Forum2000 / Conversatron

If you're an internet citizen of a certain age (between 1996-2000), you might remember something called forum2000 (a.k.a. the conversatron). I hardly ever see it referenced, and had a hard time finding it via Google. If you found this article while looking for forum2000: it did exist, and you didn't imagine it. If you've never heard of it, this won't make you care. [*]

Forum2000 was a Q&A website where internet readers would submit questions, and answers were provided by several dozen artificial intelligences living in Carnagie Mellon's server cluster. These AIs (SOMADs) were modeled after a large and diverse set: their creators, random celebrities, and fictional characters. With any luck, you'd be treated to an argument between Abraham Lincoln, Dr. Laura, and Evil Spock, often little to do with the question (from Where is the bow):

Question: in the second quest in the first zelda for nintendo where the fuck is the bow?

Replies:

The Cube: For a vegetarian, you're an evil sod.

Corey Kosak: Oh for Christ's sake, just get the fucking GameShark already.

Kenneth Starr: After a prolonged and costly investigation, it has been determined that the bow is in the fifth dungeon. Enter the dungeon, go up, then go left, using the candle. Go down and take the stairs. Then go left and move the center stone. Then go down, and take the stairs.

Janet Reno: Kenneth, that's not the sort of thing you should use the taxpayer's money for.

Kenneth Starr: I can use it for whatever I want. I am accountable to no one. I'm gonna go get an evil slurpee.

The authors / hosts wrote an explanation describing the technology behind the software: The theory behind the Quadratic Search Algorithm.

There was wide speculation that the site was a hoax, which it was. However, like most fantastic work, it was more fun to play along that it was real.

Part of the magic is that nearly everything could be explained away by the theory of AIs living on a cluster:

  • Spelling mistakes? The AI read a bad article.
  • Recurring or dormant characters? System shuts down inactive SOMADs.

Sometimes the conversations themselves would invoke the nature of AIs running as software, as seen in Who is "The Man" anyway?.

If that weren't obtuse enough, the personalities evolved over time, so if you dropped into the middle you won't understand that Cookie Monster's uncharacteristicly enlightened demeanor was the result of a transformative conversation with Confucius (not archived). Or that due to some kind of merge event, two personalities had become one: e.g. bitter crack baby + jet li = bitter jet li. Like any long-running narrative, it folded in on itself over time. It was really lively for two years, and suffered a slow death before finally getting unplugged.

The Forum2000 Hall of Fame is an excellent greatest hits. As an archive, it's incomplete, and reading it now, many of the conversations are dated (Hillary Clinton got so much crap back then, it's amazing). More importantly, it doesn't do a good job of capturing the life of the project — I used to check that site every week.

It was cutting edge internet humor, it helped shape my sense of humor. I'm very glad that it existed.

Some hall of fame highlights:

More links:

[*]This is like someone who watched fifteen years of a sitcom telling you to "give the greatest hits a chance". I doubt it will hold up for you.