Saving USENET and Then Some

A Call To Action

By T. Boutell

Updated 1/2/98

USENET is based on the principle of mutual aid. If you use the common resources of the USENET newsgroups, you are expected to give something in return eventually. You are respected even more if you give something spontaneously. If you blow it, you are shunned by the community.

This worked for a long time because much of the population of USENET had been socialized to take pleasure in generosity and respect the commons. With, of course, many, many exceptions. But there were enough posters who did get the basic idea that the system worked and largely policed itself.

This used to work because USENET was first populated by a hacker elite that took great glee in creating a culture of its own and had some familiarity with different ideas about how a society could work. We weren't all anarchists or socialists, but we had all heard of such things. You don't have to think such ideas are appropriate everywhere to think they are appropriate where the exchange of information is concerned.

It no longer works because the newcomers to USENET are not used to doing things on the basis of mutual aid, and because there are so many newcomers at once. USENET has always assimilated a new crop of newcomers every September or so, but this is another matter entirely.

There are three possible responses to this:

1. Ignore it and watch USENET decay. Complain about it a lot. Common variation: wash your hands of the whole mess and leave. I'm tired of this response.

2. The elitist approach: try to keep newcomers out. This doesn't work: eventually the larger group of newcomers will batter their way into each secret hideout, at which point we will flee to the next hilltop, and so on ad nauseum. I'm tired of this, too.

3. Take advantage of our technical knowledge to assimilate the public instead of the other way around! Set up automailers in every newsgroup we care about to contact all first-time posters. Send friendly, respectful, comprehensible welcome-o-grams, instead of obscure inside jokes. Be honest: openly embrace the principle that USENET is based on mutual aid. Find better metaphors in the experience of the average person to help explain this. Don't disdain the familiar.

Why do I think this can work? Because it used to. At one point, most new posters were contacted by at least one more experienced USENET poster (ie, a followup, an email, a flame, whatever). This has stopped happening because the newcomers vastly outnumber the experienced posters. But by setting up an automailer in each newsgroup, we can solve the problem of inferior numbers and make it practical to contact each newcomer once again. Of course, we have to write automailings that do not baffle, condemn or condescend.

I also think this can work because it is working right now in comp.infosystems.www.authoring.cgi. This group looks like the old USENET: there's not much dreck -- mostly content. (Actually, that's better than the old USENET!)

comp.infosystems.www.authoring.cgi is "self-moderated." That means that every poster has to "approve" his own first message, after reading an automatic reply that explains to them how to do that. In order to make this happen, an election was held, which is the usual procedure for switching a newsgroup to moderated status.

Self-Moderation

On October 5th, 1996, a Usenet CFV (Call For Votes) to make the authoring.cgi newsgroup a "self-moderated" group passed by a margin of about 200 to 30. This means that the "first-time mailing" software acts as the moderator for the newsgroup, sending new posters a message before their first post appears in the newsgroup. At the end of the message, instructions are provided to approve or cancel your own first posting.

Self-moderation doesn't do away with willful ignorance or spamming or a thousand other ills. What it does do is give people a chance to better understand USENET, before their first posting appears. I hope that this will have a profound effect on the quality of discussion in the CGI newsgroup and in USENET as a whole.

OpenFAQ Software

By now, it's become clear to me that maintaining a single monolithic FAQ (Frequently Asked Questions) document for the World Wide Web is impractical for one person. I have written OpenFAQ software (by no means the first of its kind) which allows many people to participate, writing, updating and removing articles from the FAQ while a single moderator still retains the right to guard against malicious and inappropriate use of the software. The software is now providing information about CGI Programming and Web Browsers, and I will make it freely available here for use in other subject areas as soon as I've added a few missing features.

Conclusion

I don't want to see USENET become like the larger culture. I want to see the larger culture become more like USENET at its best. Any other solution is, well, boring by comparison.

"So what can I do about it?"

Pick a newsgroup and save it. Mention this URL in the newsgroups you read and make your intentions known. Find out if others have written FAQs you should point out to people in your mailing. If you want my one-time-automailing software, for non-advertising purposes only, get in touch and I'll be glad to provide the Perl code. It is available in "moderator" form and in "welcome wagon" (non-moderator) form. Yes, of course it's free; I would link to the code here, but many feel it would be a potential aid to commercial "spammers" of USENET (I took an informal poll on the subject).
Thomas Boutell

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