Told  /  Retrieval

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A brief history of the textfile, and the production of conspiracy theories on the internet.

An almost forgotten yet highly significant digital artifact from the earliest days of the internet is the textfile: a short electronic work, often authored anonymously by people interested in underground genres of writing like computer hacking and conspiracy theorizing. By sticking to just text, writers of these files got around the bandwidth and storage constraints of the primitive computer hardware of the time: modems connected to the landline telephone system. The format also made it easier to share files and make them go viral among the small communities of users dialing in. Many of these files have been lost to time as their host computers have gone offline, but others have been preserved thanks to the efforts of the Internet Archive and a few passionate individuals involved in the textfile scene of the 1980s and 1990s. 

The bulk of the extant textfiles are fringe in nature, hailing from different subcultures and covering a multitude of subversive and sometimes incendiary topics such as the occult, UFOs, bomb making, and alleged secret activities of governments. But while their form may seem primitive, their content is recognizable to anyone who spends much time online today. Washington Post technology reporter Joseph Menn told me in 2020 that “it is very weird that this underground culture is now mainstream. 

Everyone has their own printing press with social media. Corporations have found a way to monetize fringe content. If you had an ezine back in the day, you’d try to gin up interest in your publication by saying extreme things. The truth is boring.


The earliest period of networked personal computing centered around dial-up Bulletin Board Systems (BBSes). The idea was similar in spirit to social media services like Reddit, with open forums where individuals could post messages or files, but with a far more primitive text-only interface and a community of users that tended to be tech-savvy. The early adopters of BBS technology recognized its potential as a communications medium that enabled informative and creative user-generated content. But in stark contrast to today’s monolithic social media platforms, the infrastructure was a highly distributed network mostly run by amateurs. The level of service and quality of content could therefore vary widely depending on the board one called.

BBS culture was anchored by two core demographics: older counterculture figures from the 1960s and 1970s and misfit kids. It should not be terribly surprising that boredom and a penchant for mischief would attract teenagers to fringe content. What is surprising was that there was a great deal of interplay between these two groups in the production of textfiles. BBS users would frequently read each other’s files for inspiration and eventually collaborate on new ones. Teens weren’t just passively consuming the files for entertainment, as they would a record or movie, they were actively participating in their creation and dissemination. 

Early computer hacker and textfile writer Luke Benfey, known by his handle “Deth Vegetable,” was introduced to the BBS scene as a teenager in the 1980s. He instantly fell into the surreal blend of fact and fiction one could find there. Much of this writing detailed the contours of various conspiracies, drawing on elements that insiders would recognize from other parts of the BBS landscape. According to Benfey, BBSes had always been especially fertile ground for a certain type of writing about conspiracy theories that (knowingly or unknowingly) mixed real and fictional elements. These pieces were stashed in secret places that only insiders or, eventually, intrepid outsiders doing their own research, could access. The BBS facilitated all of this by virtue of its design: it was a medium outside the mainstream where users could contribute ideas that could be reused and remixed by future users. 

Some of those ideas would also prove formative in the development of Silicon Valley. The innovators behind Apple Computer got their start in the 1970s subculture of phone phreaking (illegal exploration of the phone system), which fed into the development of the BBS scene a decade later. The creators of the computer security industry directly hailed from the BBSes, inspired by the literature on computer hacking available there. So much unattributed influence spread from the boards into the tech world, partly the result of the technolibertarian bent linking members of these communities, to different degrees, in an unswerving commitment to freedom of information.

Silicon Valley’s enchantment with various strains of libertarianism in the internet era has been well-documented, going back to Electronic Frontier Foundation co-founder John Perry Barlow’s vision for what the internet should be: a freewheeling creative space “which will be ultimately bounded only by human imagination.” The very same notion of freedom of information promoted by BBS System Operators (SYSOPs) underpins the business model for today’s social media platforms, which allow users to post in exchange for letting companies exploit that data for other business purposes. The technology ethics community has pushed back on the model, blaming it for accelerating the uptake of conspiracy theories and deepfakes.

However, a straight line can be drawn from many of the earliest textfiles to the deceptive material flooding social media today. But a difference is that a lot of that earlier material was initially created as parody or satire and recognized as such by its small community of consumers. When the same type of material suddenly becomes available to a global audience, many are likely to misread the creators’ original intent. Textfiles set the template for later online writing, but in a more insular context.

A good textfile was often brief, yet told a good story. If the reader was left thinking that they had indeed acquired some forbidden knowledge at the end of it, then the file successfully served its purpose. Plenty of files did not; long-winded conspiracy rants (of which there were many) read like they were penned by unhinged madmen — and there is no doubt that in some cases they really were. The Cult of the Dead Cow, a group associated with computer hacking, excelled at the style of writing necessary for good textfiles. A representative example by the group was “Better, Stronger, Faster,” which surfaced on the boards in 1994. At first glance, it appears to be a record of an intrusion into government computer systems to access information involving UFOs, but that was simply the hook. The file was an invitation to BBS newcomers to consider how the then-new practice of hacking could expose the secrets of the world’s power centers — something that would actually come to pass in the 2010s era of “hacktivism” through the efforts of groups like WikiLeaks and Anonymous. 

Another textfile with particular relevance today is “U.S. Government Practices Germ Warfare on U.S. Population” by John DiNardo, which appeared on BBSes sometime in the late 1980s or early 1990s. This file prefigures the uproar over alleged “gain of function” experiments at the Wuhan Institute of Virology, which some believe led to the creation of a deadlier genetically-engineered coronavirus that escaped the lab in 2019. This type of conspiracy theory, which routinely appears in the mainstream media, posits that the United States, in an effort to minimize the risk to its own citizens, funded dangerous research in China, where oversight is lax and scientific knowledge (allegedly) lags behind. These experiments were supposedly undertaken in secret in order to study potential vectors for a future SARS-like pandemic, yet backfired in a manner reminiscent of a Michael Crichton thriller plot. In his textfile from decades before the Covid-19 pandemic, DiNardo describes a similar scenario being used for the testing of other genetically-engineered products, and warns against what might happen if the partner country is kept in the dark: 

I find it appalling that we would assume that we could go abroad to do testing if other countries don’t have the knowledge of the conseqeunces [sic] of testing. If they had been given an opportunity to determine the pros and cons, then, fine. Let someone test. But what if they are innocent in not knowing anything about what’s being done.

Compare DiNardo’s thoughts to those of the journalist Nicholas Wade, who was able to recast the once discredited lab leak conspiracy theory as a viable explanation for the pandemic’s origin in a piece published in the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists in 2021:

Whether or not SARS2 is the product of that research, it seems a questionable policy to farm out high-risk research to foreign labs using minimal safety precautions. And if the SARS2 virus did indeed escape from the Wuhan institute, then the NIH will find itself in the terrible position of having funded a disastrous experiment that led to the death of more than 3 million worldwide, including more than half a million of its own citizens.

The jury is still out on whether a lab leak was the origin of the pandemic. It is within the realm of possible explanations, but we may never know for sure. And it is precisely in situations of uncertainty like these where scientifically viable accounts and conspiracy theories can easily become indistinguishable from one another.

The problems start when these narratives are exploited for partisan political purposes on a national stage. Stories that were once created and consumed for the purposes of entertainment within tight-knit communities are now deployed across the internet to explain complex real-world phenomena. It’s a scenario the original underground textfile writers likely never imagined as a possibility because their material was not intended to reach such a large audience. New avenues in thinking through unconventional writing can be illuminating, but dark alleys exist as well — something today’s users of social media would do well to keep in mind.