Living Online

If memory serves correctly, I've been knocking around online communities since 1983 or so. In those days, you could prowl through the back of Computer Currents magazine and find loads of listings for bulletin boards. You'd open up your modem program, set the parity, length and stop bits to match, and dial direct to the number with the old AT DT command. If you were lucky, phone line would be open, the BBS would be up and running, and you could wander around to see what was going on.

Most of the environments were pretty sparse - topics of discussion and conversation relied upon other users, and when there were only a few incoming lines available - the bottleneck was obvious. It was common courtesy and practice to capture the text of others comments, log off, compose your responses and then try to log back in and upload them.

Pretty early on, I found The Well, joined up and mostly hung out in the computer music area. The level of information was pretty high, and it was a great resource for what was a strong interest area at that time. They had banks of phone lines, as well as the ability to telnet in, so it was a lively environment. It also didn't really tolerate fools, so people who had little to offer were quickly shouted down. (There were a number of interesting characters, and people were permitted their idiosyncrasies, but boorish behavior was in the minority.) The focus always remained on the ideas which you posted, and strong social pressure existed to keep folks in line.

Just to state the non-obvious, these were text-based interfaces. No graphics, nothing to click on, myriad ways to get lost or frustrated. Because of the limitations of text on a screen, there was a strong need to be specific, make your points clearly, and bring others along with the tone of what you were saying.

It may be a bit of a lost art, but text bulletin boards continue to exist in web-based forms, and people still run mailing lists which remain text-based. Usenet still exists (though arguably in the same way that "downtowns" still exist in many cities). I still enjoy this type of communication and intereaction.

Of course, there is a heck of a lot more traffic these days. I've found myself gradually withdrawing from the more public forums, either tiring of needless sniping or having to ignore95% of the the topics and posts. Many of the follow-up "contributions" seem to revel in being cleverly rude and snide, as a mirror of popular practice that it's better to be provacative than thought-provoking.

Many outlets ecourage that type of behavior. If that gets you charged up, far be it for me to convince you otherwise. But, as many people have made the jump from AOL forums* (for example) to non-public mailing lists, they do so without coming across what were once pretty standard guidelines "back in the day". It has gotten me thinking again about those tenets of behavior which were generally accepted. I've begun collecting them here.

I'm not pretending that these are some set of rigid guidelines to be followed at all times. Heck, we all have bad days or those times when we just don't really care. But, if there isn't a basis of agreement, some kind of ethical floor, then it becomes very difficult to get past the noise.

Most of these things are common sense, but until we get to the point where we can visually interact regardless of physical distance like the Jedi Council, they are slightly non-obvious.

We can't see if you are smiling -
Text-based communications means just that. We don't know if you are laughing, grimacing, shaking your head, fist or something altogether too personal to menton. All we have to go by is the words you have chosen to share. This is a key concept that often gets ignored.

Well, we can if you tell us -
Emoticons can help to put across levity. If I type -


- then it means I'm winking and smiling. Even :-) can tell people that you aren't all that serious. More here.

We can tell if you are shouting -
Capitalization places strong emphasis on what you are saying. There's a time and a place for it. ALL CAPS is generally regarded as shouting. People read that as though you are screaming it. The only people who scream all the time are basketball coaches and streetcorner looneys.

There are better ways to strongly make your points.

One is by using the <return> key and giving it a separate line.

Another is to use an underscore before and after the word. That looks like _this_.

Check the Depth before you Dive -
Most mature (as in "been around for a while") groups tend to have a tone. This is pretty evident in the Usenet groups, where you wouldn't write the same kind of posts in as you might in some forum. Generally it's not a bad idea to subscribe and then "lurk" for a while - get a sense of who posts a lot, how folks post things, and what type of responses are frowned upon. Some groups are extremely narrow in their topic, and won't tolerate anything that is slightly off-message. Some are a little less stringent.

The Group has a TOPIC for a reason -
Even if your new found friends are forgiving of off-topic wanderings, try to limit those excursions. It isn't (in most cases) as though we each don't do other things. It's just that this is where we've chosen to talk about a specific subject. Under the best of circumstances, mailing lists are reasonably anarchic gatherings. They will tend towards entropy unless you make a concious effort to keep things under the chosen umbrella.

Reread Your Post -
I think many people must hit "Send" as soon as they finish typing. This strikes me as a monumentally bad idea. Stop. reread what you've written and ask yourself if you are really adding anything to the conversation.

Edit Vigorously -
In the spirit of "Reread Your Post", I try to delete at least half of all posts which I plan on making.

Top Posting -
End of Story.

Paragraphs -
Use journalism-style paragraphs - short ones with one point or thought. Huge blocks of run-on sentances are reasonably tough to deal with.

If you pause when you are writing something, it's a good idea to hit <return>/<enter> to let the rest of us pause with you. In short, it's the visual clue that thoughts go together.

Take Small Bites and Chew Thoroughly -
Unless the group seeks a different kind of response, start small and build up. Don't introduce yourself with the equivilient of a 2 page posting. Pick a small thing or two and build up over time. Too much at once seems reasonably off-putting, in most cases.

Permit us our trespasses -
Despite all of that, I'll probably say something wrong or stupid. Hopefully, it doesn't mean I'm always wrong or stupid, so if you'd allow me that slack every once in a while, the net will be a nicer place.

No Dog-pilin' or "Me-too"ing -
If you've ever spent time in a dog park, you'll see that a dog that tries to get away is suddenly chased by an ever-growing number of other dogs - probably moving to an ancient pack-code of "eliminate the weak". When folks make improper statements or incorrect assertions, by about the third response, most people are just echoing what has already been said.

If you have to make the case that your comments on on-topic, they probably aren't -
(Or, if you have to make the case that your topic is on-topic, it probably isn't)


* AOL Forums - Don't assume I'm dissing AOL or their discussion forums. Both of my parents - who had no computer chops to speak of - managed to get online through the courtesy of AOL (probably 2.1 or something), and it's been a tremendous force for most people in reducing what was a reasonbly steep learning curve of getting online. It's just that with such a broad user base, it has struck me more as visiting a mall than a library.

This list of thoughts sparked this little thread of recollections

This is a work in progress. If you have ideas or feedback, please feel free to email me.

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updated: December 31, 2006


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