They're the bumper stickers of the information superhighway. Or, to use another metaphor, if information is the currency of the Internet, then sigs are the loose change.
No one is quite sure from whence this odd little quirk of Netiquette came, but sig quotes are used by a healthy majority of Internet users. "Sig" is short for signature file. Each Internet account-holder starts out with a blank sig file, which he or she can fill up at will. Then, everytime he or she posts on a newsgroup or sends an e-mail, the sig file is automatically attached to the end of the writing. A sig might contain the Netter's name, E-mail address, that person's freelance Webpage design firm, perhaps a phone number.
And, almost invariably, sigs contain a statement, or quote of some sort. They're called sig quotes.
When a friend e-mailed me from her new account, I admonished her to "lively up" her sig. No one is quite sure from where this odd little quirk of Netiquette came, but sig quotes are used by a healthy majority of Internet users. It shouldn't be hard--whatever comes to mind should do. Some Netters fill their sig blocks with large ASCII art depicting dogs, flowers, or little ASCII people doing the ASCII nasty. But, on the whole, most Netters don't employ these crude representations. After a few newsgroup postings, it gets pretty annoying to scroll through that artwork again and again.
No, good sigs value economy. The Hacker's Dictionary noted that "it has been observed that the size of one's sig block is usually inversely proportional to one's longevity and level of prestige on the Net" (Though, if you are interested in the world's largest sig, check out Kibo's Sig .)
Song lyrics, unintentionally ironic statements from famous figures, aphorisms, jokes, poetry--any insightful wordbite is fair game:
De-moc-ra-cy (di mok' ra see) n.: Three wolves and a sheep voting on what's for dinner.
I want to die peacefully in my sleep, just like my grandfather, not screaming in terror, like his passengers.
Intel: where quality is job number 0.9999389871146
If you know what you're doing, then you're not learning anything
Unless you're living on the edge, you're taking up too much room
"If fools are my theme, let satire be my song" - Byron
"Don't hate the media; become the media" - Jello Biafra
Lubarsky's Law of Cybernetic Entomology: There's always one more bug.
To err is human; to really fuck things up requires the root password
One only needs two tools in life: WD-40 to make things go, and duct tape to make them stop.
My reality check bounced
Warning: Dates in Calendar are closer than they appear
Sigs are rarely mentioned by Internet books. I contacted Ronda Hauben, who is writing the book Netizens: On The History and Impact of Usenet and the Internet . She dates them back to around 1980, when users were so fond of attaching a file of basic information onto their posts that system operators worked up little programs to do it automatically.
However, like all acts of history submerged just below the event horizon of our collective unconscious, the origin of sig files differs according to who is doing the telling. I posted a question as to their beginnings to a few different newsgroups and got back some varying replies. Detroit resident Lenny Lacey, who ran a BBS (bulletin board system) in the early '80s, swears they came not from Internet at all, but from FidoNet, a network of BBS's around the world. He too places them in the early '80s.
"They were called origin lines," he remembers, "I watched the origin line go from simply away to pass along your BBS information, address, and phone number to a way to pass along humor, political views and everything in between."
Texas Netter Al Castanoli trumped him though. He replied, "In 1983, a teletype operator I knew appended each message with what he called a `handle trailer.' Evidently, handle trailers go back at least until the mid '70s. A teletype transmission was occasionally chopped off at the last few lines, so operators started tagging filler onto the bottom. The practice continued even when less-error prone satellite transmission became the norm in the late '70s.
Why people are so fond of sigs is another question entirely. Certainly, they're not limited to the electronic age. Quotes themselves have been popular at since John Bartlett started making some major coin from compiling them back in 1855. Even today, no self respecting worshipper of any deity would be caught without at least a few lines of relevant scripture. A politician without some Tocqueville would be like a housing inspector without a payoff.
Quotes are, as The Columbia Dictionary of Quotations notes, "the wisdom of the tribe," a wisdom that is passed along from person to person, edited and modified as time passes.
But the Net is not one tribe, but many little ones. And rarely are sigs witty or wise just for their own bad selves. They often reveal loads about the people who put them there. Sigs provide a thumbnail sketch the users's ideology and political bent. Hence an introduction to that person. When we roam this phosphor-tinted landscape with no faces or physical cues to guide us, text is all we have to go on when dealing with strangers. And so we say to the unappended: Present yourselves! Make yourselves known! Lively up your sig!