Tuesday, 27 November 2007

Man of letters

He was a true pioneer of the Internet. But he never had a research institute named after him. It was through his hard work that the World Wide Web managed to operate smoothly. But he never got to float on the Stock Market. His is the one untold story of the modern age.

His name is Kenneth Culvert. He was a writer. He wrote the words for the website word verification systems.

Word verification, you ask? What's that? Well, thank you for asking. Word verification is the seemingly random selection of letters you get on websites the world over, that you retype to prove you're a human, not a spam computer:

You look surprised. You thought the letters were all generated randomly by a computer, didn't you? But no. Word verification was one of the last few jobs to be still carried out by dedicated artisans. Culvert was the daddy of them all. The Hemingway of cyberspace. And I met him.

"Uvama! Heh - that was one of my favourites," said Culvert as he poured himself another Drambuie. "Y'see, in the early days, websites the world over were being spammed to death. This was stopping genuine overconfident 17-year-olds from posting comments like "UR GAY" and "l33t HaxXor" wherever they wanted to."

Clearly something needed to be done. And this is where Culvert could offer his skills. As an English graduate from Magdalen College, a glittering writing career awaited. He was all set. But he was persuaded to turn his hand to crafting those short yet vital pieces of copy.

"The hardest thing, when writing," he said, "is to keep it short but full of hidden meaning. Anyone can write Lord of the Rings. But those five or six letters? ggttfsdd? jkyvuvm? Now that's a true artform. Brin and Sergey employed me first, at Google. The food was great."

But wasn't he worried that other more established writers were continually getting more credit? "Hah! Douglas Coupland and Yann Martel? Oh, yeah, they got all the plaudits alright. But I was getting in touch with millions of readers every single day. gundthrip? dragbrekkg? All my own."

At first, Culvert worked in a partnership. After penning the words, legendary designer Bert Puttock would then apply fonts and colours. "Then he'd give the table a shove to send the letters doolally, and photograph the whole shebang on his Hasselblad. He'd develop each shot individually before we put them up on the websites. He was a true gentleman, was Bert."

Culvert and Puttocks were in demand. Everyone wanted their bespoke word verification on their sites. "We'd have a ball," said Culvert, a glint in his rheumy eye. "One day we got smashed on Absinthe and all the words for the next week were 'flange' in various European languages."

Eventually, they became victims of their own success. "We were putting in 20-hour days, but it wasn't enough. The rise of blogging and comment pages, all needing word verification, meant that we could barely keep up with the demand."

Puttock left the partnership, citing stress and going to live in a monastery near Droitwich. And it wasn't too long before Kenneth Culvert, too, was forced out, a victim of creeping efficiency drives. In a cruel world, it seemed, no-one wanted hand-crafted text for their verification systems any more.

Now he sits alone, a sad yet dignified figure, the Neverman of the Internet Age. Nursing his sweet-yet-deadly whisky based liqueur drinks until last orders, when he returns to his grubby flat to undergo the long night-time of the soul. The repeat fee royalties from Blogger - every time someone recognises his text he gets two pence - are the only thing keeping him in fish paste and Baileys.

Kenneth Culvert - pioneer or Internet burn-out? Maybe history should decide.


Anonymous said...


You are mighty talented at this writing malarky!

City Girl said...

You. Are. Too. Clever.

I'd love to get you drunk sometime and just free-associate.

Which, of course, is what nerds do while all the other drunks are in the corner snogging.

(I'm using that Brit Slang link!)

Le laquet said...

I have a blinking big bone to pick with Mr Culvert ... especially as he has given me iukfuia right now for this post! Does he chose the dopey fonts too?


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