A user sends a question to the Oracle via e-mail, or the Internet Oracle website, and it is randomly sent to another user who has asked a question. This second user may then answer the question (or not; if it is not answered within 24 hours it is put back into the queue to be given to another user to answer). Meanwhile, the original questioner is also sent a question which he/she may choose to answer. All exchanges are conducted through a central distribution system which also makes all users anonymous.
A completed question-and-answer pair is called an "Oracularity".
Many of the Oracularities contain Zen references and witty wordplay. "Geek" humor is also common, though less common than the early years of the Oracle's existence, when fewer casual home computer users had Internet access. Most Oracularities are significantly longer than the above example, and they sometimes take the form of rambling narratives, poems, top-ten lists, spoofing of interactive fiction games, or anything else that can be put into plain text.
A complex Oracle mythos has also evolved around the figure of an omniscient, anthropomorphic, geeky deity and a host of grovelling priests and attendants. Other staples in conversation with the oracle include:
An assorted mythos of recurring characters—or in-jokes—has accumulated over the years. These include the worthless High Priest Zadoc (sometimes with an assistant named Kendai), the Oracle's girlfriend Lisa the Net.Sex.Goddess, an assortment of deities, and the caveman figure Og. Many Oracle fans have mixed feelings about the mythos, as passing off an in-joke reference or story often becomes uncreative.
Delphic Research, Inc. is an alternate mythos for the Internet Oracle, created by a group of people who, for one night, flooded the Oracle's queue of questions with prewritten questions and responses involving the research adventures of three women.
[news:rec.humor.oracle rec.humor.oracle], the Oracle website, and also distributed via e-mailing list
Seeing as the forum is basically about asking silly questions to get silly answers, questions meant for libelous intent, questions of a sexual nature, and serious questions are not apt to this forum (although an exception may be made when a serious question is given a particularly silly or funny answer). An especially adept incarnation may occasionally deal with such questions in keeping with the forum--absurdly, perhaps masking the truth, perhaps framing the truth from an absurd viewpoint, or perhaps resorting to nothing but demanding an absurd tribute.
In 1989, Lars Huttar was told about Langston's Oracle by a friend at college. Not knowing where to obtain a copy, he wrote his own version of the program, which only worked when users were logged in to the same computer. Huttar posted the source code to the Usenet group alt.sources in August.
Steve Kinzler, who was a graduate student and system administrator at Indiana University, downloaded Huttar's code that same year. He deployed it as the Usenet Oracle on a university server and it became popular. Ray Moody, a graduate student at Purdue University, enhanced the program to allow access via e-mail. This allowed anyone on the Internet to use the Oracle. Kinzler installed this version on another Indiana University computer, where it became the Internet Oracle in March 1996.
Kinzler has since made further enhancements, the most prominent being the "priests" choosing Oracularities for irregularly published digests. Although he no longer works at Indiana University, the school has continued to provide a server to host the Oracle program, its web site, and archives.