5 Internet Annoyances That Are Way Older Than the Internet
Technology advances in a blur -- a lot of us can't remember what life was like before smartphones, let alone the Internet. As a result, we have a tendency to think that all of the annoyances that came with the Internet are also brand new to humanity.
But they're really not. Just as we've previously told you that hacking was invented way before the Internet and that fan fiction has been creeping people out for a thousand years, it turns out that those are not the only common online annoyances your great-great-grandfather might have been exposed to. If you think going back in time a century or two would help you escape things like email spam, Nigerian scams or LOLspeak, think again.
Telegraphed Messages Had Hilarious "AutoCorrect" Mistakes
Have you ever sent a text message only to later find out your phone's software AutoCorrected the shit out of it, making it unreadable or, even worse, completely changing the meaning? For example, in trying to fix what it perceives as a spelling error, the phone might change "basket" into "casket," or "gasoline" into "Vaseline," or "hi grandma" into "I smoke meth and worship strange gods."
"Nyarlathotep? You know we're a Baphomet family."
Well, telegraph users in the 19th and early 20th centuries had to put up with a surprisingly similar annoyance: Just because you sent the right signals through the wire didn't necessarily mean the same words would reach the other side. The Victorian version of AutoCorrect was called "hog-Morse" after the tendency for the word "home" to come through as "hog," resulting, for example, in a message that said "home sweet home" becoming "hog swat hog." Other examples include turning "cow" into "coat," "wife" into "wig" and "U.S. Navy" into "us nasty," which had to be the name of at least one '80s R&B group.
This led to awkward situations, like the time a commission firm in Richmond, Virginia, received a telegram inquiring about the price of "undressed staves" ... where "staves" (wooden posts) had accidentally been replaced with "slaves." An employee at the firm replied: "No trade in naked chattel since Emancipation Proclamation."
Trolling, gratuitous racism -- that guy single-handedly invented the Internet.
Another time, the message "Governor general turns first sod" (referring to a railway ceremony in London) came through as "Governor general twins first son," which was further expanded by a news agency into "Lady Kennedy, the wife of Sir Arthur Kennedy, Governor-General of Queensland, yesterday gave birth at Government House, Brisbane, to twins, the first born being a son." This took everyone in London by surprise, especially because the governor was single.
Hog-Morse was the result of inexperienced or inept telegraph operators misreading Morse code signals without noticing -- basically, it was like a pre-computer version of a software bug. In fact, instead of "n00bs," new telegraph users who made annoying mistakes were actually known as "bugs," since most of them used a cheap telegraph key that had an insect for a logo.
This was the equivalent of using the default avatar on a message board.
Despite the urban legend that claims that the term "bug" as a synonym for a technical error comes from an actual moth found inside an early computer in 1947 (which did happen -- here's a photo of it), that exact meaning was already being used in the previous century. Renowned supervillain Thomas Alva Edison used that definition of bug in a letter from 1878, though in all likelihood, he stole it from someone else.
Electronic Spam Was Invented in Victorian England
Yes, electronic spam has been annoying people since the 19th century -- since 1864, to be precise, when an unlicensed dentist's office in London abused new telegraph technology to mass-send the following advertisement:
"Messrs Gabriel, dentists, Harley-street, Cavendish-square. Until October Messrs Gabriel's professional attendance at 27, Harley-Street, will be 10 till 5."
"P.S. Ask for special prices on our penile augmentation elixir."
Thanks to the newly established London District Telegraph company, protospammers Maurice and Arnold Gabriel were able to send 100 telegraphic dispatches at a time, specifically targeting important members of British society. Since telegrams at this point were still used for urgent matters only, the incident caused shock and indignation among the top-hat wearing, mustachioed population:
You can practically taste the monocle.
Another gentleman wrote that when he received the telegram, he immediately "feared that a fire or some other casualty had occurred" before ripping open the envelope and finding out he'd basically been rickrolled. It wasn't long before other shady businesses started doing the same thing, and they still haven't stopped.
However, there's another inbox annoyance that's been going around for even longer: cursed chain letters, of the "forward this to 20 people or something bad will happen" type. Early versions of the same concept can be found in ancient Egypt and Asia.
"The last person who didn't pass this wall on to five of his friends died when a wall fell on him."
The idea that copying a text or image will give you great riches/prevent a calamity dates back thousands of years, but it only started resembling the chain letters that the very old/very young/very stupid members of your family keep forwarding to you at some point in the 1700s, when "Letters from Heaven" began circulating that claimed to be written by Jesus himself, promising:
"And he that hath a copy of this my own letter, written with my own hand ... and keepeth it without publishing it to others shall not prosper; but he that publisheth it to others, shall be blessed of me ... and if he believe not in this writing ... I will send my own plagues upon him, and consume both him and his children, and his cattle."
"Personal visitations take a lot of bandwidth, so we've been relying more on snail mail lately."
These letters were still going around in the early 20th century, though they had evolved into shorter messages that simply asked the recipient to reproduce a short prayer (or face the consequences). With time, the religious element was played down while keeping a supernatural promise of good or bad fortune. So whatever you make of the irritating Facebook forwards that keep showing up in your feed, at least they're not out there insisting Jesus himself posted it.
The 1830s Had Their Own Version of LOLspeak
It's one of the sad realities of the Internet (and probably humanity in general) that what begins as satire can quickly become a real thing, and nowhere is this more evident than in LOLspeak. Originally a mockery of the piss-poor typing and grammar skills exhibited by 12-year-old kids in chat rooms, its ridiculous acronyms and nigh-gibberish spellings ascended into a vaguely "comedic" form of speech that instantly made anything "funny." That's why a few years back, sharing pictures of your cat with abbreviations and misspelled words stamped on them got so popular that people became millionaires doing it.
That fact is the most compelling argument both for and against capitalism.
But if you think of that as a specific kind of frivolity that could only have been birthed on the Internet, you're wrong again. It turns out that this kind of thing has happened before, and it may have brought us one of the most commonly used words in the entire world (not just the English language).
Back in the 1830s and '40s, a fad developed (primarily in the Boston area) that became known as "comical abbreviations." The idea was that people would take a word or phrase, imagine how an uneducated bumpkin would spell it and then, to make it even more confusing, abbreviate it. For example, "all right" would turn into "oll wright" and then "OW." "No use" became "know yuse" and then "KY." Other riotous examples of this hilarious trend include "KG" for "know go" and "NC" for "nuff ced." Comical misspellings were popular among newspaper journalists ... and also editorial cartoonists, resulting in primitive versions of today's image macros and rage comics.
And the art was just as good!
The meme eventually faded, but linguists believe that at least one of those misspellings survived into the modern era: "All correct" was frequently changed into "oll korrect" and further abbreviated to "OK." As the other abbreviations (or "abracadrabaisms") dropped out of use, "OK" picked up more steam when Martin Van Buren's presidential campaign used it a few years later as part of a political slogan, jokingly claiming it stood for "Old Kinderhook," Van Buren's nickname, which led to its nationwide recognition.
Is that a trollface guy waving in the background?
The 19th Century Had Obsessive Fanboys
It's hard to imagine something like ComicCon or costumed fans lining up for a midnight release happening prior to the Internet age. After all, it was the Web that allowed obsessive fanboys to gather and reaffirm each other's zealotry, from Tumblr accounts filled with video game cosplay to lengthy articles devoted to analyzing the minutiae of cartoons originally written for children (which we at Cracked know nothing about).
It's the kind of fandom that surely is only possible thanks to millions of people living trivial lives with too much spare time. It's hard to imagine readers in the 19th century caring enough about fictional characters to get all worked up, considering that they were probably spending 16 hours a day in the coal mines.
The smoking offsets the black lung.
But you'd be wrong. For example, when Sherlock Holmes was "killed off" by his creator Arthur Conan Doyle in 1893, the fanboy rage was comparable to when the show Firefly was canceled in 2002, only instead of spamming message boards, they spammed the real world. In London, grieving "Sherlockians" took to the streets wearing black armbands and flooded the offices of Conan Doyle's publisher with hate mail. It was an Internet shitstorm before there was an Internet.
In America, "Let's Keep Holmes Alive" clubs started appearing in several cities, which were apparently the 1893 version of all those online petitions to bring back Arrested Development. More than 20,000 people boycotted the magazine Doyle wrote for by instantly canceling their subscriptions. Other fans decided to do something a little more productive: They started writing their own Holmes stories, "fixing" the ending so that the character didn't die.
"Oh, no need to consult with me. I just wrote the fucking thing."
This tendency persisted even after Holmes was brought back the following decade: Obsessive fans began writing long essays dissecting Sherlock Holmes' continuity, pointing out inconsistencies and debating possible solutions, like Trekkies but without the Spock ears. Conan Doyle said of one of those essays, written in 1911:
"That anyone should spend such pains on such material was what surprised me. Certainly you know a great deal more about it than I do, for the stories have been written in a disconnected (and careless) way without referring back to what had gone before."
If anything, giving in to the angry readers and bringing back their idol only seemed to encourage their insanity. When the first new Holmes story came out in 1901 (it was a prequel; Holmes wouldn't be resurrected until a few years later), a long line of fans set up camp for blocks around the printer's building to get their copy early. Not the bookstore, but the actual place where the magazines were printed. Not even Harry Potter fans are that dedicated.
Substitute "John Watson" for "Ronald Weasley" and this is exactly what it looked like.
"Nigerian Prince" Scams Date Back to the 16th Century
Those scam messages from "Nigerian royalty" (promising vast unclaimed riches in exchange for a relatively small "bank fee") have been around for over a decade and will probably never go away. It only takes one sucker in thousands to make it all worth it for the scammer, since a single victim can be stringed along for months or even years.
"He's still not saved? All I have left to give is this laptop, hat and mustache."
But the "Nigerian prince" scam is actually just a repurposed version of a centuries-old con. As far back as the 16th century, gullible people have been falling for a scam known as the "Spanish Prisoner Letter" or "Spanish Swindle," so named because it originated primarily from Spain instead of Nigeria. Other than that, it worked exactly the same way. The victims received letters claiming to be written by a previously unknown relative trapped in a Spanish prison who just so happens to be immensely rich. In the letter, the prisoner would promise to share his massive fortune with the victim if they could just come up with the money for his bail. So the promise was the same: Give us a little cash and you'll get a lot of it in return.
"Spanish jail? That's so specific, it must be legit."
Anyone foolish enough to send the bail money would be strung along with further implausible scenarios that required more and more cash (like money for bribes or to save the prisoner's daughter from a tyrant) until they either wised up or went broke. The scam was so common that the U.S. Postal Service even began printing information to help postal inspectors recognize it. And 200 years from now, the mail that's delivered directly to our brains over Wi-Fi will be full of requests from wealthy space royalty suffering in the prisons of Phobos, only needing a few thousand Federation credits to secure their release.
To read more from Ashe, check out Weird Shit Blog on Tumblr, Twitter and Facebook. Maxwell Yezpitelok lives in Chile, and occasionally writes back to scammers. You can bother him on Twitter.
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