blast from the past

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….

Dateline: February 4th, 1997

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
lives.

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…..

A Room of One’s Own

Of all the phenomena ‘afforded,’ as-it-were, the set that interests me most is how illusions are afforded. There are easy, maybe facile, metaphors come to mind. I can split the focus and wonder about how those illusions may be said to be typically afforded and then move into a more phenomenological frame and wonder what a given typical illusion feels like for the subject. So: when this is pointed out or otherwise amplified for the subject, what does this then evoke in the subject?

I’ll use myself as such a subject. If I ask myself what are the the different types of illusions of privacy afforded differently by email discussion list, and, by group blog, the first images that are aroused differentiate the illusory walled living room of the cozy email list, and, the private hushed conversation conducted in the midst of the uncaring audience.

Let’s leap. This example leads–for me–to the following sense: as a matter of personal preference, I would rather contribute an instance of expression on this blog, have it ignored, yet have it ignored for all the world to see then do the same on an email list and have it echo off the walls. Better the ‘thud’ than the reverberation.

There would be reasons for this.

A better term, coming from wanting to develop a better term, for reflexive affordances is, intraspersonal affordances. It seems to me, even if novel, what I’m trying to locate is the introspective response to the environment. Maybe it’s a sort of bridge or liminal aspect of reflection upon what is afforded. And, what is afforded by the uncertain flux of structure and the interpersonal.

The echoing room refers both to the seeming boundedness of the structure of the list, and, the lack of human reception.

I could run with the room metaphor. To do so is to wonder about what kind of room is a blog. Now my original evoked image shifts. It’s not like creating for all the world to see. All the world can’t fit into its room. It’s a bigger room, and, it’s a bigger illusion of roominess.

Various modalities, and their affordances, look different from one another. For example, Facebook, is like having to occupy a room someone else designed, and, along with this comes lots of constraining rules. Along this same line of thought, as you have noted, the blog modality seems like this too when someone else is busily overhauling the room with their design and with their rules, or some of them.

Obviously this is in high contrast with the austere structure of an email list. With a list, the tools with which one can ‘mark their territory’ are few. But, at the same time, the effects one can create are substantial. In terms of illusion, it would then be the case that a participant might think: “Ahh, this is what is imagined about me.”

Naked text provides for some cruel austerities. Contrast this with the different ways multi-media affords different kinds of mediation. For example, to easily see the artistic product of the photographer is better than even to hop on a text link dangling at the bottom of a post.

Going further, the sensemaking concerned with another person’s embodiment, is enriched via the multi-sensory potential. (Hmmm, methinks the intrapersonal affordances are embodied affordances.) This, then, comes to one of the first winds of the netdynam email list gyre, when psych type and psycho type alike pondered the absence of the body.

Still, I’m mindful of the necessary promotion of illusion. It is possible that illusion is preferable to realism.

I have a favorite example of this. There are immensely popular blogs where a single post evokes tens, hundreds, even thousands of comments. Probably, in a structural sense, a comment threads allows a given comment to ripple downward through successive comments up to the point the comment–in result–dissipates its energy. There, no doubt, are affordances having to do with the dissipative propensities in a modal system. The existence of long comment threads on blogs begs lots of questions. To suggest one answer to an unspecified question: if you read a long comment thread top to bottom, the temporal slices can sometimes be identified because some threads demarcate their own waxing and waning and waxing.

What would a commenter be thinking to lose one’s self in such a trailing crowd?
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blog affordances anyone?

1. Blog versus email list discussion

The affordances of the blog medium render discussions conducted there different, both in content and expression, from those previously conducted by the same people via a mailing list.
Reference to content and expression planes is meant to distinguish the meanings made possible by any text, and so we can say that while the expression plane refers to the materiality through which meanings are made (e.g. sound and articulation, movement, gestures, graphology and letters, etc), the content plane refers to meanings derived from the discourse made possible through these media.

In other words, BOTH the formal features of the posts and their responses  – what are labelled ‘comments’ in a blog environment –  are different in every respect when comparing the email-list versus the blog environment: formatting, colour, dispersion on the page, linking/nesting, inclusion of graphics AND  the content of the responses and posts are different. At the same time, what we say and how we say it are affected by our notions of ‘audience’ on the blog. The email list in the case of Netdynam was available by subscription and only subscribers are privy to the posts. The subscription list was small and the active posters became well known to each other. In the case of the blog on the other hand, it is not easily clear who is reading the posts since the web-log is public.

Audience potential appears to be the biggest difference affecting interaction on the blog – as contrasted with the experience of interacting on a mailing list. The technological contraints and enablements notwithstanding, the net effect of the extra appurtances is that blog-members now have open boundaries – or perhaps semi-permeable boundaries if the levels of administration and moderation are taken into account – and this does not make former members of a small list feel as ‘secure’ when faced with an open audience. For example, the projected audience affects how a writer addresses the content – this paper was originally written to fellow list-members and instead of third person referents, general nouns, and past tense, I used second person referents, and habitual or present (in the past) tense, i.e. whereas in the paragraph to follow I originally wrote “we have been spending many years defining boundaries…”, for general consumption, I now write something different…

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list anthropology II

i’ve been citing ross williams’ 2002 unpublished conference paper on shaming in email in a couple of my own papers – there’s not much in my area on this topic, so it looks as if i’m going to have to look into journals of psychology in order to get reports of any studies done in the area of group solidarity, and interpersonal alignment and positioning in the context of online groups.

i’ve asked ross whether i can post it here as a link for any others to follow up. whereas i’d have placed it in the list anthro resources page previously, it looks as if this has been moved down a rank to post-only status – hence i am announcing the link here: “The dynamics of shaming in an email discussion group”.
it’s in PDF form and is quite short so will download onto your desktop fairly quickly. members of netdynam in february 2002 will no doubt recall the discussion that the paper engendered at that time.

a short excerpt follows:

‘We are deeply sensitised to the occasions of shame, for ourselves and others, and the rules of etiquette and face-saving work to preserve our social systems against the disruptive effects of shame when the gap between embodied and ideal selves threatens to be revealed inadvertently. Conversely, the threat to reveal this gap and subject the other to shame is a powerful tool in expert hands; and we are all experts.

Threats to the public face can arise so swiftly and be handled so automatically that they pass in a moment, almost unnoticed, and only a careful record of gestures, glances, phrasing and vocal inflections allows us to interpret an interaction as an instance of social control based on shaming. In this paper I will analyse a shaming
interaction in an e-mail group, partly because it is inherently interesting to discover familiar group processes in a novel setting, and partly because the text medium of the email group is so congenial to the hermeneutic endeavour; generating an interpretable text from a face-to-face group is intensely laborious and subject to serious error and omissions, even when one has the best audio-visual equipment available. With email, the work is done for you.’

here’s a link to the previous list anthropology post for further context on netdynam the list.

relative affordances of blog v list: boundaries again

I’m a member of two other mailing lists which both address the same academic topics: SysFunc and SysFling. One is based in Sydney and was conceived of as being a more local venue for announcing Sydney and even Australia-based meetings, conferences, articles and so on, as well as for fielding the usual questions regarding the analysis of curly clauses. The other is based in Europe and is said to be more formal in its approach to similar concerns for systemicists. However, it is probably fair to say that most subscribers belong to both lists, and that most threads if they get going, get CCed to both lists, thus providing for a lot of overlapping.

Occasionally the beginnings of discussions are limited to one list, and then someone posts a CC to the other list as well. Those who are not members of both lists begin to wonder what is going on, but, as I say, these people are in the minority anyway.

After a recent spate of twin list activity, one of the moderators and keepers of one of these two lists, commented that amalgamation might not be a bad idea – especially in view of the fact that he was hoping to retire from list maintenance activities at the end of the year. Thereafter a slew of posts were made approving of the amalgamation – to the extent that a cry went up to the effect that perhaps any further messages on the topic be limited to those who were nay, rather than yea-sayers on the matter. A short period of silence thereafter seemed to suggest that the vote might be carried unanimously until one lone voice spoke up in favour of keeping both lists – aka nay-saying – providing affiliatory and affinity-related reasons for doing so. In other words, he cited boundary issues of the sub-grouping kind, arguing that each list has evolved their own separate identities. Thereafter, another one or two more timid types also ventured to add their nay against the groundswell of yea-sayers – but no doubt to little avail.

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Musing about the ND2.0 experiment

There are a number of currents flowing into the ND2.0 blog experiment. These reflect, differently, some certainty and uncertainty about the nature and purpose of the blog.

First, going into it, we understand that from a small, unpredictable email discussion list, members of the list will self-select to have a relationship to the blog as non-reader, or reader, or reader/participant.

Presumably the level of engagement of any list member with the blog has something to do with their sympathy/antipathy with a perception of the blog as a purposeful medium and “catch-basin” for their own engagement.

Second, there are specific announced vision/mission assertions with respect to the blog. These have already made the attempt to attract engagement, and, they also exist as a speculative suggestion about the future purpose of the blog.

Third, as I’ve mentioned, because the list is small and use of the blog as an expressive medium can be marked to actual participants, names can be named in the sense of knowing who is actually using the blog to express stuff.

Fourth, and maybe paradoxically, the list has come alive to some extent because of the ND2.0 initiative. This development could be quantified given that list activity is measurable over 13+ years.

***

But what is the business of the list? In the run up to the blog development, over the past 8+ (?) years, it might be hard to describe the business of the list, since its unpredictability is partly a matter of how activity levels reflected ambivalence about its originating mission; how the group–over time–shrunk in size of membership; and, how uncertain any mutuality of purpose became over time.

(Since then we’ve surveyed some of these considerations, but it is my opinion this survey reveals a strange set of data that reads like an idealization. Again, this is seemingly the case to me because names can be named. If we strip away from postings all stuff related to the ND2.0 initiative, I don’t think we come up with a picture of the list as a predictably active place to generate responses to one’s, as-it-were, call.)

***

The question about what the future of ND2.0 is, or futures are, is more settled than what the future of the list is. This is so even if the former represents an imagined state of future development.

Yet, I return to the idea that we can name names with respect to assessing inclinations. Well, *****, this interests, perhaps, only me!

Just from my own perspective, I “see” the blog as supposing an organic development based in inclination of a tiny subset of the list. Right now: Stephen and Eldon. It seems the blog grips Jer and Mike and Frank. Maybe Simon. But there isn’t any reason right now to assume exactly how gripping the blog is within the list overall.

Also, already and necessarily, a sub-set mini-list has broken out of both the list and blog so as to imagine the future of the ND2.0 experiment. This–at least–makes sense to me personally because it seems better to have this discussion outside of the ambivalent field of the list. which is to suggest what I’ve already stated: I see no reason to care much about what the list thinks about a project the list is ambivalent toward. Of course in using the term “list” in this way I’m pointing at the people who are ambivalent.

[related-links]

We Are Out of Line

We [Netdynam] really are, but first let me explain. I am a member of two Net 1.0 groups that are migrating to an assortment of 2.0 platforms. When it came time to move, the owner/admin set up the platform, and I set up part of the platform and that was it.

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