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Common Tragedy

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Ilustration by Kevin Banks

Will privatization of the Net spell the end of its gritty common ground?

By Thor Iverson

'ENOUGH," I said to myself. "This is a huge waste of time." I had just spent 15 fruitless minutes on the Usenet newsgroup alt.food.wine and had found absolutely nothing of value. The newsgroup's 150 new messages were a collection of off-topic spam, posts from a psychologically imbalanced individual pretending to represent a winery, and flame wars over that individual. It had been that way for several weeks, and there was no end in sight. Worse, the newsgroup's most informative posters had apparently gone into hiding. I wondered where they had gone and queried one by email.

"We're all on the WLDG--the Wine Lovers' Discussion Group," he said. "Spam-free, 100-percent intelligent wine discussion. Why not join us? The URL is ..."

I checked it out and was instantly hooked. Sure, it was a web-based bulletin board, but I soon found out that among the wine lovers populating the group were several programmers who kept the board running smoothly, avoiding such forums' usual speed problems. And the discussion was superior to anything I'd found on Usenet. The obvious cause seemed to be the board's semi-moderated quality (obnoxious behavior was punishable by banishment at the site owner's discretion), but that proved to be a misread on my part. Faced with the prospect of going back to the free-for-all on alt.food.wine, members policed themselves; potential flame wars were quashed by public and private messages asking the participants to cool it. A self-imposed atmosphere of civility prevailed, and there was constant, high-quality discussion. I had found my Net oasis.

There's a concept in the physical world known as the "tragedy of the commons." Build a useful public space, and people will come. But the more people use it, the more the value of the space is degraded, until it ultimately fails to fulfill the purpose for which it was created. Thus, success leads inevitably to failure.

The Net is proof that this concept is fully translatable to the digital sphere. A victim of its own incredible success, the Net has seen its once manageable common space glutted with information both relevant and nonsensical. Content fights a losing battle with spam. Flame wars rage unabated on every mailing list, newsgroup, bulletin board and chat room. And each new user unwittingly adds to the problem.

In response, longtime netizens have battled to preserve their "public spaces." Guidelines and rules of conduct--"netiquette"--are a standard part of every access provider's and online service's terms of use. Anti-spam measures, both open and covert, are constantly in use on Usenet newsgroups. And the owners of proprietary chat rooms and websites featuring discussion areas have grown increasingly intolerant of off-topic content and abusive users.

But the Net's decentralized nature, an essential part of its design and one of its most positive features, has--ironically--made this sort of control nearly impossible. The Net is designed to work around information filters, but the design is "dumb"; it doesn't distinguish between useful and useless information. Faced with the degradation of the Net's commons, users have retreated to private spaces--moderated newsgroups, private (sometimes invitation-only) mailing lists and highly moderated web discussion groups. The future of discourse on the Net seems destined to be anything but the freewheeling, open exchange of public ideas it was envisioned to be.

'ENOUGH," J. Michael Straczynski said. "I can't participate in this anymore." The newsgroup rec.arts.sf.tv.babylon5 had long served a dual purpose as a discussion area for fans and a forum for those fans to talk with Babylon 5 creator/producer/writer Straczynski about the show, television production and anything else that engaged their common interest.

But something had gone wrong. A few malcontents had, justifiably or not, chosen to voice their disagreements with Straczynski frequently and publicly. The newsgroup became a battleground, pitting Straczynski and his supporters against the anti-Straczynski crowd and their supporters. So Straczynski bowed out, saying that he didn't have time to respond to all the flame wars and still produce his show.

The newsgroup held a virtual huddle and came up with a plan. The newsgroup as it existed would continue, but two new newsgroups would be created. The first, rec.arts.sf.tv.babylon5.info, would serve only one purpose: the dissemination of essential, official information about the show--air times, production news, merchandise announcements and posts from Straczynski. It would be closed to all posts except those from the few people who had volunteered to repost such information.

The second, rec.arts.sf.tv.babylon5.moderated, was slightly different. It looked a lot like the old newsgroup in terms of content and traffic. But there was an important change: all posts were subject to moderation by a committee. The committee didn't manually approve all posts prior to their appearance on the newsgroup, but since all traffic went through a central point that only the moderators could access, problem posts could be removed and problem users could be identified and filtered. This solved Straczynski's problem, and he returned to the newsgroup.

It didn't solve all the problems, however. The moderation committee was subject to a fairly hazy set of guidelines, which had been set out in the proposal for the creation of the newsgroup (a long and public procedure that most newsgroups must undergo before their appearance on Usenet). And it soon became fairly apparent that they were not filtering by a set of ironclad rules. Worse, posts questioning the moderation policy were themselves rejected as "off-topic." There seemed to be little recourse for the new set of malcontents. But, as the newsgroup functioned smoothly, there was also little protest.

'ENOUGH," said several people at once. "This is ridiculous." The rec.arts.startrek.* hierarchy was the outgrowth of one of the longest-running discussions on the Net, one that had started virtually simultaneously with the birth of the Internet itself. It had reached five newsgroups and was still growing, with as many as 100 posts per group per hour; there was no way any human being could keep up with it all and still hold a job or attend classes. Nor was the level of discussion particularly illuminating. "Voyager sucks" vs. "Voyager rules" was a not uncommon exchange.

A few newsgroup veterans bemoaned the problem and took action. From that action was born an invitation-only mailing list for a few select Trek fans, those with a proven ability to post intelligent and on-topic material. The number of participants was small at first, growing slowly until it reached about 20. The tenor of the discussion was polite and the level of insight high, and the needs of the participants to discuss Trek were met for a long while.

But the discussion slowly and inexorably waned. One culprit was the declining quality of the product under discussion; few of the participants were able to tolerate the inanity of Voyager, so they focused their interest on other, non-Trek pursuits. But there was also another, more insidious problem. For a time, the members of the private mailing list kept up a low-key participation in the various Trek newsgroups, which led to new contacts and new members. But that eventually ended as well, and the mailing list stagnated. Everyone on the list knew everyone else's opinion on everything, and since there were no new members, there was nothing to fire new discussion. Meanwhile, low-quality discussion continued unabated on the newsgroups; those few who might have qualified for and enjoyed membership in the private list didn't hear about it because the members of that list weren't paying any attention.


RemarQ exec Bill Lee brings order to the chaos of the Usenet. And someday, he'd even like to build a nice community there


'ENOUGH," the post thundered. "Who gave you the right to stifle dissent? By what moral authority do you claim absolute power over the content of this mailing list?" It was the latest in a long series of public attacks against the list "owner" (the person charged with administering a mailing list) of Digital Graffiti, the longest-running and largest Led Zeppelin mailing list on the Net. The list had gone through times both good and bad, but its latest administrator had developed a distressing Napoleonic complex. A mild disagreement--hardly the first, or the most virulent, in the list's history--had escalated into a full-fledged flame war, and the list owner had taken sides, threatening to silence those who disagreed with him.

In response to this final attack, the discussion came to an abrupt end with an announcement from the administrator: "By the power vested in me as list owner. Come back when you've learned your lesson." The offending party was booted off the list. Anyone who protested the move was also expelled from the list. Soon, there was no discussion of Zeppelin at all; most of the vocal posters had been banished, and those who remained were too stunned to say anything. Arrogantly asserting that he had to "shepherd the flock," the list administrator unilaterally made the list a moderated one, rejecting and editing posts at his whim.

Of course, the abrupt change from an open list to a moderated one couldn't last long. The expelled members began plotting among themselves, including discontented but not-yet-expelled members of Digital Graffiti in their discussions. Choices were considered, and finally a new mailing list was created as an alternative to the old one. This mailing list, however, had a mission: There was a written and voted-upon charter, a rotating committee entrusted with enforcing that charter and many safeguards against a possible power play by one of those committee members. The list was not moderated, nor was much prohibited by the charter, but membership required a voluntary agreement to abide by the fairly simple rules of the list.

Drawn by the promise of an unmoderated forum that nevertheless had the teeth to deal with severe problems, people migrated in droves to the new list. Eventually, Digital Graffiti ceased to exist, with the administrator still claiming that his "recalcitrant children" were merely misguided.

THE RETREAT of the digerati to mailing lists is ironic, since email is one of the Internet's oldest and most primitive technologies. The promise of Usenet (and ever-more-sophisticated news-filtering technologies to make it manageable)--and, later, of the web and proprietary services' chat technology--made it seem as though simple mail reflectors and text-based communication were headed the way of UHF and the telegraph.

Yet the situation also makes sense. The Net's "tragedy of the commons" is certainly a result of exploding growth, but it is also partially the fault of a technology that enabled before it could control, that allowed before it could limit. Control and limitations are not always required (or desired), but their technologically enforced absence is not always desirable either. People will eventually make their way back to the World Wide Web and Usenet (and whatever is yet to come), but it will not be until technology allows more control over those media.

Of course, control is a two-edged sword. Personal control over content--Usenet's kill files, email filters--is the Holy Grail of moderation technology. Computers are not yet smart enough to allow complete self-moderation, which is where so-called censorware comes in. Programs like NetNanny and systems like AdultCheck are useful for those attempting to exercise some control over the wide-open content of the Net, but they rely on others' decisions about what content is and is not appropriate. And there's still no reliable way to filter information that is simply stupid or uninteresting without resorting to moderation (which carries its own risks, as the previous examples demonstrate).

The most chilling danger is that the flight to private mailing lists, moderated newsgroups and closed websites will exclude those not lucky enough to get in on the ground floor. The Net's public spaces are powerful because they are public, allowing anyone a chance to step up on a soapbox and contribute. But when a forum's best and brightest take their act elsewhere, the original forum's usefulness is greatly diminished. Worse yet, private or moderated forums have a way of becoming closed systems, invisible to anyone not present at their creation and impossible to get into once the creators have left the public forum behind. A new user searching for intelligent discussion of Star Trek on the Net might never find it, simply because he or she doesn't know where to look or whom to ask.

So what's the solution? Taking it as a given that the influx of people to the Net will not level off anytime soon, the answer must be found somewhere other than the subdivision of the Net into partitioned, private, proprietary fortresses of users and content. Somehow, a way must be found to reverse the tragedy of the commons, to make the Net's public spaces more useful despite the number of people who use them. The answer, then, lies in technology and its applications.

There have been tentative steps in this direction already. Some privately owned forums have given up control to democratically chosen administrators following written guidelines, proving that mailing lists and web discussion groups don't have to succumb to their subscribers. Moderated and limited-content newsgroups (usually those with .moderated or .info at the end of their names) are successful under the same conditions, especially when paired with unmoderated forums that allow completely free discourse to continue. And ever-more-sophisticated filtering technologies, especially those based on software agents, can help separate the digital wheat from the virtual chaff in everything from email to the web. Community-based content selection, in which people rely on one another to sort out the vagaries of the Net (also known as collaborative filtering), is also a promising technology being tried on Usenet and the web.

In the end, the Net's survival as a public medium--rather than a privately held, privately controlled one--depends on the success of these technologies. Net users were able to rise up and help defeat the Communications Decency Act in the same way they collectively were able to create and organize Usenet many years earlier: they worked together for a common cause. With all those people off in their own private domains, the misbegotten offspring of the CDA (or something worse) might arrive and cripple the Net without anyone's even noticing. And that would be a tragedy.

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From the January 14-20, 1999 issue of Metro.

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