Square & Compasses

Masonry on the Internet

A Masonic Address
by Bro. Jeff Welaish <jwelaish@erols.com>
December 1994

It's difficult to be invited to speak at a function like this where you know that there will be both masons and non-masons present. The challenge lies in trying to find a topic that pays due recognition to the fraternal aspect of the event -- this is after all, a lodge banquet. But, remembering that it is also a ladies' night format, means looking for a subject that will not have to be so shrouded with cryptic references to the esoterica of the craft as to be impenetrable to at least half of the audience. My aim, in preparing for tonight, then, was to try to find something that might be of general interest.

Now, let me give you fair warning. The last time I did this I carried forward a similar aim, but I'm pretty sure that I hit `wide of the mark.' Although there were no obvious snores (either masculine or feminine) during my presentation, I wasn't left with the feeling that I had made much of an impression. My spirits were lifted a little bit when one of the ladies came up afterwards and thanked me for, as she put it `a warm presentation.' Over the remainder of the evening several others also saw fit to characterize the presentation as `warm', and I was left a little confused, but thinking that maybe things had gone pretty well after all. As we got into the car to drive home, my wife quickly disabused me of any such notion. `Well,' I offered tentatively, `I guess people liked my speech O.K. A number of them commented on how warm it was.' `Oh no,' she replied, `When they said warm, they meant not so hot.'

Now, let me give you a second fair warning (this is your last chance to escape while it's still polite to do so!). When Carolyn asked me what I was preparing to talk about tonight, and I told her that I would be speaking on Masonic resources available on the Internet and went on to describe the Internet as a super network tying together computers across the entire world, her eyes glazed over like a dead fish on a frozen pond. Right away, I knew I had my work cut out for me.

Let me address the challenge immediately then, by suggesting three reasons why a discussion of the Internet, and the presence of `things Masonic' thereon, should be of interest:

First, the Internet is something that has begun to intrude more and more upon the public consciousness. Just the other day on KYW, I heard it reported that someone is offering Internet electronic mail to the North Pole for children. `There's something out there,' and it needs to be understood. Vice President Gore's rallying call to create a National Information Infrastructure has used the compelling metaphor of `the Information Superhighway'; and the Internet, or something that evolves out of the Internet will certainly form a large piece of that infrastructure -- anyone who has investigated subscribing to commercial online services can attest that the depth and breadth of Internet access offered by them is becoming a selling point.

Second, the Internet is fun. It has been likened to a wide open frontier, a kind of wild west in Cyberspace or virtual reality. At a conceptual level, much of what is there is understandable with a bare minimum of technical computer knowledge. In fact, one strong motivation for the growing public awareness of the Internet is precisely that fact -- it is emerging (to the discomfort of some of its veteran users) from behind technological barriers to present an interface which is accessible to the general populace.

Third, there is a Masonic presence, albeit somewhat modest, on the Internet, and this ought to be noteworthy to us as masons. At the same time, the substance of that Masonic presence, and the directions in which it continues to evolve, pose several unique challenges that I would like to encourage us to think about.

For those unfamiliar with the Internet, Paul Hoffman, in his useful book titled Internet Instant Reference, offers the following observation: Using the Internet is like touring a large wildlife reserve: there are many things you never dreamed of (some of them wild, some of them tame); getting from one point to another can be done using very different kinds of vehicles; many so-called experts don't know enough to help you in a sticky situation; you're not sure if you will have enough film to record everything you see; and no one who hasn't been there will believe your stories when you get home (p. 1)

The concept of the Internet can be confusing both for computer users and non-computer users -- it is not a program or a piece of software, and it's certainly not a machine. In computer terms, the Internet is a giant network, actually a network of networks. A model which seems to work well - for computer literate and illiterate alike - is to see the Internet as analogous to the interconnected power grid that is used to distribute electricity in this country. Extend the metaphor so that instead of electricity, you think about a grid carrying information - and extend the geography so that it takes on a global scope - now you've got a very basic understanding of what the Internet is.

However, and again I am indebted to Paul Hoffman for the analogy, just as one can describe a city by talking about the landscape, the streets, the stores, the government, the people, the weather, or a combination of these many parts that make up the whole, when we speak of `the Internet' it is probably better to think of it as a combination of the network, the people who use the network, the programs and utilities that are used to transfer information over the network, as well as the information itself.

Let me use this framework to organize our discussion tonight. I will touch a little on the history and structure of the network, offer a brief characterization of users, programs and utilities, and focus on a small subset of the information available over the Internet -- in this case, that subset devoted to Freemasonry.

In terms of history and structure, let me again acknowledge that I draw heavily here on material from both the previously mentioned Internet Instant Reference and a perceptive article by Steven Baker entitled `The Evolving Internet Backbone.' (Unix Review, September, 1993). The origins of the Internet go all the way back to the late 1960's. Then, as now, there was significant Department of Defense interest in research relating to advanced computing and networking. Already, much of the U.S. military relied on computer technology, and it was realized that one major area of vulnerability was a network of computers which would fail if one of the machines on the network became inoperable.

Around 1970, then, the DoD Advanced Research Projects Agency (ARPA) set up a testbed connecting four research centers at UCLA, the University of California at Santa Barbara, Stanford Research Institute, and the University of Utah. This so-called ARPAnet expanded quickly during the 70's, when many other U.S. universities and companies doing defense-related research were allowed to connect to the network. By the late 70's researchers had settled on a standard for communication between computers which allowed for great flexibility and rapid expansion in the number of member computers that could be supported. The network began to be used for more than just defense applications. Programs that enabled easier access to files on remote computers and cooperative sharing of information across the network flourished. Companies and universities from across the world got connected to the network, and many foreign governments supported connections in order to facilitate communication between their researchers and their U.S. colleagues.

The Department of Defense, realizing the evolution that had occurred in their original network, created a military-only version called MILNET, based on the same model. At about the same time, the National Science Foundation used the ARPAnet model to form the NSFnet, which linked together mostly the same research community that had been brought together in the ARPAnet, the latter of which was gradually absorbed into NSFnet. The NSFnet `backbone', together with ancillary special purpose networks funded by the DoD, Department of Energy and NASA, forms the main infrastructure for what we today call the Internet -- a term which became the defacto name for the inter-network in the late 1980's. What we know as the Internet is really an amalgam of these government-funded network initiatives and connected private, commercial resources. Two significant such non-government `infusions' into the Internet came from Usenet and BITNET, `grass roots' networks that sprang up to serve the interests of providing free access to information by means of a straightforward, easy to use interface. As I alluded to earlier, the logical boundaries of the Internet are stretching even today, as we see the commercial providers of large online services like CompuServe, America Online and Prodigy, grow closer and closer ties to the original Internet.

This evolving information network serves somewhere between 10 and 30 million people, and that is a number that continues to grow at a phenomenally rapid pace. Across the globe, this multitude is linked in nearly real time - an electronic mail message typically takes on the order of minutes to arrive at any addressable destination - be it here in Pennsylvania, across the continent to California, across the Atlantic to Europe, or even across the international dateline to places like Australia, Japan or Thailand. Growth in Internet use is predicated on two major driving forces; first, the `private citizen' level of interest in the enormous information resource that is there, and second, the savvy recognition within the commercial community that there is money to be made -- both in using the Internet to facilitate the exchange of business information with increased efficiency, and in advertising goods and services to a worldwide audience of significant numbers.

I hope that this brief description of history and structure may have clarified some aspects of the Internet. There is, however, an equally imposing barrier to gaining an understanding of the Internet posed by its possession of a vocabulary all its own. Much of the vocabulary addresses the tools, techniques, protocols and etiquette for accessing the information contained on the Internet . It is a vocabulary with a wildly divergent pedigree and etymology:

Some of it has a rather whimsical flavor. For example, search utilities that are used to look up sources of information go by the names Archie, Veronica and Jughead -- some of you will recognize these as comic book characters who inhabited a more innocent and naive Riverdale High School in comic books current during my own youth. Popular Internet access tools, sometimes called `browsers' or client interfaces, carry colorful names like Gopher, Cello, Lynx and Mosaic.

Acronyms abound in reference to the Internet. Things like FTP, HTTP and WWW perhaps sound more like automotive additives than information- related constructs. We will have reason to touch in a little more detail on some of these as we go on.

There are also terms for Internet users and descriptive constructs for some of the things that they do. Internet neophytes are referred to as 'Newbies', while their more seasoned counterparts are dubbed 'Internauts'. Those who while away their time (and it is easy to do) following bits of information around the nooks and crannies of the net -- are said to be `surfing' the Internet. Other verbs of interest include: `to post' -- the act of leaving a message in a public place -- the Internet draws heavily upon the metaphor of a public bulletin board; 'to flame' -- the action of lashing out angrily, often rudely, sometimes profanely at someone else, usually someone who has posted something that you don't like. A related action, in the sense that it often results in flaming or being flamed - is `trolling' the practice of posting cryptic, teasing, or provocative messages designed to raise the ire of other readers.

There's another noteworthy observation relative to vocabulary. Due in part to the `techno-speak' derivation of some of these terms, and in part to the fluid nature of English itself, there is a progressive mingling of parts of speech, so that what start out as nouns readily become verbs, adverbs, adjectives, etc. For example `FTP' stands for the noun phrase `file transfer protocol' and thus, it is strictly speaking most correct to say `I downloaded the information using file transfer protocol', but nobody on the Internet talks this way. Rather FTP becomes a verb -- as in, `you can FTP that information from site x.' In fact, FTP is equally legitimate as an adjective -- site x, the holder of data files of interest and supporter of the file transfer protocol, would typically be referred to as `an FTP site.' We will explore a little more in the way of Internet vocabulary and concepts as we talk about the sources of Masonic information that are available, but let me introduce one more construct by way of acknowledgment. In Internet parlance, a ready source of information, generally tied to a discussion forum called Usenet News (more on this later), is something called an FAQ -- that's an acronym for Frequently Asked Questions.

Brother Andrew Fabbro of Fraternity Lodge #262 in Ann Arbor Michigan maintains the Usenet FAQ for Freemasonry, and I am indebted to this compilation for much of the outline that follows. An FAQ usually serves both to catalog additional sources of data on the topic that it covers, and as a set of answers to the kinds of questions on a subject that come up over and over again. Brother Fabbro's compilation is a excellent source on both counts.

One of the most basic ways to transfer information over the Internet is by electronic mail, email for short. I have mentioned already that the Internet ties together a worldwide community for messaging transfer. Over time, email has taken on a structure in addition to its use for personal, ad hoc messaging. So-called mailing lists are a widespread resource across the Internet for keeping a groups of people informed and allowing discussion on a topic of common interest. In a mailing list structure, one location serves as a central mail address for all participants. Anyone wishing to contribute to the list sends email to the central address and it is forwarded from there, by either a human agent or a specially designed distribution program, to all of the other mailing list members. There are literally thousands of mailing lists available on the Internet, covering almost every conceivable topic of interest. I can report, courtesy of Brother Fabbro, that there is a Masonic mailing list available. Because I am not presently a subscriber, I cannot characterize much about the list, either in terms of quantity or accuracy of discussion, numbers of members, frequency of posts, etc. I can say, based on my observation in other areas, that the Masonic mailing list appears to offer a more tightly moderated or controlled discussion than some of the other avenues of interaction. Based on anecdotal reports, it appears that anti-masons who post offensive material to the mailing list are summarily unsubscribed. There is, in short, no `trolling' allowed.

Following email, by far the most popular source of information on the Internet is derived from a discussion forum known as Usenet News. In the Usenet News structure, a hierarchy of discussion areas, titled newgroups, is maintained. Unlike email, postings to Usenet News are not addressed directly to a list of participants, but are available for anyone to read. Depending upon the subject, and there are again thousands, posting to a newsgroup may be open to everyone, or may have to pass through the approval of a moderator, who reviews the suitability of the material before it appears publicly. Within the Usenet News hierarchy, a set of alternative discussion groups appears. The `alt' hierarchy is a free-for-all mix of the serious, the enlightening, and the offensive -- several alt newsgroups are dedicated to the distribution of sexually explicit material, for example.

There are three newsgroups relating to Freemasonry: alt.freemasonry (the 'dot' structure is an artifact of the naming convention on many file systems, in which levels in a hierarchy are separated by periods), alt.masonic.members and alt.masonic.demolay.

Let me quote from Brother Fabbro's FAQ for a description of these groups:

Alt.freemasonry is intended for general discussion of Masonry and related topics. Almost any question regarding Masonry is welcome there. Both Masons and non-Masons are welcome.

Alt.masonic.members is intended to be a home for USENET Masons to talk about the Craft, though non-Masons are welcome to participate. The focus in alt.masonic.members, however, is on discussion among people already familiar with Masonry or people who are Masons, so questions about becoming a Mason or what the York Rite is would be inappropriate (feel free to post such questions in alt.freemasonry instead).

Alt.masonic.demolay. is for discussion regarding DeMolay (shocker, huh?) See III, 6 [another section of the FAQ] if you don't know what DeMolay is.

Activity in these newsgroups consists of regular postings from both masons and non-masons, and there is a fair share of both trolling and flaming that goes on. The first `thread', or series of related postings that I ever read in alt.freemasonry for example, consisted of a brother offering his observations on the appropriateness of an all male fraternity. Without going into the specifics of his reasoning, I will report that he was subjected to more than one vicious flame attack from follow-on posters, who dismissed his outlook as Neanderthal in heritage, sexist and discriminatory in political orientation, and for their take on it, originating in some deep-seated sexual dysfunction or inadequacy. At the same time, there is much stimulating, enlightening, and entertaining discussion to be found. Recent posts discussed the apparent DeMolay background of Bill Clinton and wondered what it would be like if Mr. Clinton were to petition a lodge for membership, allowing that it would be a historical privilege, and apparently a historical precedent, to be at the raising of a sitting president. As discussions often do, whether verbal or written, this one went off on several tangents, leading to questions on how many current politicians were masons, whether Ronald Reagan had been made a mason at sight (apparently the answer is no), whether Reagan's recent admission of Alzheimer's would disqualify him from admission, and from there to a discussion on membership qualifications and their interpretation/variation across jurisdictions. From even this brief recap, it is possible I think to gain a sense of how interesting browsing through the Usenet News on masonry can be.

There are two other sources of readily available Masonic information on the Internet. Remembering the origins of the Internet, you will recall that one of the original motivations for connecting computers was to share information. In the academic and research communities, repositories of specialized information tended, and still tend to be located along with the computing facility for a specific location. Following this model, many institutions connected to the Internet serve as archives for information on a particular topic or set of topics. Cornell law school, for example, maintains an archive of recent Supreme Court decisions. Such archives are often accessible by a facility called anonymous FTP. FTP is a special protocol, or set of computer instructions for managing the transfer of a file of information from one computer to another. Users of FTP can download a copy of a file of interest to their own computer. Anonymous FTP, as its name suggests, is a facility that supports file transfers on behalf of unknown users. `Unknown' in this sense means a user who does not have to have an account or logon privilege on the machine from which the files are requested. Since maintaining the list of authorized users for a machine is a manually intensive administrative task, and since there are literally tens of millions of users across the Internet, it is easy to see that anonymous FTP offers great flexibility in making information readily and publicly available.

The natural place to look for repositories of Masonic information would be from the various Grand Lodges. So far as I know, however, there is no jurisdiction in which the Grand Lodge maintains a presence on the Internet. There are two private individuals, however, who maintain archives of Masonic material within their own workspace from a commercial provider of Internet access. Brother Roger Ingersoll's is the more extensive collection, and includes a copy of the Masonic FAQ, a catalog of Masonic supply houses and book sources, a directory of the Grand Lodges of the Unites States, the text of many informative pamphlets offering historical and moral perspectives on Freemasonry, and most of the complete text of Albert Pike's Morals and Dogma. Brother Dave Stites also maintains a set of publicly accessible files on Masonic topics. One noteworthy aspect of these FTP sites is that these men are working out of their own interest in and dedication to the fraternity. If the analogy of a frontier is apt for the Internet, then we should perhaps see them, along with the others mentioned here, as among its first pioneers.

The final area of Masonic resources that I will mention requires a little more background information. Currently one of the most increasingly popular ways of accessing information on the Internet is by means of a hypertext-oriented system of files known as the World Wide Web. Conceptually, hypertext can be thought of on the model of a magazine page, containing pictures and text. Now imagine that by placing your finger on certain highlighted portions of the page, you could automatically turn to other pages on which additional, related and/or supplemental information was kept, or that by pointing to a picture of a trumpet, you could hear a sample of trumpet music play.

A hypertext system on a computer is one way of linking together and unifying related information from many different sources and in many different formats.

Very recently, a piece of computer software called Mosaic has become extremely popular as a means of accessing these hypertext based systems. More and more individuals and institutions have begun placing hypertext reference points, known as `home pages' out on the World Wide Web portion of the Internet. Because of the ease with which the Mosaic browser navigates these hypertext pages, Web surfing is quickly emerging as a popular Internet sport.

Gary Dryfoos, currently Master of Mt. Scopus Lodge in Malden, Mass. and Past Master of Ocean Lodge in Winthrop, Mass., maintains a World Wide Web page dedicated to information on things Masonic. Unfortunately, since I do not have access to the graphical interface provided by Mosaic, I am only able to appreciate Brother Dryfoos's contributions through a relatively clunky, line-oriented interface. All the same, the presence of such a `link' on the net is noteworthy. In addition to providing access to the texts of several informative pamphlets, the Masonic WWW page can be used to call up a linked page of Masonic emblems and pictures, and provides address pointers to the Grand Lodge of Massachusetts and the Southern California Research Lodge. Also interesting to note, the WWW page serves as an invitation for people with questions about Freemasonry to write to the author, and for people with other reference information in the form of articles, abstracts, pictures, etc., to forward same so that they can be incorporated as pointers in the hypertext system. In short, this is the beginnings of what could over time grow to a more significant set of resources available on the Internet. In email correspondence, Brother Gary tells me that he has enjoyed a fairly steady response to his page on the Web, indicating that it is being `visited' fairly frequently, and that people are offering up information, although most of it seems to repeat that already available in the sources I have been discussing.

A final area that deserves mention is one that is not directly associated with the Internet. There are, by what I have been able to glean, a significant number of bulletin board systems, computerized posting and messaging systems available to authorized users, usually at a usage-based or monthly fee, which carry Masonic material and discussions. Most of the more broadly-based, pay-as-you-go online services like CompuServe and America Online also carry discussion areas related to masonry, and, at least in the case of the CompuServe Forum, these are moderated by masons. Such resources provide much additional information about Freemasonry and often include archives of text, graphics and even lodge-related software programs. While not, strictly- speaking, a part of the Internet, they do form part of the public face that our fraternity puts forward in computer-accessible means such as those I have described.

I'd like to take a few moments, by way of concluding, to reflect with you about the importance and impact of Freemasonry as seen on the Internet. On the whole, I would characterize the Masonic presence on the Internet as `modest', and I would go so far as to say that this is in keeping with the somewhat low profile that our fraternity maintains in the mainstream of society at large. Note that I am not passing any judgments here, there are strong reasons for steering clear of shameless publicity, and, as we all know, Freemasonry has always avoided any hint of soliciting men for membership. At the same time, we must also avoid needless secrecy, and should certainly take it as our responsibility to address, where we can, the vast profusion of misinformation and misconceptions surrounding our fraternity in the minds of many in the public. If I could draw an analogy, I would observe that, in general, the presence of Masonic resources on the Internet seems to fit well with the posture that our Pennsylvania Grand Lodge has taken over the last decade or so in fostering a positive public awareness of Freemasonry. By providing accurate, sober and interesting information, and by avoiding the obvious `lunatic fringe' that seeks to engage in destructive, rather than constructive debate, computerized Freemasonry becomes an invaluable means to provide for a more realistic appreciation in the minds of non-masons and to help inform the members of the craft, as well as to provide a means for fraternal fellowship that spans more real-world geography than many of us are likely to travel in our lifetimes.

This much said, I would suggest that there are three challenges that masons on the Internet must be responsive

As an example of what I think constitutes responsible Masonic discussion, let me share with you the following response posted by Brother Paul H. Bock, Jr. of Hamilton-Thompson Lodge No. in 37 Purcellville, VA. In response to another brother's inquiry as to what were the guidelines for discussing masonry in a venue where non-Masons were present, Brother Bock writes:

I have often heard it said, and read, that a great many new Masons are never quite sure what they can and cannot discuss, and as a result they refuse to say anything at all and thus some outsiders glean from this that Freemasonry is, de facto, a "secret society." Being an avid reader, I began reading anything I could get my hands on about Masonry after I was raised, and as a result my "yardstick" for discussion in an open forum is as follows:

(1) No discussion of signs, grips words, etc. In fact, I've never seen an occasion when they needed to be discussed with a Brother Mason. (other than as part of Lodge training, etc.)

(2) No discussion of the ritual or work, except perhaps to confirm that yes, the Lodge is opened and closed with a prayer. In Virginia, the Charge at Closing of a MM Lodge is part of the written text in the Manual of Work, and the wording is so beautiful and meaningful that I have shared it with non-Masons as a means of showing "what we're really all about." The same holds true for the working tools; *however*, not knowing the rules which bind other Grand Jurisdictions I would refrain from Internet posting of even the written work, because what is written in one jurisdiction might be considered esoteric in another and that should be respected by all.

(3) Discussions conducted as part of the regular business meeting at a Stated Communication are nobody's else's business just as they aren't in any other organization. They *certainly* do not belong on the Internet.

(4) All information and identity of candidates, potential candidates, etc. should be treated as privileged information and the exclusive property of the Lodge involved; in fact, the Grand Lodge of Virginia recently rejected a resolution that all other lodges in a district be notified of potential candidates (or it may have been withdrawn, I'm not sure). There is so much *good* information about Freemasonry that is openly available that I really don't see why anyone would even stray toward any questionable postings. To discuss any esoteric ritual, degree work, recognition modes or Lodge business via this newsgroup really would serve no constructive purpose, and there are *many* other things we can discuss in a spirit of Brotherhood and Fellowship to make us all better Masons.

Much the same sentiment was voiced to me in email correspondence by Brother Gary Dryfoos, whom I have already mentioned as the author of the Masonic WWW page, and I would like to conclude by quoting, with his permission, from a very thoughtful set of observations that he shared with me:

But equally as important as what we can't discuss is to be more aware of what we can talk about. Under-informed Masons usually assume that they can't talk about anything, usually because they don't know that much except for the secret points.

There are basically two kinds of Masonic settings on the net: private conversations like this one, where ordinary discretion is sufficient, and public discussions, where the Masons are confronted with all kinds of people.

On the net we're going to meet angry and disturbed Fundamentalists, Wilsonian conspiracy fans who think we're the Bavarian Illuminati, and the purely curious who had a grandfather who was a Mason, they think, and don't know any more about it than that. And, apparently, we're going to meet them over and over and over and over again. And as soon as one has left the arena, another one, with the identical question, will show up. (If you've followed the discussions on alt.freemasonry for any length of time, you know exactly what I mean.)

It is more than a little frustrating, but on the positive side, it means that over the next few years, we're going to have to get very good at the one thing most Masons are very bad at: explaining who we are and what our Institution is. So the average Mason on the net has to become much more than average in: 1) his knowledge, 2) his awareness of the limits of his knowledge, and 3) his patience. (I think I've listed them in order of increasing difficulty.)

If talking about Masonry on the net makes us realize these needs, and so encourages us to study and think and write, then it could be a great resource for us.


Return to Freemasonry main page.