: What Is AFP?

Meg Thornton

Alt.Fan.Pratchett - a Rough Guide

A few preparatory notes: I've written this guide for people who have already read Pratchett's books. I'm presuming that the person reading this is reading it online, with access to a search engine, and the willingness to use same to explain anything they don't understand. is a newsgroup in the alt.* hierachy which has been around since 1992 - nearly ten years now. I've been reading the group since 1997, and this essay is intended to be something of a rough description of what the group is, and a necessarily vague understanding of what for want of a better word I will call the group's personality or culture. It is biased, and I'm reasonably certain that a lot of people on afp will disagree with my point of view.

So, to start with, on the purely mechanical side of things, is a newsgroup. This means that it is an entity on the internet, and that it is distributed in a certain manner, as dictated by a certain protocol - in this case, NNTP. Effectively, when a post is made to by anyone, it is duplicated on thousands and thousands of servers around the world, and is potentially available to anyone using those servers. (or afp, for convenience) is also a newsgroup in the alt.* hierachy - alt.* being traditionally de-acronymised into "anarchists, lunatics and terrorists" - which immediately gives it a far different context to those newsgroups in the "big 8" hierachies (news.*, misc.*, rec.*, humanities.*, soc.*, comp.*, sci.* and talk.*), just through the fact that the processes of newsgroup creation in the alt.* hierachy are different to those in the big 8 (I'm not going to go into details here - put the terms alt.*, "big 8", "newsgroup creation", and FAQ into a search engine if you want to know more).

The original charter of afp stated that it was a place for fans of Terry Pratchett's writings to discuss his books. Over the past ten years, things have altered a little (there's been another group, alt.books.pratchett, created to handle the purely book-based side of discussion) and these days, afp tends to be regarded as an online discussion space for people who might be fans of Terry Pratchett's work, and for people who might not be, but who fit into the atmosphere. This last is an important point - it is quite possible to spend a large amount of time in afp without having your "Pratchett Fan Credentials" questioned.

The most interesting (to me) facet of afp group culture is its constant contradiction. The most outstanding example of this is the fact that afp as a group prides itself on being "friendly to newcomers" - while at the same time maintaining rather strictly that not only must newcomers do the equivalent of rubbing blue mud into their bellybutton with the rest of the crowd, but that the blue mud must be rubbed counterclockwise, with the third finger of the left hand, while holding the bowl in the right, and that the bowl must then be passed clockwise around the circle - and woe betide the newcomer who inadvertently gets things wrong, or asks questions like "is that your left, or mine?".

Another of afp's traits as a newsgroup is a peculiar fondness for running jokes - and an equally peculiar fondness for forcing all running jokes to be marathon length. The "entry rituals" are an example of this. In "Wyrd Sisters" (published in 1988), Pratchett has one of his characters state "Come in, pull up a chair and call the cat a bastard". This was first adopted by afp in 1998[1], and still remains a tradition (with some alterations - chocolate is offered, and an alligator has somehow snuck into the proceedings somewhere) with more or less embellishment depending on how silly the tone of the group is that week. From this it can be deduced that afp not only has a sense of humour, but that on occasions it has the sort of sense of humour that passes as having no sense of humour. One feels that Mustrum Ridcully would feel perfectly at home here.

There is a certain amount of "shared history" for afpers - it tends to be a newsgroup which places a strong value on continuity. For example, while in many newsgroups, four years of participation might be regarded as a long time, to many of the afp "Old Farts", I'm merely a newbie who's a little drier behind the ears than most. There are at least one or two afp regulars who have been with the group for most of its (currently) 9 year history. Evidence of the history is implicit throughout the group - especially in the strong reinforcement of the rules of "nettiquette" (correct behaviour for online persons), and more particularly, in the "traditional nettiquette" flavour of these rules. Part of this may also be due to the group's reader base being sourced more from the United Kingdom, Europe, and Commonwealth nations, as opposed to the United States. There are different financial and technical considerations to face in most places outside the North American landmass, most of which mean that old-fashioned "nettiquette" (designed from the point of view where net time cost money, and the polite thing to do was to save other people's money as well as your own) holds a far greater appeal. Most afpers either start out posting to the group knowing a fair amount of nettiquette, or they learn it very rapidly indeed, through peer pressure.

The shared history of afp also shows up in the fact that so much of it is documented. There is a timeline for the newsgroup on the website, detailing events leading right back to the founding of the group. The events detailed are what are regarded as significant cultural pointers for the group (the first time Terry Pratchett actually posted to the group, for example; or the first afproposal). A lot of the events of afp tend to have a rather cyclical sense to them (the Church of the Hedgehog is a good example).

This sense of shared history is also a factor in the next major afp group trait that I've found - the general politeness. From the start, afp has been a group where Pratchett fans shared opinions on all kinds of subjects (not just the books). As a result, over the years, the group has reached the point where even the most trying subjects (such as religion, politics, sex and smoking, to name a few) are able to be discussed in a largely calm and polite fashion. Different systems for doing things are explained (a politics thread usually has at least one discussion on different voting systems and how they work), differing viewpoints are examined, and overall a tone of moderacy and politeness prevails. This is not to say that the discussions are shallow - several regulars of the group have been known to go to extreme depth (and length) in discussing various topics. However, there seems to be an acknowledged belief that a difference of opinion isn't something to be getting into a fuss about.

This is not to say that things are universally sweetness and light, however. There are a number of regulars who can be somewhat caustic when the are faced with expressions of what could be best described as "wilful lack of sense". Again, in one of afp's regular contradictions, there is a certain amount of quiet regard for a well-written "flame" post. Flames are rare, and when they appear, they're usually good.

As part of any group's "bonding" process, there are usually threads which detail favourite books, favourite records etc. What is interesting in afp is the amount of similarlity (especially in reading matter - Asterix books, Douglas Adams, and Piers Anthony tend to come up regularly when people detail what led them to Pratchett's work) and also the amount of difference which is evidenced in these lists. About the only pervasive entity in any of these various lists is quantity.

Most afpers are bookworms, and a lot of them have wide-ranging and eclectic taste in music. There is also a fairly strong amount of (circumstantial) evidence that the average afper will have somewhat higher than average intelligence. Many work in technical professions (particularly in the IT field - although how much of this is just self-selection due to the fact that this field is more likely to produce internet-savvy people is beyond my power to guess) or in academia (another area where people are more likely to have access to the internet). The average afper is most likely to live in the UK, or in continental Western Europe - there's a strong Dutch contingent. Next most likely places are Scandinavia and the United States, with the Commonwealth countries producing the next bundle of afpers. Politically, many afpers tend toward moderate political views - it is very rare to find a political fundamentalist posting to afp. Ages range from approximately 10 years of age, all the way up, with a fairly large group between the ages of 18 through 25 (university age).

One other thing which is worth mentioning is the strong group bonding between the various members of afp - there have been several weddings (some of these broadcast over the web) and a few births (second generation afpers, anyone?), as well as numerous "meets" or meetings which serve to introduce people who have only met in text to one another in real life. This produces a further tightening of group bonds in text, as meet reports produce a rough idea of what happened, and quite often a list of out-of-context quotes, carefully selected for their risque nature. Thus is the "feel" of the meet shared with those who can't attend (both local and foreign afpers can fall into this category). There have so far been two Discworld Conventions (a third is planned for August 2002 - for details) and four Clarecraft Discworld Events. Large numbers of afpers gather and meet at these events, and quite a lot of it is reported on the newsgroup, thus allowing people who weren't present to at least share a little of the events.

Naturally, with such a large group of people, there are certain sub-groups which form. Different people are attracted into different types of these subgroups, which mostly tend to differ according to the longevity of the poster's time in the group, and also the number of meets which they've attended.

Overall, is a complex group, filled with complex people. I enjoy it greatly, at the same time being frustrated by it in some instances. As I mentioned in my introduction, I am biased - I'd hardly have stayed with the group for four years if I didn't feel that it was worthwhile.

[1] I was apparently the one who started this. Can I ask for it to stop?[2]

[2] Oh, and afp has the footnote habit... but bad!

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