NS Internet column
Written 16 April 1999 for the New Statesman
"Cyberspace makes it easier to be an asshole than ever before in human history" according to Andrew Leonard, one of the few men who has entirely managed to resist this temptation of the medium. And if you want proof of his assertions, log on and look around you. No one making a random sample of Usenet groups, web pages, or almost anything else, would say that this was the medium which was going to bring rationality into human affairs. Yet this unlikely proposition seemed completely self-evident in the early years of the decade, and the idea of "electronic communities" is still one which grips anyone who has been online for a year or two and inflames the imagination of the stock market.
The only really successful and completely open electronic community I have known on Usenet — the alt.folklore.urban discussion group, maintained its integrity by a process of ruthless mockery, elitism and cruelty which drove away all but the most determined, clever, and bored applicants. Boredom or underemployment was an essential qualification, since the participants seemed to spend hours reading or writing every day. The unofficial motto of the group was that it consisted of "People who have no lives"; and I once discovered that my neighbour at the Independent had posted fifty messages there in a week.
Examples of serious purpose are harder to find. There are the psyche lists, where technical issues of consciousness science are discussed in great depth and with passion by professionals. But they are moderated, which means that while anyone may read them, all contributions must be approved by a central editor. That keeps the loonies out but seems slightly like cheating, even though lack of moderation has wrecked other promising lists on interesting subjects.
I can't think of any web-based successful discussion groups. The web has certainly made it much easier to publish, arrange, and distribute information. But it has not made the collaborative shaping of ideas any easier. This is extremely odd. To do this sort of collaborative editing was part of the original purposes of hypertext as conceived by Tim Berners Lee when he wrote the first web browsing software at the beginning of the decade. Yet the ability to add or annotate web documents vanished by the time the graphical browsers — which are what we now think of as the essence of the Internet - appeared. It can only be found now in proprietary software like Lotus Notes, (or even the Atex system on which newspapers used to be produced).
I think the difficulties are really social and not technical. You can do collaborative editing, and thus to some extent collaborative thinking with the revision-marking features of all the main word processors, which enable different drafts of a document to circulate, with every change clearly marked. But I've never found any employer or customer of mine who uses these features of the software. I send in a long electronic document. They print it out, and then scribble back a faxed list of comments, identified as occurring on "page 16" or whatever. I then have to retype all their comments in and so forth. It's ridiculous when we could simply send email back and forth.
Yet there is at least one example of a successful political campaign being organised on a mailing list; and this is the struggle to keep strong cryptography legal and widely available in this country. The web has played a part. The foundation for Information Policy Research maintains a web site at www.fipr.og which acts as a clearing house for all sorts of documents, including the texts of all the comments and objections submitted to the latest proposals for legislation. But most of the thought and co-ordination has been done on ukcrypto, a mailing list, the lowest from of technological life. On there., for the last two years, the civil servants responsible for policy have actually been available, more or less, to the people who disagree with them. They have had to justify their actions not to the public, but to a small group of geographically dispersed experts, who may consult among each other between rounds. It's a kind of updated version of Lions vs Christians; as in the original game, the audience is on the side of the lions, but I think the modern version is rather better for society. It's a way that cyberspace makes it easy to be a constructive asshole. Someone should enter it for the New Statesman's Internet contest, which the curious and determined will find on our web site. .