Author’s Note, 25 August 2016: I wrote the following short story in 2004 and posted it on my tech blog ReadWriteWeb. This was an era when RWW was more experimental and certainly not as popular as it subsequently became. So I could get away with content like this! At the time of writing, 2004, I noted that the story “takes a speculative look at what the blogosphere might be like in 20-30 years time.” Well, 12 years has past since I wrote that and I think the story still works.
My name is sylvian and this is my story of The System. Twenty years ago it was called the Web. Back then people were making it up as they went along. Some of them attained a degree of popularity on the Web, with devices they called “weblogs”. We call those people “webheads” – they’re mostly old white guys now. Still, it was a cute scene. One of my favourite activities in The System is to travel back 20 years, using Wayback 3D, and immerse myself in that old world. It was relatively primitive, but you can see similarities to The System as it is today.
The System is ruled by popularity, you see, or “reputation” as they called it back then – before the term got so over-used it became a cliché. There’s far more of us now on The System, but some of the Webheads survive. In fact they make up a good proportion of The Establishment. But now there are lots of normal people too.
I used to be quite popular in The System. I’ve had eight number 1 memes in total. I was one of the first girls to achieve more than 5 chart-toppers. Well, after the founding Webhead women that is. And hey, I’m not just talking about any old meme engine here – I’m talking about Popster. Everyone uses Popster for searching and ranking. Of course its creator, known as sysadm to the World but I also know him as Sidney Mellon, is one of The Establishment’s most influential members. I knew him back when he was just another programmer in college.
I used to go out with one of his real-world friends, much to Sidney’s amusement. He thought his friend was a player and was using me. I guess he just didn’t want to see me get hurt. But Sidney never cottoned onto the fact that I was a player too, in those days. In fact I ended up dumping his friend. I got Sidney’s respect for that.
But then our worlds forked off into different directions. Sidney had a new software product out in the System and he was spending all his time on it. He moved to New York a few years ago. Of course I’ve been subscribed to his avatar since it began. I was a subscriber before he hit it big with Popster and I used to remind people of this fact a lot. Sidney’s avatar is called simply “sysadm” – a not particularly subtle geek inside joke that, even now, he still thinks is amusing. I’ve always thought it was pretty lame.
My own avatar is named after my actual real-world name, sylvian. In the real world I’m a Junior Systems/Adverts Designer and I work for a design company here in London. It’s a small but prestigious firm, or so it says in our ads. My day job keeps me busy and some of my clients do recognize my name from The System.
When Sidney created Popster, he never imagined it would one day become the dominant ranking mechanism of The System. I think he just wanted to get the respect of his nerdy friends and perhaps earn a little cash on the side with Gmoney™, the Google currency. And for the first few years, that was pretty much what happened.
Popster’s innovation was to marry the latest in search engine technology to a pop music chart concept. In the early days of his software, Sidney liked to call Popster the “Billboard Top 40 of the System”. All his geek mates – typically males, of course – loved this concept. It allowed them to crow amongst each other about who was number 1 that week, or who was number 4 with a bullet, etcetera. Geeks in Mud, is how I like to describe the phenomenon. Give those boys a new tech toy to play with and they’re like pigs in mud.
Anyway when The System hit the mainstream, to everyone’s surprise and not least Sidney’s, Popster became the search and rank tool that all the punters used. Partly this was because Popster was so easy to use and partly it was because the pop chart format was fun and familiar to people. But mostly it was for the same reason The System got popular – people got a kick out of building up an online persona and, human nature being what it is, they wanted a way to gauge their relative popularity. I won’t bore you with the technology details, because God knows it’s boring to me. Suffice to say that The System found in Popster a way not just to rank popularity of content, it also created a star system for avatars. There are lots of different “charts” in Popster – as many types of charts as types of people. The System is all things to all people, and Popster is the same.
My number ones were in the so-called Pop Charts, which is about as mainstream as it gets in The System. I started out a few years ago with what was once quaintly known as a “linklog”. I used to link to loads of cool stuff – especially arcana and automata of the 2020’s and beyond. I was very hip. I then split my avatar into two different identities. One half, the one that drew the most crowds, was a link machine. I called it sylvian-links (but most people continued to refer to it as just “sylvian”, a little to my chagrin). The other half was original content, stuff from my head and nowhere else. They were essays, if you like, but included not just text but pictures and vocal vignettes too. What was that word they used in the 1990’s – “multimedia”, that’s it. That’s what I did in the other half of sylvian, which I called “sylvian-me”.
My proudest moment in The System was when I got to number 1 with a sylvian-me entry. That was my fifth number 1 – the four previous chart-toppers dated back to before I split my avatar into two parts. After achieving that first sylvian-me number 1, I made it my goal to get more of the same.
I looked down at my console and saw that Prue was pinging me. I set my avatar to ‘smile’, even though I felt more like ‘sanguine’. But it’s too much work being sanguine around Prue.
“Hey there Grace Kelly, I’ve got a cool link for you!” Prue sounded breathless, but at least she wasn’t doing her Bette Davis impressions.
Prue and me were in the habit of referring to each other using the names of old Hollywood actresses.
“All right Sharon Stone, don’t be a tease. Hand it over, bud.” I said and smiled despite myself.
Prue grinned and flashed the link to me. Immediately I zeroed in on it with my console.
“Hey, c’mon Madonna – I see that 6 people have already jumped on this. It’s like number 108 with a bullet on the Soul-Urban-Age19 chart!” I shouted in mock hysteria.
“Yeh I know that, but it’s got some twists that nobody has caught onto yet. Run it through your state-of-the-art Trend Analyser”. Prue then added sarcastically “What is it, like 18 months old now? You’ll see that there are at least 9 threads that haven’t been –”
I interrupted, as I’d just received the results and was excited to discover it was a Greta Garbo link. My all-time favourite Hollywood actress!
“Hey thanks Prue! This thing could be a sleeper. I better post it quick, before a Copyist gets onto it.”
Prue was silent. I knew that expression – it meant Prue didn’t know what avatar mode to use and that meant she was hiding something.
“What is it?” I demanded.
“Well,” Prue belatedly switched to her chipper mode, “I didn’t know whether to mention it. But the link came from sysadm. He told me to pass it on to you.”
Now I was the silent one. I turned back to the console and did some further analysis on the link. It was now necessary to cross-reference it not just to 100 generations, but as many as possible. Perhaps up to half a million generations. If this link came from Sidney, then it had some arcane reference in it that encoded a personal message. It was a habit Sidney had gotten into, mostly to keep his Establishment mates on their toes. I hadn’t received a message from Sidney since about two years before, when he’d sent a formal note of congratulations to me after one of my early chart toppers. So I was curious what his message was.
The Garbo link turned out to be a new hyper-montage of the Garbo film Ninotchka, a comedy. Garbo wasn’t known for doing comedies and there was a rumour that in Ninotchka, the director Ernst Lubitsch was dissatisfied with Garbo’s attempts to fake (or act) a laugh. So he dubbed in another woman’s voice to provide the laughter. I’d known of this fact – there’s very little I don’t know about Greta Garbo, at least when it comes to things about her that were written, spoken or merely implied in the media. That’s to say, I know all the arcana of her public life. But despite it not being a new revelation about Garbo, the Ninotchka hyper-montage was a nice piece of work. It played on the ‘fake laugh’ motif – there were lots of ghostly laughs and flashes of smiles throughout the piece.
But the results from the Trend Analyser were puzzling (and yes it is over 18 months old, as Prue had said, but I’d gotten so in tune with this particular machine that I’d lose more than I’d gain by upgrading – it would take me at least another 12 months to re-tune). The strange thing about this link was that it was a couple of years old, yet a month previous there were only a few references to it on The System. Even though Garbo is a minority topic, the odds are over 97% that a 2-year old quality Garbo link would be referenced at least 500 times – probably closer to 1000. And those aren’t odds I’ve plucked out of the air, I’ve calculated this many times on my Trend Analyser. It doesn’t lie.
I also could find no trace of Sidney Mellon in the back-references. I’d cranked the Trend Analyser up to 499 degrees of separation, but even then there was not the slightest hint of Sidney. At this point I was getting a little anxious, as I’d spent over an hour analysing the Ninotchka link and I still hadn’t published it onto sylvian-links. If I didn’t hurry up, a copyist would swoop in like a magpie, unravel the untouched threads and pinch the glory. So despite my uneasy feelings about what the link meant, and why Prue had mentioned Sidney, I decided to release it to my hungry audience.
I opened the door to my room and saw that my console was paging me.
“Sylvian, you have a message from The Establishment”, said the console. I had it programmed to be the voice of Rowen Atkinsen, a British comedian from the 1980’s. This meant the console always sounded comical, even when relaying serious messages. And this was serious, because how often did I get a message from The Establishment? Almost never, that’s how often.
I sat down and waved the console’s monitor into action, expecting to see a bland-looking emissary avatar from The Establishment.
I was surprised to find the visage of Greta Garbo looking back at me! My first thought was that it better not be Prue or Haley playing games with me again. But how could they fake a message from The Establishment? They couldn’t, nobody can do that. The Establishment has rock-solid security and nobody has ever managed to crack their broadcast message code. Which means nobody has ever managed to spoof a message from The Establishment.
The Garbo avatar was looking me over, with a typically hard to read expression on her face. I double-checked that the transmission was coming from The Establishment. It was.
“Hey Syl, how’s it going babe?” The voice was that of Greta Garbo, complete with Swedish accent and a slight 1930’s background hiss that you get on those old movies. But the words were unmistakably that of Sidney Mellon.
I eventually recovered from my shock of seeing a Garbo avatar and belatedly set my avatar to ‘sanguine’.
“Sidney Christopher Mellon, that’s got to be you. How the hell did you manage to get the Garbo avatar?!” It was impossible to keep the sanguine expression on my virtual face and my console automatically reverted to my actual state of surprise (most System avatars had the Reality Check™ plug-in installed, which prevented avatars from assuming expressions that were too far out of alignment with its owners words).
“I thought you’d be impressed, Sylvian.” And the Garbo avatar smirked, just like Sidney’s usual sysadm avatar.
I enjoyed hearing the Garbo voice pronounce my name and so I emitted a small peep of pleasure. Quickly I composed myself though.
“But Sidney, the Garbo avatar is covered in copyright. The Hollywood Cartel chained it up years ago… you’d be jailed if they ever found out you’re spoofing it!” I was now genuinely concerned for Sidney, for the Hollywood Cartel is known to be especially ruthless in protecting their movie star’s avatars. Just a month previous, a 16 year old boy had been jailed for 1 year for spoofing the action movie star Eli Bush’s avatar.
“This [pronounced “Ziss”] is no spoof”, the Garbo avatar beamed. “I bought the copyright.” Sidney’s avatar smiled that enigmatic smile characteristic of Garbo.
“You bought it! Why? It must’ve cost you a fortune!”
The Garbo avatar switched to scratchy black and white, purely to amuse the person controlling it – Sidney Mellon.
Adopting a dramatic expression, the Garbo avatar spoke: “Sylvian, I bought it for you.”
A few weeks later, my popularity on The System had reached an all-time high and I was up there in the higher echelons of the charts with most of the old webheads. In that short time I’d gained 2 more number ones with sylvian-links and an especially gratifying number one with sylvian-me, my avatar that produced original compositions. The Greta Garbo skin was a goldmine and I have to admit I was enjoying my newfound fame. My personal life had improved too, again thanks to Sidney. We were pinging each other every few hours.
OK, I admit it – I’d fallen for Sidney.
But even at this relatively early stage of my newly acquired A-List status in The System, I felt uncomfortable about how much of it was due to Sidney’s influence. The Garbo avatar seemed to be imposing itself on me too. I was assuming the characteristics of Greta Garbo as her legend portrayed it – aloof or shy, brooding, sensual. Even the Reality Check plug-in adjusted itself to my new personality – it didn’t correct me when I assumed a Garboesque pose in The System. And I was posing as Garbo ever more frequently – in my IM conversations, in my postings in sylvian-links and sylvian-me, in my interactions with other avatars. The really strange thing was, even my friends didn’t object. They accepted the new me, just as everyone else had.
Everyone except for me.
It’s 6 months later as I write this. I’ve now lost myself completely to Garbo. When people see a sylvian-link or a sylvian-me post now, they identify it with a cult movie star who died a long time ago.
I ditched Sidney about a month ago. He complained that he’d made me part of The Establishment and a star in The System. How could I walk away from that, he’d whined. I told him then what I still believe now: I wanted out of the Garbo avatar and out of my relationship with Sidney for the same reason – I was an impostor in both.
I’m posting this story to my new avatar, just a couple of months old and temporarily called “sylvian-new”. I haven’t been able to think of a better name. Only 15 people subscribe to this avatar, which so far has been full of personal and rambling and chaotic stories. My highest pop chart position with sylvian-new has been 281.
That’s all about to change though. When I push the button to publish this story, the name of Sidney Mellon will once again propel me to number 1.