SAN FRANCISCO (08/28/2000) - A new virus is on the loose. The User Friendly productivity virus is said to infect fans of geek humor soon after they discover the online comic strip.
Security consultant Michael H. Warfield got hit. He logged in at a friend's recommendation and quickly found himself sifting through archives of the adventures of 14 characters who seem awfully familiar. There's Chief, the old economy-style boss who'd rather be golfing. Greg and Stef are the usually patient but often frustrated members of the tech support team. Cartoon programmers who speak C++ eloquently are shown tongue-tied with the opposite sex. And a fast favorite is Dust Puppy, a master hacker who's a fuzz ball with two little feet protruding. User Friendly legend is that he was born out of the dust accumulated inside a PC.
Dust Puppy is a coder's coder, according to author J.D. Frazer, who writes the strip under the pen name Illiad. "He is cute; he is naive; he's innocent; he's got a good heart; he's a killer programmer," Frazer says. He likens Dust Puppy to programmers he knows who are extremely good at what they do, have a very strict sense of ethics, but also can be quite naive.
The character Warfield finds most familiar is Mike, who, like Warfield, has a big, bushy beard and always wears a baseball cap. He's on to something: User Friendly is set in the offices of Columbia Internet, an Internet service provider. Frazer and Warfield once worked together at Paralynx Internet in Vancouver, British Columbia.
But the comic strip isn't just an in-joke for former employees. Tech industry workers everywhere can relate to the characters' adventures. For example, there's the stupid tech support questions: "How can I press the left-mouse button? I only have one mouse, and it's on the right." There's the open-source humor, in which an uninitiated character refers to "open sores." And there are the crises of daily work, such as a broken coffee machine featured in the animated version that made its debut in August.
"I can relate to many of the stories that are told on that site," Warfield says. "I've known people like this." Learning to regard frustrating situations with humor is a tension relief, he says.
Cartoon Community Grows Offline
The cartoons started as a creative outlet for Frazer, who shared his work on paper with the colleagues who inspired it. He has produced a strip a day since launching the site in 1997. After a year, Userfriendly.org drew a million hits monthly; today, it gets 15 million. Frazer has also written two books of geek humor, Evil Geniuses and User Friendly, published by O'Reilly. The hard core fans call themselves Ufies, and they send e-mail with ideas, praise, and critiques.
It's a little geekier than Dilbert, and a lot less commercial. Frazer and his comic strip do have something in common with Scott Adams and the ubiquitous Dilbert, however: His initial overtures to syndicates have been rejected. He's consequently adopted a bit of an open source philosophy, running the site with help from friends and favoring control over commercialism. However, he recently accepted his first venture funding, which helped finance the Flash animated versions the site now features.
Art Imitates Life, and Vice Versa
"I spent a lot of time to develop the characters so that the readers identify with them," Frazer says. Real-life geek community members sometimes make appearances. Eric Raymond, author of The Cathedral and the Bazaar: Musings on Linux and Open Source by an Accidental Revolutionary, let his life imitate the strip's art. After being pictured in User Friendly as Obi-Wan Kenobi, he donned the costume for a public event.
That crossover between the real and virtual world feeds the strip, its fans suggest.
"You don't have to be a geek to enjoy it, but it helps," says Heather Scrutton, a self-described "link librarian" who helps Frazer maintain the Web site.
"We did not find audience. Audience found us," says Barry Carlson, chief executive officer of Userfriendly.org. He's also the former CEO of Paralynx and sees himself in pixels as the mustached CEO of Columbia Internet.
Notes Frazer, "As long as we maintain the communication between the community and us, we won't go wrong."
Unless, perhaps, community members annoy the boss. Business at an Australian ISP came to a halt when the customer service staff discovered User Friendly. As they paged through the cartoon archives of familiar scenarios, phones went unanswered. The User Friendly productivity virus strikes again.