By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
Kevin Massey gets so worked up before he "posts," he can feel the sweat.
His face aglow in the blue light of his 20-inch Sony monitor, he grips a pencil-shaped "mouse" in his right hand--the letters "F-T-W" (Fuck The World) tattooed between his knuckles--and prepares to cast his thoughts worldwide.
At his fingertips lies the Internet and its 30,000 bulletin boards, where anyone with a modem and a few working brain cells can tack something up. Every day the equivalent of 500 thick novels are posted on these unedited sites, which are formally called "newsgroups."
Another, often appropriate term is "kookgroups." People use them to discuss JFK assassination theories, or sex acts with fish, or how the black helicopters are about to enslave us all.
Massey isn't big on any of those, though. He likes to "flame."
The term, long a part of the computer communications vocabulary, means to malign, to run down, to cut someone up on line.
"It's kind of like playing basketball. It's competition," says the rangy, 6-foot-3 ex-con, who goes by the on-line name Mackdaddy. "You're insulting people, but it's all just stupid."
With his X-rated vocabulary and with time on his hands, the Mackdaddy will boot up the computer in his house in the East Texas countryside and trade insults with anyone in cyberspace who's willing to play. The technoserfs who labor in the computer-Internet provider business are typically game.
Between late July and mid-October, Massey and a few other pseudonymous gadflies--Wild Bill, Rudolph Valentino, Lou Gomez, and several more--traded insults with five employees at Internet America, the seventh-largest Internet service provider in the country. The company, which has its headquarters in downtown Dallas, is perhaps best known for its ubiquitous 1-800-Be-A-Geek ads.
It was a flame war of Homeric dimensions, with participants joining in, posting trashy notes for a few days or weeks, then retreating to their tents. The electronic bulletin board on which they were pinned, dfw.flame, was set up specifically for these sorts of potty-mouthed fights, which nobody takes very seriously.
On August 17, for example, D.J. Franchini replied to a missive in which the Mackdaddy said he'd "ask an old woman to pray for you this Sunday."
Franchini, who identified himself in the message as "Internet America Director of Customer Care," with no disclaimer to the contrary, wrote: "Don't worry about it. I'm having your old lady and sister at the house this Sunday. They'll be in the praying stance anyway (on knees) being serviced...Besides, I've made your mom cry for God enough already."
On August 19, another Internet America employee, Jake Decker, posted a note to Mackdaddy: "I have a black belt in GLOCK, there ain't a form in the world to stop that punch...KICKING the shit out of you Mackdaddy would be fun, but then again prolly a bore."
Two months later, their boss, Internet America President Robert Maynard, noticed several gutter insults that Mackdaddy directed toward Maynard and his wife, by name, on a bulletin board typically used for Internet company marketing.
In mid-October, the high-profile 34-year-old CEO declared to a sensation-loving media in phone calls, interviews, and a press release that a "cyberstalker" had taken a bead on him and his family.
He went to Dallas police. He went to the FBI. He brought in private security and claims to have sent his family out of town. On October 14, his lawyers sued for defamation and interference with his business, and got a sweeping restraining order against Kevin Massey from a state judge. As the public relations firm Holland McAlister directed traffic, Maynard showed a TV news crew how he was fighting this "predator" with the first-ever posting of a court order on the Internet.
The story went worldwide for a day--and it has been going straight backward ever since.
The existence of a criminal cyberstalker was dismissed almost immediately by the police and the Internet provider company that sells Massey his $30-a-month link to the Net. Maynard's competitors, and others who looked beyond the first blast of news reports, quickly but privately concluded that this was another publicity stunt by Internet America, which takes an aggressive media-marketing-public relations approach to nearly everything it does.
As the case continues to play out on several computer bulletin boards and in a Dallas civil court, one thing has become clear. Although they inhabit different worlds, two of the loudest, most impulsive, most egotistical spin wizards who ever logged on to a computer have locked onto each other via this raging technology, and now hate each other's guts.
At one end of the bandwidth is the president of a 163-employee company, an ex-Green Beret who, despite his profile as an up-and-comer in the Dallas business community, is battling a federal lawsuit alleging that he misled consumers in an infomercial he made while running a credit repair company in Phoenix.
At the other end is a foulmouthed slacker with a prison record who thinks it would be great if all this got him a spot on Howard Stern, and who delights in getting as close to the edge of the law, and people's nerves, as he possibly can.