top brass

the despondent grad and the steampunk browser toolbar game

by tony

I was engulfed by a deep sense of malaise as I sat hunched over a cheap Wal-mart keyboard on my childhood desk, pressing J to scroll through RSS items in Google Reader. Don't people even send rejection letters to job applicants anymore? Dozens of job applications since last month, and not a single response. Not even a polite e-mail.

With nothing lined up, I made ends meet earning $48 per day as a 24-hour on-call rape crisis counselor (though many months concluded with a sheepish request to my parents for cash). It was a terrible time, but one not unlike many 2007 college graduates experienced. The air was supposedly electric with economic prosperity, the hum of which drowned out reports of skyrocketing adjustable mortgage rates and creeping foreclosure rates. But our promised job market wholly evaporated somewhere between the time we submitted our applications and the date we expected an interview.

The other nasty head of the graduation beast loomed above me: I was staying in my college town while my best friends were preparing to moving to impressive, far-flung meccas like Chicago and New York. My best friend (who has graced these pages before) would be gone in a matter of weeks, and I dreaded not being able to call him up, day or night, to eat some bad pizza or to play some Crystal Chronicles. I was in a relationship, but my boyfriend was both distant and jealous-- not good company. I felt isolated and useless.

all I could do was press j. j. j. j.

An interesting item came up in my Tech folder: Play a Multiplayer Online Game While Surfing the Web: PMOG.” I clicked through, installed the Firefox toolbar, and created an account. You play the game by simply browsing the web-- the name is an initialism of the cheeky phrase “Passively Multiplayer Online Game.” The idea is that you can lay traps on certain websites, or leave crates of treasure. The next player to visit that site is rewarded with either the explosion or the bounty that you left behind. You could set a trap on FoxNews.com, or leave prizes for people who viewed a Wikipedia article that you wrote. You could also curate the web by leaving strings of Lightposts to guide those who stumbled upon them. You earned money by visiting unique URLs each day, and could spend the cash on portals, chests, grenades, and other goodies.

New players were dubbed “Shoats” (a word meaning young pig), but could evolve into a particular class by playing. Players aligned themselves with one of six factions that fell under the banners of Order or Chaos. The Order factions included Benefactors (who leave crates of goodies for others), Pathmakers (who light the way between strings of websites), and Bedouins (who forge armor to protect themselves and others). Chaos is represented by Destroyers (who specialize in explosives), Vigilantes (who use dastardly little mechanical bugs to sabotage people who try to plant mines), and Seers (who place mischievous portals that transport players to a mystery destination). The art was generally good, with a strong steampunk theme. The game was eventually renamed The Nethernet to reflect its steampunk sensibilities.

Because it was only available on the Firefox browser and revolved around curating the internet, The Nethernet generally attracted a particular breed of nerd. Users were mostly in their late twenties or early thirties, and felt strongly about net neutrality, podcasts, Wikipedia, and civil liberties. I instantly clicked with most of the player base, and we would check in with each other at the forums. I was one of the higher-ranked Seers in the game, and I developed a bit of a reputation for using portals to deface the pages of 2008 Republican Presidential Primary candidates.

In 2008, very few people thought it was a cool idea to start a podcast (they’d recently gone out of fashion), but I’d just bought a copy of iLife and was having fun trying my hand at audio editing. I convinced a revolving cast of 4-5 other players to get on Skype with me and shoot the breeze about the evolving game, the player base, and the developers. We never stayed on track, but played off each other very well and developed personas. We had around 40 subscribers, which seemed like a lot-- I’d never persuaded 40 people to be interested in anything I’d done before. I worked hard to organize everyones’ schedules, to prepare for the podcast, and to edit down our two hour gabfests into a 25 minute show.

When I was AFK, I was Tony, the lonely, unremarkable, underemployed kid in a sea of college grads who had no idea what the hell was next. But when I was at my desk, I was tonedef, a lovable, roguish goofball that people liked to confide in. Tonedef got stuff done. Tonedef was fighting the power with an offbeat sense of humor and technological know-how. People liked him. And he had a job to do.

The rest of my fellow “Tubenauts” (named for the then-recently coined analogy that the internet is a series of tubes) also played roles. Pixielo was the knowing critic with the dry sense of humor. Snocrsh was the nice guy with a passion for science fiction and education. lehall was an alternate-reality game junkie and pioneer of community-building in virtual spaces. Zous was the only one who knew how the hell to get a podcast to show up in iTunes. We recorded thirteen great episodes, and some of them are still available on iTunes.

together, we formed a team that felt solid, comfortable, and where everyone filled a necessary role.

The game eventually fell apart after it attempted to monetize, introducing premium currency (called “Bacon,” back when that was fresh). Users rebelled, venture capital dried up, and the game was no more. In retrospect, it really was a privacy nightmare-- the company’s servers often buckled under the weight of the entire player base’s complete browsing history (which was used to dish out points and badges). And selling a game in a Firefox toolbar was a pretty tough proposition, as Chrome was now on the scene. There were half-hearted attempts to revive or reconstruct The Nethernet, but the player base drifted away.

I don’t talk to any of the Tubenauts much anymore; I don’t even know how to get in touch with some of them. But I cannot stress enough how important it was for me to feel like I belonged somewhere during my rocky initial steps into adulthood. I drew immense motivation and satisfaction from my role as the lovable goof and competent producer, and that escape from dreary reality convinced me to remake my reality in its image. I broke up with my boyfriend, and moved my life to Chicago. None of us intentionally set out to create this safe space, but we comfortably fit together like the brass gears that powered the world of The Nethernet. I salute my crew for their service, and heartily thank them for showing me that I could fit in.

Captain tonedef, signing off.