here’s an article describing how our electronic discussion list, the original “Netdynam”, looked to one of our members in its first year. the article was published in a newspaper at that time, and has recently resurfaced – and given us all a walk down memory lane… if you weren’t a member of this list, much of the same probably applied to any other mailing list at that time….
I decided to take the Great Leap Forward onto the Internet without
having a clue what that meant. A year ago I upgraded my trusty little
home word-processor to one with an internal fax-modem. At first, I was
disturbed by the interactivity of my new machine – it spoke back to me
in all sorts of ways, intruding upon what previously had been my
silent reverie in front of the screen. Yet when I finally managed to
get all the software programs to work and up popped an email from a
friend in Melbourne, I was startled and delighted. My computer was no
longer a static receptacle. Something was happenning in there.
I stumbled across a reference to a cyber-philosophy email list and
sent off a ‘subscribe’ command. The next day there were twenty posts
in my email In Tray, snatches from the middle of a lively, ongoing
conversation. I read them with fascination. The next day, there were
more. My computer seemed to be feeding me with ideas.
After ‘eavesdropping’ for a week, I took the plunge and sent a post to
the list. I was greeted and welcomed by the same cast of characters I
had been listening to. It felt like a soap opera, only I could step
right in and have an impact on the script. I felt ridiculously
excited, intoxicated with the possibilities of communication which
leapt out of my screen.
I quickly discovered there was a name for people like me: ‘newbie’.
And a whole new set of jargon and netiquette to get my head around, as
I browsed across a range of lists. Just like a television soap opera,
there were immediately recognisable characters in every list – the
attention seeker, the melodramatist, the pugilist, the harmoniser, the
challenger. List conversation went through its intrigues, climaxes and
denouements. On the happiest lists, participants were thrilled to have
found each other and often exclaimed at how the list had changed their
It changed mine. Procrastination was never so much fun…”This
assignment’s so dull, I’ll just dial-up and check my email, see if
those two bozos are still arguing….” There were all sorts of new
decisions to make, like should I save every post which mentions me by
name; all sorts of new experiences, like gossiping backchannel about a
‘stranger’ in New York with another ‘stranger’ who lives in Indiana.
It was clear that certain behavioural lessons had already been drawn
in the relatively short history of cyber-relating. Most lists send new
subscribers a Welcome message which sets out the list dos and don’ts:
writing in CAPS, otherwise known as shouting, is considered the height
of rudeness. Quoting the whole of someone else’s message and merely
adding ‘Me too’ at the end is also seen as very bad form. As is having
a wacky signature drawing which takes up half the screen.
Central to nearly every Welcome message is the cardinal list
commandment, ‘You Shall Not Flame’. ‘To flame’ is to attack, to sneer,
heap vitriol, sarcasm and hostility upon another poster. ‘A flame war’
involves multiple participants. Flamers never give the other person
the benefit of the doubt. Many Welcome messages point out that the
absence of non-verbal cues – smiles, raised eyebrows – can easily lead
to crossed wires in a text-only medium. Email is projection hell.
Flaming is mentioned so often in e-world that you’d think you were
travelling over scorched earth. I’ve seen plenty of trenchant
disagreement and good solid volleying. Nothing remotely resembling
the heat of a flame war – whatever I imagined that to be.
Mostly I was impressed by the civility of my fellow posters.
Especially considering they were nearly all Americans. That was an
initial surprise, as I had rather naively fallen for the idea of
Internet as global village. Wrong. Unless you join an email list for
English soccer fans, odds are that nearly everyone else on any list
you join will be American. Internet culture is American: list traffic
comes to a standstill for Thanksgiving. It also slows down in the
Australian afternoon, when those Yanks are tucked up in bed.
This American facade can lull non-Americans into a false sense of
privacy, as though the Internet is a personal playground remote from
everyday reality. For a time I belonged to a women’s computer list,
which seemed to be replete with the usual Californians, Oregonians
etc. So I was mildly surprised when another Sydneysider suddennly
chimed in in reply to a technical question. Even more surprised when
she told me she recognised my name from some local journalism. Not
long afterwards, I saw a post on the same list from a woman whose name
I in turn recognised. Muted alarm bells went off in my head. It’s a
small world after all and you never know who might be reading your
words on a list.
Lurkers are reading them, that’s who. Anyone can subscribe to a list
but that doesn’t mean they have to participate. There can be dozens if
not hundreds of people out there following the conversation but never
revealing their prescence. Fertile grounds for paranoia, or at least
heightened self-consciousness, you’d think. Yet it doesn’t seem to
stop some people from gushing about their rebirthing experience in
their very first post. That’s even when the list is dedicated to the
intricacies of a software application.
Occasionally someone de-lurks. That’s different from simply
introducing yourself. After all, only someone who has been lurking for
an indeterminate amount of time can be said to de-lurk. Sometimes
de-lurkers do a hit and run, lambasting the list for being
irrelevant/boring/aggravating before disappearing back into lurkdom.
My cyber-philosophy list has many more lurkers than active posters. I
know this because I finally worked out the listserver command which
tells me the names and email addresses of every subscriber. Most are
unfamiliar to me, even after a year of active participation.
Yes, I’m no longer a newbie. In fact, a year in email makes me an old
hand, almost a Net Veteran. I’ve met two fellow listmates who were
passing through Sydney – the world really is shrinking. I celebrated
the first anniversary of my favourite list by doing an IRC session
with the group – is this the definition of mixed media? I’ve learnt a
lot. Most of all, I’ve learnt a lot about boundaries – how to reach
out and connect with people without losing yourself in the process.
Now, I just have to check my email…..