos' must pale in comparison to the fleeting fame it offers.

These musings return us to the original considerations of cyberculture. Increasingly what the sentence reveals about cyberculture is its convergence with mainstream culture. And as researchers examining from within the boundaries of that culture we are faced with a particularly difficult task. The presence of Cyberspace - in the form of the Internet - is not so much a revolution (or even evolution) away from older cultural practices and perceptions as it is a perpetuation of those qualities. This is a process of cultural change - and the significance of this change cannot be underestimated - but change is invariably a continuity. We may experience a paradigmatic shift in the techno-social spaces we utilise to arrange our blind-dates, unburden ourselves of psychological angst, gamble or gossip but the cultural practices themself remain identifiable and are undertaken for reasons not so dissimilar to life B.C. (Before Cyberculture).