Date sent: Tue, 9 Jul 1996 21:56:12 +0200 (MET DST)
From: (Janos Sugar)
Subject: nettime: Spoofoids Crash the Town Meeting By Ted Nelson


Spoofoids Crash the Town Meeting

By Ted Nelson

Have I got this right?

Lots of people think that newsgroups and forums will make the world safe for democracy -- some form of "Electronic Democracy." It will be like a New England town meeting, they say. I think Howard Rheingold and John Perry Barlow take this position.
The world will become a better place, like the Internet. (Never mind that the Internet isn't actually a place.)
But when you went to a New England town meeting, you could see the other people, smell the farm sweat, touch the flannel. Therefore you knew they existed. And at the New England town meeting the city slickers couldn't pretend to be local. And they couldn't send armies of stooges and shills into the crowd.

I Type, Therefore I Am

But how do we ever know, after all, that the people who e-mail to us, or chat with us, online, actually exist?
It's not that we just believe blindly; occasionally there is outside corroboration. We make appointments that are kept (or not kept) by real people; we talk on the phone to those who have chatted with us digitally; checks come in the mail; or we talk to real people on the phone when the checks don't.
But in today's electro-chatterworlds, e-mail, newsgroups and whatever, you can't be sure who-- or what-- you're talking to. (The great New Yorker cartoon, "On the Internet, nobody knows you're a dog," is true.) On the Net, it can be NOTHING at the other end -- a program, a vapor, a spoofoid. (The Internet security guys talk now about "spoofing," meaning sneakery and subterfuge on the Net. So a spoofoid is any entity that tries to fool you about its nature, including its physical existence as a human being.) Now, semi-phoniness is a part of legitimate life. Who hasn't exaggerated or given a spin to their self-presentation on one occasion or another? (Some forms of presentational control we esteem highly, and call "discretion.") And we are allowed certain presentational variations of our usual selves: dressing up, for instance.
But on the networks you can control your presentation to a new degree. They've caught guys posing as women, for instance. Nothing to it; whereas masquerading as the other gender in three-dimensional life is said to be expensive and troublesome. And fictitious names are not illegal; indeed, LYING is not illegal, along as you're not defrauding someone or committing some other crime.

So spoof away, says the law.

Programming A Spoofoid

It's not hard to program a spoofoid to fool a victim (or mark, as victims were called at the carnivals). Give it a bunch of things to say, expressing a sort of world-view or persona, and set those aside on disk. Plus any questions you want to probe the marks about.
Then make your reply generator. It has to respond plausibly to keywords from the other person, and branch to the world view and the questions. Obviously there's more to it than that, but not a lot. Consider the famous old program, Joe Weizenbaum's ELIZA at MIT -- a program that replied to anything you typed like a Rogerian psychoanalyst, turning your statements back into questions ("So you like girls?" or "What makes you think it's a nice day?")
The key was that it sounded knowing, and didn't say much. Of course, there are people (like Zen masters, ministers, psychoanalysts) who pull this off too. ELIZA fooled almost everybody, especially psychoanalysts. My friend Andrew Pam did an ELIZA-type program that behaved like a system administrator, I think he said, so that if people called up with questions or complaints it would make helpful suggestions that sounded knowing, like "Have you tried flushing your buffers?" He added random misspellings, hesitations and backspaces, and customers were satisfied. So just think of the possibilities.
You could program a spoofoid to be suave and reassuring, or to say things like "I'm a wild and crazy guy" and pretend to be wacky. You can load it up with obsolete old pickup lines, or sayings from Rush Limbaugh.

Then you put in the questions you want answered.

Now send it out, under various names, to talk to people.

You can use spoofoids to check people out. Friendly-seeming e-mail can test people's political opinions. So the KGB (or whoever) could approach people asking innocent questions, find out what they think. And fictitious individuals can start participating in newsgroups, to draw down fire, to find out who thinks the opposite.
That friendly note you just got could be a test. Big Brother, whoever you think that is this week, could dispatch a legion of spoofoids to get the e-mail addresses of EVERYONE WITH STRONG OPINIONS. Or try to persuade you, like petitioners and evangelists who come to your door; who if they don't persuade you, waste your time.

The Turing Test

Alan Turing, a founder of artificial intelligence, proposed to test whether a program was intelligent by whether it could chat you into thinking, over a teletype line, that it was really a person.
Now of course that didn't solve the question of what intelligence meant, it simply kicked over the table, redefining "intelligent" as merely convincing, and giving the world "chatterbox" a new meaning. But whether or not you're convinced, they're here. Maybe. The spoofoids.

An Army of Ghosts

Junk mail you can recognize and throw out, but junk conversationalists are another matter. Phony chatsters are not easily unmasked, especially if they are free to digress or answer obliquely.
Imagine an army of ghosts coming at you -- all gibbering folksily. Like phony voters from tombstones (an old American tradition), like phony letters-to-congressmen (which can now be generated by the barrel by computer), like a plague of locusts, a-hoppin' and a-jawin', they can stuff your mailbox, fill up your favorite forums.
They can WASTE YOUR TIME. Now there's a danger that strikes to the heart. And wasting the time of those with whom you disagree could be of political value.
When we think idealistically about small-town America, remember also how carnivals would come through and fleece the rubes. But now that can be combined with the town meeting. You may think it's a town meeting, but it could be full of shysters and spoofoids.

Ted Nelson, the inventor of hypertext, is a senior research fellow at Hokkaido University. He can be reached at