Your Internet Consultant - The FAQs of Life Online

10.19. What's the Usenet Oracle?

The Internet abounds with documents answering your FAQs, on everything from astrology to electrical engineering. But we all have questions so personal and unique that there is no place to go for a ready-made answer. When this happens, does the Internet have a place to go? You bet: The Usenet Oracle.

The Oracle can answer all your important questions: "What's the meaning of life?", "Where does the dryer put the socks it steals from the wash?", and "How much wood could a woodchuck chuck if a woodchuck could chuck wood?" Or he could <ZOT> you into a smoldering pile of ashes. Either way, he's a great guy.

The Usenet Oracle isn't really a person. It's an electronic mail service run by Steve Kinzler (, a systems administrator at Indiana University. Send the Oracle your question, and within a few hours, you'll receive an answer from the all-knowing one.

The Oracle is a cooperative effort for creative humor. When you send a question to the Oracle server, your message is actually forwarded to someone else who uses the program. She mails a (preferably witty) answer back to the Oracle server, which forwards it to you. Thanks to the server program, all this is done anonymously--the questioner (or "supplicant") and the answerer (that is, the Oracle incarnate) never know who each other is.

The Oracle started as a program running on an Indiana University computer system. The program became popular, so Kinzler, with the help of hacker Ray Moody, created a network version of the service that went online in October of 1989. The best questions and answers--as selected by volunteer "priests"--are distributed in "Oracularity digests" on the Usenet group

Note: Oracularities on are read by an estimated 57,000 people. Over 1,300 additional readers (who presumably cannot access the Usenet) subscribe to the Oracle mailing list, receiving the Oracularities via e-mail. As of the beginning of 1994, over 15,000 people have participated by sending in a question or an answer, with 82,000 questions answered.

Over time, the Usenet Oracle has developed his own personality. Writers incarnated as the Oracle often blend in known aspects of his persona: an inflated ego, a sense of humor, his girlfriend Lisa, and the propensity to <ZOT> his less fortunate supplicants.

Why did Kinzler start the Oracle? "Well, it was fun most of the time. Challenging frequently from a programming and system design perspective. But mostly it was that typical hacker's motivation: When a great idea comes along, it just deserves to be done. I thought an e-mail Oracle was a great idea, had the resources and desire to do it, and so I did it. Part of my interest in the Oracle was experimental; I wanted to see what would come of it, what people would do with an interactive, anonymous system like this."

Kinzler calls the anonymous mail aspect of the Oracle server a crucial aspect of its popularity. "Anonymity gives more people the security to try to be witty or funny in their creative writing. I hope to include people who discover through the Oracle they can and can enjoy writing creatively. And the Oracle gives them a guaranteed audience of two, and, if they're lucky, maybe tens of thousands."

For more information about the Usenet Oracle, send electronic mail to with a subject line of help. To ask a question, the subject line should include the words tell me, and the body of the message should contain your question. (If you don't grovel to the sometimes-egotistic Oracle, you may find that you've been <ZOT>ted to oblivion, so you may want to pander to his ego!) You should receive an answer in a day or two, probably much sooner.

Note: A German Oracle (dubbed, appropriately enough, Orakel) is also up and running. A Finnish Oracle is also in the works.

Once you ask a question, the Oracle may ask you to answer somebody else's question, as a sort of payment for services. You should respond with the most witty answer possible, so that the supplicant feels gratified in his or her quest for knowledge. If you can't think of a worthy reply, do nothing and the question will be sent to someone else. If you wish to answer a question without asking one, just send a message to the Oracle server with a subject line of ask me.

If you don't have access to and would like to receive the Oracularities, send mail to To get on the distribution list, include a subject line of subscribe; to remove yourself from the list of recipients, put unsubscribe in the subject line.

Here are some sample questions and answers from the Usenet Oracle.

The Usenet Oracle has pondered your question deeply.
Your question was:
> Oh mighty Oracle, whose greatness and glory yada yada yada:
> Is it possible to get charged with assault for shooting the breeze?
And in response, thus spake the Oracle:
} No, but it's possible to get charged with battery if you have a D cell
} in your pocket while being hit by lightning.

The Usenet Oracle has pondered your question deeply.
Your question was:
> O Masterful Oracle, please answer your humble suppliant this
> How do I invent the world's best compression algorithm?
And in response, thus spake the Oracle:
} .

The Usenet Oracle has pondered your question deeply.
Your question was:
> Oh great and powerful Oz....oops, wrong super power...
> ...great and powerful Oracle,
>    who knows more about Athlete's Foot
>    than Dr. Scholls.  Please tell me,
>    Exactly how young of a woman is it acceptable
>    for me to date, I'm almost 24  ???
And in response, thus spake the Oracle:
} If you love someone, set her free.
}    If she comes back, she's yours.
} If she toddles away or crawls, definitely too young.

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