A look at how one inane subject - The Simpsons - has thoroughly wormed its way across the chaotic Internet without any formal planning or profit motive shows how the medium's passionate public is bending it to new uses.
The Internet, as envisioned three decades ago by theorists at the Rand Corp., would be a military communication system able to withstand nuclear attack by having no centralized facilities or control. It is now presumed to have tens of millions of users around the world.
Including thousands of Simpsons fanatics. The Fox TV series is just one of about 9,500 subjects, from the noble to the perverse, of intense written discussion in what are called Internet newsgroups.
At any given time, about 500 active discussion topics, or "threads," are listed in The Simpsons newsgroup called alt.tv.simpsons. Threads come under headings that include "That stupid ice-hockey episode," "Best Homer 'MMMMM' line," "Smithers is Burnsosexual" and "Homer = primate?"
"Sometimes I feel like knocking their electronic noggins together," series creator Matt Groening said of his reaction to a lot of the Simpsons material on the Internet.
Groening confirmed what many who post messages in the newsgroup were already convinced of: The show's writers are "lurking" - hanging out on the Internet without making their presence known.
"After watching last night's hockey episode," one fan wrote recently, "I couldn't help . . . the feeling that Simpsons writers have been lurking. . . . They heavily catered to the minor-character-fan faction that has been fueling (threads) here lately."
"I lurk," Groening said in an interview last week. But he added that other writers on the show "were reluctant to have me admit that," for fear it would affect what contributors say.
He insisted, however, that it was "unlikely that anything that anyone ever says influences the show."
In addition to the newsgroup chatter, computer archives of Simpsons information are accumulating in nooks of corporate, university and personal computers, and are available for free to anyone with a modem.
"No one organized this," said Gary Goldberg, a Simpsons fan in Bowie, Md., who, with the on-line help of a 23-year-old physicist in London, has set up an extensive archive of Simpsonian quotes, pictures and sound bites on a computer owned by Goldberg in suburban Washington. "No one said, 'You do this, you do that.' Each of us came together and said, 'We want to do something to help.' "
Fans connect to and browse through the archive through an Internet feature called the World Wide Web (the "address" is: http://www.digimark.net/ TheSimpsons/index.html).
As is often the case, much of the Simpsons material is copyrighted. "Sure, I'm bugged by the copyright violations," said Groening. "But The Simpsons has been violated so often that I don't lose any sleep over it. I don't really know what could be done about it."
Goldberg noted that there was no charge for using his archive, but said, ''If they asked me to stop, I would."
The first known Simpsons archive was begun shortly after the series began airing in December 1989. It was set up by Brendan Kehoe, then a Widener University computer whiz and confessed Simpsons addict. He went on to become famous in Internet circles as the author of the book Zen and the Art of the Internet (Prentice Hall), and Widener's computer network still houses the archive he started.
Goldberg's English collaborator, Howard Jones, has written a computer program that takes written summaries, or capsules, of Simpsons episodes and automatically cross-references them.
Scores of other fans who have never met each other in person make substantial contributions to the Simpsons' on-line presence.
An Australian, Gavan McCormack, 22, maintains another large archive and regularly updates a long list of frequently asked questions about The Simpsons.
Brian Howard, 29, who teaches computer science at Kansas State University, wrote summaries of the original Simpsons shorts that played on 48 episodes of Fox's The Tracey Ullman Show.
Tom Warren, 30, a computer programmer in Bridgewater, N.J., designed a Simpsons quote-for-the-day computer program - available over the Internet from Simpsons archives at Widener and Rutgers Universities, other sites in Europe, and even a computer somewhere inside the U.S. Army.
Warren said of his effort: "It's almost a public service."