Pit Schultz on Sat, 14 Jun 1997 13:12:01 +0200 (MET DST)

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<nettime> Internet Heath Death - Phil Agre

Internet heat death.

  Over the past several months, I have been growing steadily more
  impatient with Internet discussion groups.  The Internet has a
  lot of potential, but I have come to the conclusion that most
  of that potential is being squandered.  Much of what people are
  doing on the net is great.  But much is not.  Here is a common
  dysfunctional pattern: some people decide to "start a discussion
  group".  So they create a mailing list, put a bunch of people on
  it, and say "okay, let's have a discussion".  Maybe they'll send
  out something interesting to "get discussion started".  Several
  things proceed to happen:

   * Since nobody really knows what the list is for, the direction
     it takes will often be heavily influenced by the first two
     messages that go out on it -- that is, the initial discussion
     starter and the first issue that someone raises in response.
     The harder these first two people try to "start discussion" by
     being stimulating and controversial, the more powerfully they
     will set the agenda for the list.  People will react to those
     initial points, and other people will react to those points,
     and the whole discussion will be sucked into one of fifteen
     standard conversations that everybody in that world has had

   * This initial explosion of messages will cause many people to
     panic and say "help! you're flooding my mailbox! get me off
     this list!"

   * Notwithstanding the excessively narrow focus of the initial
     discussion, the people on the list will come up with five
     different ideas about what the list is supposed to be for
     -- without it ever occurring to them that alternative ideas
     exist.  They then start grouching at one another for abusing
     the list.  Or even worse, they start scowling inwardly at one
     another for abusing the list without ever raising the issue --
     or not raising it until they're full of anger and resentment
     about it.

   * Nobody can decide when to take a branch of the discussion
     "off-line" to private messages.  This problem is especially
     bad on those systems which do not have a concept of a "thread"
     (roughly, a series of messages with the same Subject line),
     so that people can choose not to receive any more messages
     on a given thread.  But of course, most mail-readers on the
     Internet (as opposed to Usenet or the Well, for example) have
     no such concept.

   * After an initial burst of discussion, the list falls into
     something resembling heat death.  The level of traffic goes
     down, and nobody is sure what to do next.  Everybody was just
     reacting to other people's messages anyway, so zero traffic
     becomes a stable pattern.

   * The next step, after a couple months of silence, is for
     someone to post a political action alert to the list --
     whereupon a batch of people will try to get themselves off.
     But of course they did not save the automatically generated
     message that explained how to do this, and the intervening
     silence has removed any sense of concern for the well-being
     of the list, so they do it by sending messages to the whole
     list.  This, of course, causes other people to do the same
     thing, whereupon someone tries to prevent this effect from
     snowballing by sending out a helpful, constructive message
     like "hey, you idiots! didn't your mama teach you anything?
     why don't you just unsubscribe by sending a message to

  Internet discussion groups can work well despite these dynamics,
  but only in special circumstances.  For example, it helps if
  the community on the list has a steady stream of external events
  to react to.  Since the list operates in a mostly reactive mode,
  they'll always have something to talk about.  The sustained level
  of traffic might be high, but then people will leave the list
  until it settles down to a level that suits the people who remain
  behind.  Another scheme that works well is to have a list which
  is oriented almost exclusively to one-shot announcements -- but
  then that's not a discussion list anymore.

  Mostly, though, Internet discussion lists do not work very well.
  Very often the problem, in my experience, is that people are
  being lazy: trying to set up a discussion list in order to avoid
  the hard work of building a community, agreeing on purposes and
  goals, establishing a structure and timetable, and so on.  Often
  they rationalize this laziness by appealing to the libertarian
  ethos of the net: structure means constraint means domination.
  Lots of people believe that, but it's not true.  It's not even
  true if you're a libertarian: structure imposed from the outside
  may imply constraint and domination, but structure agreed from
  within a group through a legitimate consensus-building process
  should not.  In my experience, though, lots of people who tend
  toward libertarian sentiments just talk about the virtues of
  association without actually learning how to cooperate and build
  things with real, live other people.  This spirit of politically
  noble laziness is dragging down the Internet.

  In fact, the people who helped me articulate these phenomena work
  mostly with kids.  Mike Cole <mcole@ucsd.edu> and Olga Vasquez
  <ovasquez@weber.ucsd.edu> in my department, for example, run
  after-school computer clubs for kids.  They learned early on that
  you can't just provide a bunch of computer activities and helpful
  college students and tell the kids of have fun and learn lots.
  Instead, you need to provide a structure of some kind that is
  intrinsically rewarding and offers a sense of where you currently
  are in a larger picture.  So, for example, each computer program
  comes with an activity sheet -- an actual sheet of paper with
  easy, medium, and hard challenges for using the program.  Also,
  the kids are constrained in which programs they can use by a
  floorplan through they move a game piece (a "creature"): when
  they do well at one program, they get to move to an adjacent
  "room" of their choice.  Now some people will say that this is
  more grown-up domination of kids.  I say that kids need friendly,
  flexible structures to scaffold their development.  If you think
  you can get kids learning real stuff in a totally unstructured
  environment, you go ahead and do it.  Let us know when you
  succeed.  We'll stop by and have a look, and ten bucks says
  that you're actually training the kids to obey a whole range of
  hidden control trips while pretending to be free and spontaneous.

  Margaret Riel <mriel@weber.ucsd.edu> has done similar things
  on a larger scale over the Internet with networks of teachers
  across the globe.  They don't just connect the kids by e-mail
  to scientists at the South Pole: first they set up a whole
  elaborate curriculum, covering several topics from math to
  science to literature, so that the children have read and written
  and talked and listened about the South Pole for weeks, comparing
  notes with one another as they hit the library and type in their
  work.  All of this structure means that everybody knows where
  they are going, everybody is ready for what happens next, and the
  whole activity has a natural point of closure.

  What the Internet needs is a vocabulary of structures for e-mail
  discussion lists.  Nobody should bother creating a list until
  they have a good reason for it that everybody has signed onto.
  This will mean doing some consultation, building consensus, and
  accepting that communities take time to grow.  It will also mean
  having a definite goal and structure for the list, including
  a statement of the conditions under which the list will have
  achieved its purpose and be shut down.  Of course, nobody should
  *force* people to run their lists this way.  But it would be most
  excellent if decent standards could be established within which
  people can create software to support such things.  Sure, plenty
  of companies sell conferencing systems to organizations whose
  people are required to do things together.  But that doesn't
  mean that those people actually go through the social processes
  needed to use the systems at all productively, and it certainly
  doesn't mean that the benefits of those systems become widespread
  on the Internet.

  A lot of the problem, then, has to do with technical standards
  and the like.  But the problem is also cultural.  Many people
  have lost, or never learned, the skills for working together.
  Although the 1960's counterculture is out of fashion now, it
  put a *lot* of effort into learning how to build community, how
  to organize and empower people, how to run things democratically,
  how to fight fair, and how to be a powerful human being without
  having to exercise power over other people.  In my opinion, the
  net needs these skills badly.  And so does the rest of the world.
  People who believe in liberty ensure an authoritarian world
  unless they teach people how to organize themselves through their
  own efforts, and the problem of using the net productively might
  be an occasion to rediscover this.


TNO May 1995

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