Thursday, September 25, 2008

Usenet: The Current State and The Future

Internet communication has come a long way from what it originally started as. Pre-web internet communication was done primarily through text. Most of the time, this communication would be asynchronous, where users can write something and have to wait for a reply. Later internet communication adopted synchronous methods where users could send a message and immediately receive a response (Adams & Clark, 2001). There are multiple locations and programs people can use on the internet as a way to communicate. Some of the places and programs include IRC (Internet Relay Chat), MUDs (Multi-user Dungeons), and Usenet. Here people can search for specific groups conataining discussions related to specific topics. They can choose where they would like to go, how often they participate, what their username will be, and what they will say. This anonymity could be a good thing or a bad thing. If the actual author of a message is unknown will they be more apt to talk off-topic, spam, and take information without participating? If so, how is this currently dealt with and what does the future of internet communication hold?

In hopes of finding answers to these questions I subscribed to a Usenet group. The reason I chose Usenet is because “the Usenet is one of the largest is one of the largest computer-mediated communications systems in existence.” (Kollock and Smith, pg. 111) I figured that there were enough groups to choose from and enough members in these groups that I would really be able to get a grasp on what goes on in the area of internet communication. I decided to join a NY Giants group, which can be found at, and analyze the communication within the group for five days. Joining the group was not hard. I just clicked subscribe and was asked for my email address and to create a username for the group. After that I was asked if I would like to receive emails containing any updates or changes to the group. There were a bunch of options to choose from, but the one that suited me best was to receive one email a day advising me of all the activity that happened for the day. I was now set up and began browsing some of the posts.

Because this was a football group and it was a Friday, I expected to see some talk of the NY Giants past performances and thoughts on how they would fair in Sunday’s game. I noticed a few posts related to this, but I noticed a lot more that did not. According to Kollock and Smith, these posters would be called grandstanders, or people who post without regard to the topic. Two threads posted by grandstanders that caught my eye had the titles “"I am begging everyone, PLEASE vote for the Palin/McCain ticket!" and "OT - Jessica Alba And Her Boobs Again ". This is a football group so what were these doing here? I was also curious as to how other members would respond. The first thread got many responses calling him an “asshole” and “jackass” for posting this. The other thread didn’t receive any responses at all. Looking at the titles of these threads I noticed that the Jessica Alba one had OT in front of it. I assumed that OT was an abbreviation for off-topic, and this is why there were no harsh responses. The second day I saw more off-topic threads, some with OT in the title and some without. I noticed another type of thread that could be considered spam, but also semi-off-topic. It was a thread linking to an online gambling site. The only reason I say it could be considered semi-off-topic is because football is a sport and people do bet on sports, but because they are trying to make money it is probably just spam. I wondered how all this off-topic would affect the group as a whole and if it was just tolerated.

On the third day I found exactly what I was looking for. A new poster with the username tuck91 posted a thread titled "New Member Question". In it he asked, "...if the spam postings bothered anyone else. Or is it just tolerated?" This was exactly what I was wondering. The responses all revealed a similar approach, that they were just ignored. A few people gave specific usernames of posters that were known to spam or create off-topic threads. After this thread was created I began to see a decrease in off-topic posting and was wondering if this had anything to do with it. People were now talking about the Giants, what commentators said about the Giants, where they could watch the game, and how they were playing. On the last day of observing I was sad to see that the off-topic posting had continued.

In the article “Managing the Virtual Commons” by Peter Kollock and Marc Smith, they talk about how there is not enough space on Usenet so it must be conserved for relevant posts in order to assure a future for the group. They note that free-riders and grandstanders are a big part of the problem. Free riders are people that take information from a group without ever contributing to the group and grandstanders, as previously defined, are people that post without regard to the topic. In my five days of observing the NY Giant’s Usenet group, I had noticed that grandstanders are definitely taking up space by creating all types of off-topic threads and spam. I cannot really say how many people are free-riding due to the fact the free-riders never post, but I would assume there is a fair share of them.

In closing, I would like to say that my Usenet experience was very educational. I saw and witnessed the daily activities of a Usenet group firsthand. This helped me understand much more about internet communication, how it is managed, and possibilities as to where it is going. On the first day when I saw the spamming and off-topic threads outnumbering the on-topic threads I wondered how this was tolerated by other users. By day three, someone had asked just that. It seems that the grandstanders may never stop spamming and creating off-topic threads as long as the opportunity is there. The only thing to do is ignore these posts and get to what you are looking for. My only suggestion would be that Usenet appoint some type of moderator or program that would not allow for certain subjects to be talked about. Until then I guess it would be best if grandstanders started placing the letters OT in any post that is off-topic this way other members do not waste their time opening these threads. I think that by adapting to the current problems and inconveniences as well as those of the future, Usenet can be around for an extensive period of time and continue its growth.

Adams & Clark. (2001). What is it? Characteristics of the medium.
Kollock, Peter & Smith, Marc. (1996). Managing the virtual commons: Cooperation and conflict in the computer communities. In Susan C. Herring (Ed.), Computer-mediated communication: Linguistic, social and cross-cultural perspectives (pp. 109-128). Philadelphia: John Benjamins.

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