“Who was Cronan Thompson?” I wondered when I stumbled upon his memorial website at http://www.cronan-memorial.com/.1
Who was the young man who had made such an impression that a memorial website still remained almost 25 years after his tragically young death of cancer?
Who was the young man whose memorial website includes numerous tributes and messages from so many friends?
Who was the young man whose name was used in an episode of Andromeda after getting into numerous online arguments with a show writer, Robert Hewitt Wolfe?
In short, he was very funny and controversial internet personality.
He used to post on Usenet2.
Rants, parodies, flame wars3, TV show reviews, song parodies, etc. the list goes on (I encourage you to read the memorial site).
He was a mini internet star before the era of influencers and an internet writer before the era of blogs.
But when I looked him up, I found very little4. It seemed this part of internet history had almost faded out of view.
He was well loved by his friends and family and his death coming as a shock even to those he routinely engaged in internet flame wars with.
Who really was Cronan Thompson I wondered. I wanted to find out.
A search for his friends
To learn more about Cronan, I started to look up his friends who left messages on his memorial website.
This included trying to get in touch with J.D.Falk who ran an website, http://www.cybernothing.org/, who one of the posters had an email at. Sadly, I learned that he also died and was a noted member of the anti-spam community.
After a number of dead ends, I started messaging the online usernames people were using and tried places forums and websites like reddit and I miraculously got a hit5.
I was put in touch with a close friend6, Brendan Dillon, who kindly agreed to to answer a number of questions about Cronan.
I’d be happy to talk about Cronan. I met him in our first few days of high school, and we bonded over our love of cheesy movies and science fiction. We were close friends from the age of 14 until his death at 19, and spent a lot of weekends at each other’s homes, watching movies or writing together. In addition to the Usenet presence he was known for, we also published a Star Trek fan newsletter together, full of opinion columns and an “RPG” that amounted to comic self-insertion fan fiction. In short, we were huge nerds.
I was tangentially involved in some of Cronan’s online communities when he was alive, but not a frequent participant. However, I was often a sounding board when he was composing a post. When he passed, I brought the news of his death to his online friends, and came to know them well, quickly becoming part of his community in my own right. Their outpouring of love and support was a great comfort to me, as well as to Cronan’s mother, to whom I passed their messages. In these early days of the internet, it was a revelation that people who had never met Cronan in the flesh could know him so well, and have their lives so touched by his. Few of us had realized what we now take for granted, that an online friendship can be just as real, just as meaningful, as a face to face relationship.
1) For many surfing the internet today, the personalities of the early internet era are not really well known. Who was Cronan Thompson?
Cronan Thompson lived in Raleigh, North Carolina and was the oldest of three children, raised by a single mother who also ran an in-house day care center for children with autism. From his sophomore year on, Cronan was home schooled, while also assisting with the care of the children at his home. He got his GED and was taking classes at our local community college until his cancer diagnosis.
He was highly intelligent and had a scathing wit. He was wise beyond his years, but he was, ultimately, a teenage boy. His writing was unpolished, but revealed the deep thought behind it. Some of his attitudes were unsophisticated, and he was often combative, even rude, in his interactions with other posters. Some of the things he wrote, particularly about women, are uncomfortable to read with the perspective of maturity. But he had a keen sense of justice and little tolerance for hypocrisy. I have little doubt that if he had the chance to grow up, he would have progressed beyond some of his more regrettable attitudes and become a great writer.
2) Why was he so well known? And which online communities was he famous in?
Cronan’s internet presence was mostly on Usenet newsgroups. This is an early internet technology that predates the Web, consisting of decentralized, usually unmoderated message boards, dedicated (at least in name) to a particular topic. Messages could be crossposted to multiple newsgroups at once, and replies could lead to sprawling discussion threads. There were no size limits on posts, so posts could range from the length of a modern tweet to that of a novel.
While he was active in many newsgroups, there are a few that he was best known for. He was well known in groups dedicated to Star Trek and Babylon 5; while a fan of both shows to the end, he came to be highly critical of them. The creator of Babylon 5, J. Michael Straczynski, often interacted with fans in the moderated B5 newsgroup, which at the time, was a rare thing for people with any amount of fame. Cronan frequently butted heads with both Straczynski and the moderators, particularly over B5 spinoffs and made-for-TV movies that he saw more as cash grabs than creative endeavors. He also argued frequently with Robert Hewitt Wolfe, a writer for Star Trek: Deep Space Nine, though Wolfe gained a great respect for Cronan despite his often scathing criticisms. After Cronan’s death, when Wolfe was developing the TV series Andromeda, he created a character to honor Cronan: Crewman Thompson, a promising young man who dies too soon in the pilot episode, a tribute that would have appealed to Cronan’s often dark sense of humor. “There goes the black guy,” he would have said.
Another community that Cronan was known for was the newsgroup alt.fan.tom-servo. This group wasn’t created to discuss the Mystery Science Theater 3000 character; it was self-named by someone who used Tom Servo as a screen name, and had managed to hijack the process for creating new newsgroups, naming one after himself. I don’t know what happened to him, but the group was eventually adopted by a community that called itself the Kamikaze Peep Squad. This became the home base of Cronan and many of his friends, who would often crosspost from there to any number of other groups to start widespread discussions and, yes, flame wars. The KPS was ultimately a humor group out to entertain themselves, and posts ranged from topical discussions of current events to absurdist inside jokes.
3) He was in the era before social media. How did Cronan get to be known so widely?
While some Usenet newsgroups were fairly tight-knit communities, crossposting could increase the reach of any post and lead to interesting combinations of communities getting involved in a discussion thread. A post could be shared across any number of newsgroups even tangentially related (or not at all) to the topic at hand, prompting different audiences to interact with each other in the replies. Cronan was adept at creatively selecting newsgroups to crosspost to.
Cronan had a well earned reputation for brashness. In many ways he was the Usenet equivalent of a shock jock or a wrestling heel. He had no qualms about expressing an unpopular opinion and defending it to the end. He made jokes that were sometimes in poor taste. He was not mean spirited, but he could be abrasive. Some people came to see him as an adversary, but Cronan had a great deal of respect for people who held their own with him.
For a case in point, here’s a perspective from one of his long-time adversaries:
On the other hand, many of his posts were pure surrealism. He could be inspired by a random thought, or a tangential point in a post he was replying to, and spin it into a long rant about running around the house with a stick of butter, or how he ran ops into Canada during the Vietnam War (he was born in 1979), or the antics of Norman, the three-inch-tall elf who lived on his shoulder.
One type of post that Cronan specialized in was the MSTing. While “officially” off topic, Cronan was a fan of Mystery Science Theater, and would often write posts in that style to critique a show or movie, listing quotes from the source material and following them with sarcastic jokes. Another specialty was the wackylace, which involved replying inline to someone else’s post, and inserting a new line of text mid-sentence between each line of the original post, changing the meaning in often hilarious ways.
4) I understand you were a close friend and you maintain the memorial website. Was his online personality align with his “real world” personality?
Absolutely. He had the same quick wit in person that he had at the keyboard, and would say whatever was on his mind. Any conversation could go in an unexpected direction and find its way into the absurd, the controversial, or the deeply thought and well informed. One moment, he could be imagining Alexander the Great, claiming to have conquered the world, even though there were clearly more lands beyond the ones he’d conquered: “Well, that’s not the world.” The next, he might feign shock that I had to go use the bathroom – “Wait, you still do that?” – and keep it up long after the joke had expired. Once, after we were denied entry to an R-rated movie, he spent time researching law, looking for a loophole that he could argue at the ticket booth the next time.
5) He died tragically young. Do the online communities that he participated in still exist and do they still remember Cronan?
Usenet is still around, and some people still use it actively, but very few compared to its heyday. Most groups have become overrun with spam. But some communities have found new homes elsewhere. There’s a Facebook group established by some of us from the alt.fan.tom-servo newsgroup, and memories of Cronan still come up often there.
6) Reading various archives of his writings, he had a great wit and humour. Do you (or perhaps others) know what he wanted to be (had he not died so young)?
I don’t think Cronan had settled on a career path; he was taking community college courses, but as far as I remember, he hadn’t declared a major or expressed any specific goals for the long term. I do know that he was rarely happier than when he was writing. I have no doubt that he would have chosen a path that focused on that.
7) Finally, what do you think Cronan would think about the state of society and the internet today?
Cronan always was able to find humor in tragedy, and we’ve definitely had plenty of that in recent years. He could have helped keep us sane by skewering all the insanity. I couldn’t say where Cronan would have ended up from a political standpoint. He was no fan of the U.S. Democratic Party of the 1990s, and probably would still be critical of them today. But he feared the influence of the Religious Right, and would have no tolerance for the Christian nationalism and corrupt authoritarianism of today’s Republicans. I can see him following Donald Trump’s legal woes with the same where’s-the-popcorn excitement that he had during the impeachment of Bill Clinton, joking all the way about the comic foolishness of it all. He decried the relegation of Black people as secondary characters in America’s story, and I think he would be on board for a lot of today’s social justice movements. At the same time, as a free-speech absolutist, I suspect that he would chafe at so-called “cancel culture.” I would have enjoyed having that debate with him.
I am not sure how he would best adapt to today’s internet. Cronan was at his best in long-form posts and point-by-point discussions, and modern social media platforms aren’t very conducive to that. I think he would enjoy the back-and-forth discussion of Twitter, but find the form limiting. He would make a good blogger, but would prefer more interaction with readers. Meme culture has made the internet a visual medium as much as a written one, and Cronan was a writer at heart. But Cronan was a skillful communicator, and would only have become more so over the years. I am sure that with many platforms to pick and choose from, he would still be making a name for himself.
I thought about Cronan Thompson and how he impacted so many people across the world. I thought about the people many of us meet through internet forums, chat (anybody remember ICQ?), online games, etc. who often change our lives in little ways7 through exposure to different world views, humour, hobbies, etc.
It is a great strength of the internet that you can meet people from all walks of life, including bigger than life characters like Cronan, but it’s weakness is that many amazing people like Cronan have fallen into relative obscurity today.
I’m glad I found out about Cronan Thompson and learned more about him. I wish I had been aware of him during his prime and was able to participate in his various shenanigans.
I would really like to thank Brendan Dillon for answering my questions8.
1 I had stumbled upon it by clicking a link from an old internet 1.0 website which was a personal website of a poster of an old BBS forum (it was on his profile). Basically, the old way most of us used to surf the internet. While it seems cumbersome, it is pretty fun.
2 Usenet’s use as a medium of discussion is now virtually dead.
4 Of course, this could be because of google search now sucking.
5 Thank you Captain Infinity, for using the same username 23 years later.
6 I later realised Brendan put his email on the memorial site and I didn’t notice, officially making me a dingus.
7 Sometimes even big ways.
8 and apologise to him for the time it took to put this together.