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Because there was a mistake in one of the fields, the message failed. Smith's version, the real one, went through a day or two later, although some system administrators objected that the group's name was badly chosen and should have conformed better to the existing hierarchy.)
When I first began reading alt.religion.scientology in early 1994, it was the unexpected existence of the Free Zone that most intrigued me, since I had only ever read about two types of Scientologists: dedicated and disaffected. My initial impression that the Net had enabled these people to discover each other's existence was wrong, however: Smith said he first heard the term in 1982, and the Free Zone publishes print newsletters, holds conventions, and schedules face-to- face meetings much like any other subculture.
Schafmeister was well known on alt.religion.scientology as one of the earliest strident critics on the newsgroup, inspired by posters on the walls of the UC San Francisco medical school. He was, he said, "really, really upset" at the way these posters targeted the sick, the sad, and the bereaved to get them into $60 Scientology courses. Accordingly, he took to spending his study breaks arguing against the organization on Usenet.
It was, he said, a Scientologist he'd befriended on the Net who on May 6, 1994, gave him a copy of a letter from a staffer in the CoS's Office of Special Affairs (OSA) named Elaine Siegel. (According to former insiders, the OSA is the CoS's security branch.) Appalled by its content, he posted it to alt.religion.scientology the following day.
Addressed to "Scientologists on the Net," it reads, in part: "If you imagine 40-50 Scientologists posting on the Internet every few days, we'll just run the SPs [Suppressive Persons] right off the system. It will be quite simple, actually." She continued by describing Smith as "a squirrel and declared SP" and closed with, "I would like to hear from you on your ideas to make the Internet a safe space for Scientology to expand into."
A safe space. Few of the non-Scientologists attacking the CoS and its belief systems troubled to ask themselves what it would be like to be a Scientologist in such a milieu. Even granted that in the long run it's been the critics who have wound up raided or in court, for unsuspecting believers, happening upon the newsgroup thinking it would be a home on the Net must have been a singularly unpleasant experience. Several messages making precisely that point appeared in 1994.
One Scientologist willing to talk about what it was like is Jack Farmer, who started reading the newsgroup sometime in 1993. He describes himself as a "book auditor," that is, someone who practices Scientology with the help of books but has no standing in the CoS; his Usenet .sig read "Scientologist since 1974." Farmer also runs a Bulletin Board System (BBS) at home and does some computer consulting on the side. Farmer largely disappeared from the newsgroup by 1996, but in a spring 1995 interview he talked about how he tried to "straighten out some of the miscomprehension in the newsgroup."
It wasn't easy. "I went in there to answer people's legitimate questions, and from the time I went in there I was fucking attacked--as soon as I said I was a Scientologist." He went on, "What gets me--and I'm trying to be objective on this-- is I've been a Scientologist for about twenty years, and the only thing I've seen is people going out and trying to help people and people's problems. So what is all this hate about?"
Another Scientologist interviewed around the same time who didn't want to be named--in an example of the way people often think the Net has nothing to do with real life, she uses her real name on the Net, but didn't want her offline friends and colleagues to find out about her affiliation with Scientology--said her postings on the Net brought her abusive email, for which she wasn't prepared. "To see all that ill-will is dismaying. It makes you sad. You can't understand it, because you know what Scientology really is, and then to see all this rabid anti-religious [feeling]--not everybody is like this, but some people are." She is, as she says, soft-spoken,
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