The Truth About "Tim Byars"

Dr. Ernest N. Prabhakar (
Tue, 31 Mar 98 20:13:18 -0800

Hi everyone,

First off, I want to apologize to anyone if they feel deceived or
miseld. That was not our intent, though perhaps we got a little carried
away at times. Overall, though, I hope you think the experiment was
worth it. I wanted to tell FoRK about it sooner, but Rohit insisted we
wait until Adam finished writing up the paper[1].

The truth is, there is no such person as "Tim Byars." The name is
really a contraction of "Tim Buyers-Lee," a pun on "Tim Berners-Lee."
The original goal was to develop a user agent to facilitate e-commerce.
Rather than trying to crawl through static web page, it was a proxy
server which would examine all the URLs viewed from a given site, and use
Patti Maes' MIT Media Lab's agent clustering algorithms[2] to identify
shared tastes. It would then generate an email of the 'typical' URL. It
was inspired by the "CORBAboy" project at CMU[3] which did the same
thing using CORBA messages -- hence the rather transparent allusion of

The project started in 1993, when the web was still in its infancy.
Rob Harley[4] hacked up the first version, "TBL," to post URLs to the
fwf-tech[5] mailing list, the ancestor of FoRK. The early version just
read URLs, not HTTP, so we couldn't extract the title. Instead, he just
threw in the random phrase generator from Emacs [6] for the subject
titles -- a feature which proved so amusing we decided to leave it in.

Then something happened which we hadn't foreseen. Someone who joined
the mailing list and didn't know "CobraBoy's" non-identity actually sent
him an email (complaining about the lack of meaningful subject lines, I
believe). This caught us all off gaurd. At first we though we should
just post an explanation to the entire list. But, we suddenly realized
we had an opportunity to do a minimalist Turing test!

We couldn't simulate a normal human being, but we could replicate the
behavior of a typical mailing list member. We were able to make use of
the Maledicta[7] database of obnoxious phrases, and set it up to respond
to email with a random insult. This was so effective we continued to
invest in it. By the time FoRK was started, "CobraBoy" was able to
customize responses based on the content of mail sent to him, as well as
pick up on FoRK mail targeted at him.

Despite all this, we were quite surprised at the strong emotional
response our program generated among certain FoRK members. We did our
best to discourage people from criticizing "Tim," to avoid accidentally
triggering a response which would give away his non-human character; some
of you noticed our apparently irrational attempts to defend and protect
Tim. I must admit we occasionally cheated and posted a real story,
usually from "Sally's Salacious Story Sharing Site"[8], rewritten to make
Tim the protagonist, in order to strengthen the illusion.

This went on pretty well, though occasionally I at least suffered pangs
of guilt at the hoax we were perpetrating on the community. We had to
take Tim down for a few weeks earlier this year, when we upgraded the
proxy server, so we staged a random "Yell-at-Tim and
off-he-goes-in-a-sulk" episode to cover for us. As far as I can tell,
though, we've successfully maintained the perception that Tim is a real
human being, though I imagine a few of you have your suspicions.

Anyway, now that Adam is presenting a paper on "Tim" at WWW7 next
month[9], we figured the cat would be out of the bag shortly. We wanted
to give you FoRKers advance warning, since you were an important part of
your experiment. Thanks for your patience and understanding. No hard
feelings, I hope.


Ernie Prabhakar
Adam Rifkin
Rohit Khare
Robert Harley
"The Tim Byars-Lee Project"
April 1st, 1998