Old School Netiquette

(The traffic of Well-written vs One-liner posts)

By Xah Lee. Date:

one would think that well-written, or postings with effort will generate largish threads. But in my 10+ years of online discussion experience, i find that not being the case. The no-brainer one-liner posts tend to generate much followings. This is essentially how negative-troll works. They by saying something offensive or stupid in a one-liner, then many people will get hooked to respond in all sort of ways, from name calling to plonk humor to sincere rebuke. On the other hand, a well-written, well-researched monolithic piece will often be lost among the trivialities and anti-troll-crying moral armies. Occasionally, the well-written post will garner a couple praises. There are of course exceptions. For example, in discussion groups that's very focused (may it be moderated, or highly specialized/esoteric such as math history), then the trend may reverse. That is, posts with efforts and thought may have equal or more followings than no-brainers.

(Old School Netiquette)


Once upon a time in my 10+ years of online discussion experience (since CompuServe and AppleLink days), i belong to the school of thought that postings should be dense in information and _strictly_ on-topic. I envision that the nature of online discussion group should be like a community collectively writing a book. In the older days of USENET, many online discussion groups (called newsgroups) are more like that, because the online members are often elite as scientists, which often resulted in high-quality booklets called FAQs (Frequently Asked Questions and answers compilation.). Therefore you see FAQs on unixes, shells, fractals, cellular automata, genetic programing, computer languages, linguistics, mathematics, pianos, classical music, English writing, and even sex, oral and anal, sadism and masochism etiquette, enema fetish dos and don'ts etc. These FAQs, humble in name, but often contains never-before-possible condensed and practical summary of respective topics. Many of these FAQs has in fact been published as books. (For example, i recall one on the C language.) Today, online communities include grandmas and kids, who have equal rights to speak their opinions, and we must respect their mouths by principle. The result is that quality of some online discussion suffered in general, but perhaps on the whole the topics has been vastly broadened and enriched by diversity.

Towards the last few years, my view towards how online-discussion should be used has changed gradually. First, i realized that on-line discussion differ from books in many important aspects. Unlike books, it is of interactive nature. Interactive Q and A can serve many purposes that books cannot. For example, individualistic and real-time learning. There is always the need for real-time answers because it is unrealistic to expect all people to do homework to begin a conversation. When i have a question, i often try to do some minimum homework of reading FAQs or search online before i bother a whole community of people. But this up-front pain often results in many un-asked questions. On the other hand, i have often observed people asking very stupid questions, but evolved into fruitful discussions related to the original question. Also unlike books, online-discussion group is by many diverse people where collecting useful info isn't the only primary goal. Face it, people are not born into this world just so that they can collectively write great books. By nature, people want to chat, want to have fun. Learning is great, but wouldn't be if made anal-retentive as in many schooling institutions. By ways of online discussion, many people have made friends physically later. Thus, online groups also can be a bounding medium between people. Also, unlike me who am seriously into mathematics and being a perfectionist, most people do not wish to be subjected to some discipline. As street people might say, discipline put the life out of things.

Still, i still hold that people who join online-discussion groups should hold certain general education or some understanding of common net issues. I think the worse case as a illustrative example, is a bunch of kids oblivious of the universe, but each fog-horn their opinions without putting any thoughts and time when doing it.

… i have this suggestion for those list moderators. I think it would be a effective approach to reduce drivel of a group, if desired. That is, put a delay in posting messages. Say, of 1 hour or more, and if the post has cc to other individuals, then triple the delay time. Drivel-flood often results when people are involved in a heated argument, and they immediately respond to posts that look bad on them, and without reading the whole thread or consider the existence of other list members. This delay-posting approach has its demerits. By depriving people of immediate feedback from the spotlight, it will reduce good postings as well. I think the best fix to drivel-flood is to attack the root of the problem: people.

So, instead of using technology to cure things, we should start to disseminate information about the issues of online discussion groups, to get people to be aware of it, to discuss and learn together without censorship or heavy-hand from above. I think in short this is commonly called “education”, but i tire of myself repeating a trite terminology, lest people would intuitively call me a hypocrite.

Please do feel free to don upon me all sort of epithets if you must, but i ask that you put some thoughts in it, make it elaborate of why you think such and such, back it up with plenty carefully thought out arguments and reasonings, add in addition of what you seriously thought may be of interest to the whole group. If in the worst case that your post is considered as garbage and wasted the one-thousand-something list member's time, at least you spent considerable time in expressing your opinion and being sincere in principle, which in itself sufficiently makes you a good online citizen. I spent roughly 3 hours writing this message. Call me a slow-brain, but imagine if everyone were to spend 3 hours before posting a message, what would it do to the quantity and quality of posts in online discussion groups?