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APRIL 7, 2000

The Social Workers of Cyberspace: Hosts, Guides, and Experts in Obscure Lore

Excerpt from Net Slaves: True Tales of Working the Web


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The longer my co-author, Steve, and I spent on the Dark Side of the Net, the more we realized that the Cops and Streetwalkers of Cyberspace were not its only inhabitants. There was also this strange and overly friendly group of individuals we called Social Workers.

From colorful tents pitched inside chat rooms, bulletin boards, and special-interest Web sites, these tireless souls did everything from solving marital problems and providing sustenance to weary surfers to serving as hosts and liaisons for celebrities visiting the electronic community.

What's more, the members of this caste all seemed to be experts in their particular field of interest. There were Social Workers who could rattle off the chronology of all German Expressionist films made between 1919 and 1929. Others were authorities on model railroading. Still others could tell you how to survive in the desert for months at a time with only a tuning fork. Steve and I learned a great deal from talking to the Social Workers. And it was quite entertaining to watch the emotions fly fast and furious about such obscure subjects. We had to excuse ourselves, however, when the conversations veered toward "Wiccan investment strategies" or the "metaphysics of polka."

Our restraint was due to fear -- rather than excessive politeness. In such tightly knit communities, you are either an insider or an outsider. And to be the latter is often dangerous to your digital health. Social Workers instantaneously transform into modem-wielding Furies whenever they feel their territory is being threatened by a smart-ass outsider. We don't begrudge the Social Workers their protective traits. We know it's the Social Workers' job to keep the conversations lively and on-topic and to imbue their communities with a sense of safety.

General Characteristics of Social Workers

Where they can be found: At the other end of any celebrity chat, in the thick of bulletin board discussions, below the banner of any interest-specific hub.

Average Age: 25 to 35. Since being a Social Worker implies a certain level of maturity, members of this caste are slightly older than the average person you'll find trolling AOL's chat rooms at one o'clock in the morning.

Average Pay: Varies. Many Social Workers provide their services in exchange for free accounts or server space. Others do it as a second job to supplement their incomes. Wages are nominal, at best. ($10 to $15 an hour), but in the eyes of Social Workers, dealing with the bitchy members on the Plant Cultures topic beats a bullet on 7-Eleven's graveyard shift.

Marital Status: Married (last time they checked).

Official Social Worker Attire: Pink fuzzy slippers, cigarette-burned underwear.

Psychological Profile: Obsessive. They know a great deal about their particular (some say peculiar) area of interest and very little about the world at large ("Monica Lewinsky? Who's that?")

Hours Worked per Week:20 to 30. (So read their contracts, but given their obsessive natures, most Social Workers put in upward of 70 hours, the rest gratis.)

Percentage of Net Slave Population: 40%. If you've ever been to GeoCities,, or, you'll know why this number is so high.

Unsung Abilities Social Workers are the emoticon kings and queens of the New Media Universe. Not only do they possess an encyclopedic knowledge of every possible facial expression and abbreviation, but they wield them with the skill and grace of concert pianists. Also, being negotiators at bottom, they can resolve electronic disagreements quicker than you can say "Henry Kissinger."

Other Talents: Social Workers who do celebrity chats should be awarded Real-Time Medals of Honor for putting up with the immense egos of our modern-day gods and goddesses, who have been known to storm out of events midway, not show up at all, or otherwise act like such royal pains that Social Workers have to make up their responses on the spot. (Yes, that's right. The odds are the the big-time actress you thought was gracing your chat auditorium was probably a Social Worker doing an electronic puppet show.)

Chance of Upward Mobility: Unlikely. Most Social Workers putter away in their little fiefdoms in relative peace compared with other Net Slaves. However, should they befriend a disaffected teenager who just hacked Fort Knox, the sky's the limit -- book deals, venture capital, the lecture circuit.

Bill Lessard and Steve Baldwin are the co-creators of the netslaves Web site []. Both currently write for Wired News.

Bill Lessard has written for The Industry Standard and CNET, and spent years as a netslave for Prodigy, Pathfinder, and a variety of startups before joining the Union Bank of Switzerland. He lives in Yonkers, N.Y.

Steve Baldwin has been an editor at PC Magazine, Computer Shopper, and Pathfinder, and developed "Ghost Sites of the Web," a Web zine devoted to failed Web sites. He lives in New York City.

Reprinted and excerpted with permission from Net Slaves: True Tales of Working the Web

By Bill Lessard and Steve Baldwin
Copyright 2000 Bloomberg L.P.

All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced or distributed or stored in a database or retrieval system without the prior written permission of the publisher. Available at the McGraw-Hill Bookstore, local and online bookstores. For ordering information, see


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