An Examination of the Social and Political Processes of a
Cooperative Computer/Communications Network Under the Stress of Rapid
The ease with which people can generate additions to the bulletin
board and messages to others has [another] major drawback: electronic
junk mail. Many of my colleagues and I have stopped reading the network
news and bulletin boards because we cannot afford the time to do so
The positive side of these networks overcomes the negative.
People can communicate their ideas to others across the country quickly
and effectively. In turn, the recipients can respond, criticizing, sharing,
and improving the product.
The Trouble with Networks
Donald A. Norman
Datamation, Jan. 1982
Posted to usenet: Nov. 1987
Copyright 1987, Jerome Durlak, Rory O'Brien, Ozan Yigit
Rights are hearby granted to print or typeset for personal
or academic research purposes only. All other forms of
publication, distribution through bulletin boards or distribution
on any network other than USENET, CDNNET, NETNORTH, ARPA Internet
or CSNET requires prior written permission of the authors.
Any non-electronic correspondence about this paper should be
Dr. Jerry Durlak
Mass Communications Programme
4700 Keele Street, North York
e-mail correspondence: netters@yuyetti.BITNET
As more people use computers as a communication medium, a network and
a utility, the design as well as the behavioral and social effects of
computer-mediated communications are becoming critical research
topics. This is the first of a series of papers on USENET, a
cooperative computer/communication network/utility that has over
236,000 readers at 8300 sites in North America alone (As of November
5, 1987). The readers represent only 22% of the 1,064,000 users with
accounts on the UUCP (UNIX is a registered trademark of AT&T
to UNIX COPY) network (electronic mail).
USENET news is often carried on top of the same UUCP links that carry
UUCP mail. In addition, there are other nodes that cover the United
Kingdom, parts of Europe (with the hub in Amsterdam), Australia, New
Zealand, Japan, Korea, and numerous other countries.
Until recently USENET has been in a special class all by itself,
because of its unrestricted growth, its self-governing structure, and
its extraordinary collection of public discussion groups. Users have
been able to post articles to approximately 280 distributed
conferences, collectively called netnews, that are
used by thousands
of people every day. There are bulletin boards for every subject for
which there is sufficient interest, including political groups, social
groups, groups for telling jokes and groups related to a wide variety
of research areas.
Since 1980 USENET has grown at an incredible rate in terms of news
volume and variety, network span, type of user and type of hardware.
This means that the system has been constantly adapting to rapid
This paper has two objectives:
- To briefly examine a number of important ideas that people have
discussed about information utilities and networks of the future.
- To examine how USENET has adapted organizationally, structurally,
politically and socially to rapid growth and communication overload.
In December 1969 the American Federation of Information Processing
Societies (AFIPS) and the Encyclopedia Britannica held a conference on
Information Utilities and Social Choice at the University of
Chicago, commemorating the 200th anniversary of the Britannica.
In a sense the Britannica was one of the first information
utilities. In the keynote address, J. C. R. Licklider defined the
choices quite succinctly:
The advent of information utilities is truly a crux for our
civilization. The prospect is either down to a mindless complex of
electronically stored and retrieved facts and data-based economic
exploitation or it's up toward a realization of the potentials of
human creativity and cooperation... It's a choice between data
and knowledge. It's either mere access to information or interaction
with information. And for mankind it implies either an enmeshment in
the silent gears of the great electronic machine or mastery of a
marvelous new and truly plastic medium for formulating ideas and for
exploring, expressing, and communicating them. (Licklider, 1970, p.6).
At that same conference two other papers discussed the positive and
negative potentials of an information utility. The first by Ed Parker
on Planning Information Utilities predicted that the initial content
of computer utilities would be derived from materials previously
prepared for other mass media such as newspapers, magazines and TV
(Parker, 1970). Only later would content specifically designed for
information utilities appear. However, in a more optimistic vein he
suggested that computer utilities had key advantages that should
deter us from following the laissez-faire example of TV:
- More information
- greater variety of information, ultimately individualized
- greater selectivity of information by user
- more powerful information processing capability
- individualized user feedback to the system
- Conversational permissiveness, encouraging exploration of information
In the second paper, The Public Data Bank, Edgar S. Dunn (Dunn 1970)
suggested that the organized activities of humankind fall into two
broad categories. First, there is organization which is directed at
the management of ongoing activities: those that assure the routine
maintenance of the life of the individual, family or social
organization. Second, there are activities that are developmental
in nature. This second class of activities is directed to solving
problems, changing the behavior of individuals or organization and
leads to experimentation with changes in the nature of the goals and
controls that define human social behavior.
Dunn states that these two classes of activity require two quite
different types of information. Management activity requires more
repetitive information, which is more commonly quantitative in nature
and needs little qualitative information related to values and goals.
Development activity, on the other hand, is less interested in
routine and is more concerned with knowledge relationships and is
also more apt to need information about goals and values. Dunn also
suggested that the design of an information utility to serve the
routine needs of management is a vastly simpler task than the design
of an information system to serve the creative needs of developmental
activities. The fundamental question for our society is to what
extent do we wish to allocate resources to deliberately design mass
information utilities to enhance social creativity?
Since that conference many authors have written books and articles on
information utilities, computer conferencing, computer networks, and
machine mediated human interaction. (See for example, Dordick,
Hiltz and Turoff, Hiltz, Johansen, Mosco, Rice, and Vallee). Some of
these books are enthusiastic about the potentials for human
interaction and development and others are critical.
It is the Japanese, however, who have made the development of an
information environment an important and well thought out social
goal. In their view it is crucial to increase their citizens'
capacity and ability to make good use of information for planning
their society's future. In 1972 the Ministry of International Trade
and Industry (MITI) in cooperation with leading industries, published
the Plan for an Information Society: A National Goal Toward the Year
2000. The report emphasized quality of life over economic success
at any cost. New media which would be based on computer technology was
integral to their vision and involved much more than the simple
enhancement of traditional media:
The information society centering around computers is different from
the society characterized by projected images that are passive,
sentimental and sensible such as mainly represented by TV. It is
necessary to stress that the information society is an intellectually
creative society and is subjective, theoretical and
Yoneji Masuda's book The Information Society (Masuda, 1980) is useful
in this context. To him a desirable and feasible information utility
will represent the integration of (1) the information infrastructure,
(2) joint production and shared utilization of information and
(3) citizen participation. While development of the information
infrastructure is straightforward, the two other points are not.
To achieve joint production and shared utilization of information
Masuda suggests that information utilities will go through four
stages of development to reach maturity:
- Public Service Stage: This is the stage at which the
information utility provides information processing and services for
- User Production Stage: The user of the information utility
produces information. Masuda suggests that there will be four factors
that will promote user production of information; the awareness of the
general public that one's own information can be produced for
oneself, the development of powerful conversation software, the
development of various packaged program modules, and the preparation
of databases to suit many different fields.
- Shared Utilization Stage: Here the information utility
makes possible the shared use of information produced by individual
users. As the production of separate information by individuals
reaches a certain point, the data and programs become available to
third parties, and the self-multiplication process and shared
utilization interact to produce a geometric effect.
- Synergistic Production and Shared Utilization Stage: The
shared use of information created by individuals develops into
voluntary synergistic production and shared utilization of
information by groups. When there is a need for complex programs
several people will work together in the development and utilization
of the product.
This synergistic production and shared utilization of information
represents in Masuda's mind the most developed form of information
The third concept fundamental to a desirable information utility is
citizen participation in, and management of, the information
utility. In a citizen managed utility, as envisioned by Masuda, the
capital needed to operate the utility is raised by the citizens
themselves and the operation of the utility is completely under the
autonomous management of the citizens, with the operation base
consisting of funds raised by citizens, from usage fees, and
voluntary contributions (including money, mental labor, and
programming). The processing and supplying of information is done
by the citizens themselves, with types of information related to
problem solving, opportunity development for individuals, groups and
even society as a whole.
The merits of the system are the maximum of voluntary participation
of citizens, allowing the individual to obtain the information needed.
It becomes so much easier to arrive at solutions and the direction
for joint action to solve common social problems. The weakness of
the system is that it depends to a very great extent on the voluntary
contributions of citizens, which are difficult to coordinate. This
makes it inferior to government and business utilities in capital
formation, technology, and organization. Masuda states that
information utilities of the future will probably be some combination
of a government type, a business type and a citizen managed type.
Whatever the combination, the most desirable form would be citizen
oriented because (1) only by citizen participation in the management
of information utilities will the self-multiplicative production
effect of information be expanded, (2) autonomous group decision
making by ordinary citizens will be promoted, and (3) the dangerous
tendency toward a centralized administrative society will be
USENET does allow people to interact with a great variety of
information, permits feedback and allows a great deal of
conversational permissiveness. It also has many of the elements of a
citizen managed utility/network that Masuda envisions, but Dunn's
question to what extent do we wish to allocate resources to a utility
that enhances social creativity? is still the key question. USENET
was originally designed as a task oriented network, but since 1983
social creativity interests have expanded more rapidly than the task
oriented interests. Much of the current tension in the system
revolves around the older task oriented users versus the new socially
oriented users who are generating volumes of social information.
USENET is one of the largest decentralized computer conferencing
networks in the world. Almost 200,000 people in North America have
access to it via their computer terminals and public telephone lines.
It is piggybacked onto the UUCP electronic mail network, which has
almost one million users on four continents. One can visualize USENET
as a sort of giant distributed electronic bulletin board system, where
users can initiate or join on-going discussions on a large number of
topics. Like on their cork board counterparts, articles concerning
the topics are created, posted, and read asynchronously.
Participation is at the leisure of the users.
USENET originated seven years ago as a medium of exchanging
technical information about computers. Today the users have a
mixture of academic, corporate, research, and commercial interests,
and are not so technically oriented. Postings to the over 280
newsgroups (the discussion forums) show a great diversity. The
space shuttle, soap operas, philosophy, celtic culture, and taxes are
but a few of the many topics offered in addition to the core
newsgroups on computers and software.
USENET is a decentralized, distributed network. No one organization
has control over its operation. New articles are automatically
propagated throughout the system by daily feeds among the larger
sites (backbone nodes) who, in turn, pass it on to the local sites.
The articles are collected and stored in the computers of each
full-feed site for a limited period of time, after which they are
deleted or perhaps archived. Information is passed from one site to
another over public and private telecommunication lines, with the
sender paying the charges (which vary according to the volume sent).
The backbone sites, due to their higher volume of transmissions,
end up paying the major portion of the costs of USENET's operation.
Another important aspect of this network is its incredible rate of
growth. At the end of 1980, there were 50 sites, jumping to 500 in
1983. By 1985 there were 2,500 and at the time of this writing the
number of sites has reached 6,500. The average traffic per day on
USENET is 910 messages, comprising 2 megabytes of information
[news.groups 2/5/7 article, ``Readership Summary Report for April
1987'']. In an average two-week period, traffic through seismo, the
largest backbone node, was sizeable: 11,213 articles, totalling
21.52 megabytes, were submitted from 1663 different USENET sites by
4269 different users to 261 newsgroups. Sorting this by top-level
news grouping, 28% was about recreational topics, 25% was filtered by
a moderator beforehand, and 23% were computer oriented [news.lists
22/3/87 article - ``Total traffic through seismo for the last two
Along with this incredible growth has come information overload. The
system's hardware, software as well as the users are constantly being
pushed to the limit of their abilities in trying to cope with the
exponentially expanding volume of information.
From an individual's perspective one of the most fundamental impacts
of hooking into USENET is what Hiltz and Turoff (1985) call
superconnectivity. Individuals can potentially access over 280
conference groups. If they decide to move beyond the stage of just
reading messages from various groups, they can actively enter into the
ongoing conversations. This can increase social connectivity of
users tenfold (Hiltz and Turoff, 1985, p. 688). It is not hard to
become an information junkie and to crave your daily dose of
information. However, the volume and pace of information can
become overwhelming, especially since messages are not necessarily
sequential and multiple topic threads are common, resulting in
information overload. (Ibid., p. 680).
To deal with communication overload people and organizations employ
coping and/or defensive mechanisms. Coping mechanisms are adaptive.
They are concerned with solving the problem that the individual and
the organization encounters. Defensive mechanisms, on the other hand,
protect the individual or organization from breakdown but do not solve
The USENET administrators have used a variety of filtering (the
selective receiving of information) and structuring (that is,
reoganizing the newsgroups) mechanisms to deal with overload. The
problem is that while the system administrators believe that they have
designed useful coping mechanisms for handling overload, many users
view those same mechanisms as defensive and destructive.
Another approach to problems of overload is to reverse the usual
stance of seeking new mechanisms for handling overload and to seek
instead ways of reducing the inputs. Given that much of the overload
within USENET is created by the volume of socially oriented
communication, some users recommend reducing the amount of social
communication. However, many of the users who have joined in the last
couple of years find the social communication aspects of the system
its most relevant. The conflict between these two points of view is
The most popular newsgroups, i.e., those with the highest number of
readers, were net.sources and mod.sources (both forums for
UNIX-based computers and software), with 17% and 15% of netreaders
respectively. The newsgroup with the highest number of postings per
month was soc.singles (for single people, their activities, etc.)
with 1,167 articles posted. [news.groups 1/3/87 article - ``TOP 40
NEWSGROUPS IN ORDER BY POPULARITY (FEB. 87)''] With these ideas in mind
let us walk you through the growth of the system.
In the spring of 1980, computer programmers at Duke University using
UNIX operating system software decided to establish a communication
connection with their counterparts at the neighbouring University of
North Carolina. They developed Version A of the USENET news software
to be used by members of Usenix (the UNIX users group). In the
fall of that year the University of California at Berkeley connected
up to USENET. This was soon followed by AT&T's Bell Laboratories with
a mother node in Holmdel, New Jersey. By the end of the first year,
USENET had 50 member sites and the volume of communications had begun
to strain the original software, designed to handle only a few new
articles per day.
In early 1982, a team at Berkeley devised Version B of the software.
Besides being able to technically process the increased amount of data
generated by the growing network, it offered some new capabilities to
help users deal with a greatly expanded number of articles to read.
Whereas the old version listed all articles by time of reception,
Version B allowed messages to be sorted by topic. This cut down on
the frustration of users having to scan all posted articles to get to
the ones they were interested in. Members of the network could also
suggest and discuss improvements via the newsgroup net.sources.\**
Eventually, however, complaints about ``garbage'' discussions eventually
lead to the elimination of net.sources.
By mid-1983 USENET had over 500 sites with 5 to 10 new sites joining
every month, and a readership numbering in the thousands. Most of
the sites were still at universities and Bell Labs research
facilities, though manufacturers of UNIX systems and providers of
UNIX-related services were joining in increasing numbers. There was
evidence that the user population was shifting from an academic and
research community to one including many representatives from the
outside world. USENET users were polled to assess feelings about
potential surge in membership resulting from the spread of
affordable desktop UNIX systems. Some members were concerned about
network overload but most favoured continued open access.
At that time there were about 100 newsgroups, some from users of
ARPANET (the Advanced Research Projects Agency Network-a research
network that has had an important influence on the development of
networking technology), some regionally distributed, and the rest
existing throughout the entire USENET. Users discussed UNIX itself,
its programs and applications, and computers in general but the
non-technical topics were growing. One-third alone were devoted to
hobbies and recreation.
Though slight revisions of Version B software enabled USENET to grow
into a major network with nodes and gateways to other networks in
every continent except Africa and Antartica. By early 1986 it was
becoming clear that something major would have to be done to deal with
the overload of information. Contributions to the newsgroup
news.groups show a lively discussion on the matter. Some maintained
the problem was the anarchic nature of the system and therefore some
sort of centralized control was needed. One user suggested that a
non-profit organization be set up to administer USENET. A rebuttal
pointed out the potential danger of lawsuits since a corporation, even
a non-profit one, can be held liable for any of its communications.
Anarchy means never having to say you're sorry, it seems.
Other suggestions centred around technical solutions. For example,
suggestions included an upgrading of modems or a satellite connection,
as a way to cut the costs of increased volume of transmissions. Still
others advocated a more rigorous procedure for creating new
newsgroups - advancing from a mailing list to a moderated discussion
to free access for all - in order to weed out poorly supported
One proposal that was eventually acted upon was for a broader
restructuring of newsgroups from two top-level groups (net., to
which anyone could contribute, and mod., which were moderated and by
invitation only) into seven based on general topic. Over 200 old
newsgroups were now to be listed under seven top level groups:
comp. (Computers), sci. (Science, Research and Technology),
rec. (Recreation), news. (USENET Itself), soc.
(Society and Social Topics), talk. (High Volume Discussions) and
This re-naming scheme was the result of two months' work, including
seven revisions and comments volunteered from approximately forty
people. It was intended to facilitate the distribution of newsgroups
and not to categorize specific groups by quality. The restructuring
would make sys or transmission parameter files shorter and therefore
easier to maintain and send by the local news administrators.
The creation of the new scheme was implemented in two phases, the
first in mid-September of 1986 for the unmoderated groups (roughly
half of the newsgroups), and the moderated groups following after the
completion of phase two in April 1987.
Even with the benefits of the renaming, there was the widely-held
opinion by system administrators that volume of net traffic should be
reduced. They suggested that ``chatter'' should be kept to a minimum.
As one wrote,
The talk. groups can be considered to be in a sort of limbo. They
(and a few of the soc. groups [singles and women at least]) are
essentially on probation. As some of the "backbone" sites have said
they would not carry talk after the changeover period is complete,
some groups may be considered "killed" if they don't clean up their
act. [net.news.group 11/8/86 article - "Newsgroup renaming scheme
(1 of 2)"].
Moderated groups usually have one or more individuals acting as
editors and/or moderators or gatekeepers. Their role is to approve
articles before they are published to the net. In general, these
groups fall into one of five categories:
- Groups with postings of an informative nature not suited to
discussion and always originating from a small group of posters.
- Groups that have such a high volume that the average reader has a
hard time keeping up. The moderated version attempt to provide lower
volume and a higher overall quality version.
- Groups derived from regular groups that had a variety of netiquette
- Groups designed to serve as direct feedback to an off-the-net
- Groups which are gatewayed into Usenet from an Arpa Internet
A user writes an article and mails it to the posted submission address
which goes directly to the moderator. If the moderator finds the
article appropriate it is posted. If the moderator feels that the
article is inappropriate it is returned to the user with a suggestion
of why it is not appropriate or a suggestion of other newsgroups that
might post the article. If the user has a complaint or a question he
or she may contact the moderator by mail, or alternatively the user
can send mail to a specific mailing list and it is broadcast to all of
the current newsgroup moderators.
Recently, some USENET participants have expressed a fear that a new
software product on the market called UULINK will mean a deluge of new
users. UULINK is designed to allow micro-computers with the MS-DOS
operating system to connect up to UNIX-based computers, something
not previously possible. This means that all IBM and IBM-compatible
personal computers will now be able to link up to USENET. Should this
fear be realized, the system could be in danger of overloading to the
point of collapse.
At present, steps are being taken to enable the net to cope with
overload, steps which create a great deal of internal conflict among
those who are concerned about the character of the net as well as its
survival. The issues are not just technical ones, but also centre
on politics and power in the USENET community.
However, before beginning to discuss the issues, it is important to
remember that many of the users of USENET are computing professionals
who implicitly reject organizational conventionality. As Sara Kiesler
et al. point out:
People using electronic mail overstep conventional time boundaries
dividing office and home; they mix work and personal communications;
they use language appropriate for boardrooms and ball field
interchangeably; and they disregard normal convention of privacy
(for instance, by posting personal messages to general bulletin
boards). This behavior is not counteracted by established conventions
or etiquette for computer communication. There are few shared
standards for salutations, for structuring formal versus informal
message, or for adapting content to achieve both impact and
politeness.. From a social psychological perspective, this
suggests that computer-mediated communication has at least two
interesting characteristics (a) a paucity of social context
information and (b) few widely shared norms governing its use
(Kiesler, Siegel, and McGuire, 1984, p. 1126).
The authors then also suggest that in technical problem solving,
members of computer-mediated groups might be disorganized,
democratically unrestrained, and perhaps more creative than groups who
communicate more traditionally, but they might have trouble reaching
consensus if there is no clear correct answer and they may not act as
cool and fast decision makers. There appears to be quite a bit of
truth in that statement in the case of USENET.
There is a continuing discussion about politics and power among those
who are particularly interested in the evolution of the organization
of USENET. Some people on the net believe it should be anarchic,
others would like it to be a democracy, and a few pragmatists feel
that control should go to those who pay the bills or understand the
technology. Judging from the amount of ``flaming'' (net jargon for
criticizing in a non-constructive, derogatory manner) against
those who are creating changes in the network operation, the debate is
heated. Unfortunately, like many discussions of politics, more heat
than light is generated.
Conflict and confusion have arisen over the lack of any mutually
(democratically?) agreed upon procedures for determining policies.
Who defines the problems? Who postulates the solutions? Who
implements them? Who evaluates the results? These are classic
questions that have occupied social philosophers for thousands of
years. It is therefore not surprising that they are now posed within
USENET, a community struggling to cope with the pressures of rapid
The following is not meant to be an in-depth political analysis of the
situation but rather an overview of the more salient issues and how
they are evolving. While these issues are pertinent to all 180,000
users of the net, there are only a few hundred at most who are active
participants in the continuing dialogue on the politics of USENET.
These few post their opinions to six newsgroups contained in the
top-level group called news, which is about the network itself.
According to the February 1987 readership statistics, the most popular
of these newsgroups (news.misc) is read by 7.7\% of the membership,
about 12,000 people. Thus, at this point anyway, it is impossible to
tell just how indicative are the sentiments of the expressive few to
the silent majority who follow the issues.
Much of the dissatisfaction which arose out of the 1986
reorganization of the newsgroups into seven top-level categories was
directed at the system administrators of the backbone nodes. It was
The backbone `cabal' is behind all this and are making decisions
without knowing all the facts. We can't have our opinions heard!
[net.news.group 18/9/86 article -"Comments on Reorganization"].
This ``flame'' was partially correct insofar as the plan to rename the
newsgroups was conceived and carried out by a small, select group
including backbone site administrators, newsgroup moderators, and a
few users with expertise on the net. Those who conducted the renaming
No one can know all the `facts' about USENET! It has gotten too
big and too much volume for anyone (or group) to be expert at
such things. That is one of the problems. The best we can do
is combine the experience of the people who produce and
maintain the majority of the software and who maintain some of
the biggest and/or most strategic sites on the net... We are
working as a group to try to steer things in a direction where
growth can continue and the net can survive, but not in such a
totally unconstrained and expensive manner... We had to present
it all as a fait accompli because otherwise the debate would go
on forever and nothing would be decided. We also didn't want to
open it up to debate by the netters who view their own words on
the printed screen as the ultimate truth and artform -- you
know the type: endless chatter and no substance. (ibid.)
There was a lively set of postings between those who sought to keep
the ``noise'' of complaints about the process of re-organization to a
minimum and those who stated that such silencing was ``like Hitler and
freedom''. Those who wanted to get on with the job seemed to have
little patience for those who ``flamed'' without offering concrete
alternatives. In the words of one system administrator, Bitching
is easy, constructive criticism isn't.
Recently, the turmoil has died down. The net has survived and the
re-naming has been pronounced a success by the backbone.
UUCP Mapping Project
There were other projects initiated and carried
out by the backbone administrators (or vertebrae according to one)
which elicited flames. One was the UUCP Mapping Project. It was
developed to give UUCP sites new absolute names and addresses
following the conventional domain naming syntax used by ARPA
Internet and other large computer networks. UUCP has been using
pathalias software which provides source routing rather than
conventional system routing, i.e., the user, not the network software,
determines the route. The new syntax is designed to reduce the large
amount of disk space (2 megabytes) needed for pathalias. The
project entails updating each site's software to the new syntax. One
It's a sure bet that if we get mail from some self-appointed net
administration group saying `update or die, scum!' then we'll more
likely than not just flip our middle finger in the air and watch
what happens. [news.admin 25/3/87 article - "Worms in the Wood-work:
the perversion of USENET"].
To those netters who railed against the undemocratic nature of some of
the changes instituted in USENET, one system administrator replied,
USENET never was and never will be a democracy. It is an anarchy.
A democracy implies that there is a binding responsibility to work
with the majority belief. USENET has no binding authority. People do
what they want to do, and we end up with a result that is the
agglomeration of individual choices. Some individual choices are
more powerful than others. The backbone, since they take a large
financial hit to support the net, has a lot of say... Others...
carry power because when they talk, people listen. They've shown
that their opinions carry the weight of experience and
reasonableness. [news.groups 25/3/87 article - "Re: Worms in the
Woodwork: the perversion of USENET"].
It seems that those who have the initiative and the expertise to
create netwide changes have the de facto power to do so. However, the
influence of public opinion (i.e. the written comments of users) and
the costs in terms of time, energy and resources of taking personal
initiative, slow down those who would like to exert power. In
addition, the backbone ``cabal'' is not a monolithic group and there are
certainly antagonisms among different factions.
Stargate is an important issue because the experiment raises issues of
moderation of newsgroups, costs of participation, copyright
restrictions on redistribution of material, and centralized control.
In 1984, Usenix (the UNIX users group) began funding a technical
experiment to broadcast USENET information via satellite to reduce the
high costs of ground-based telecommunications. Usenix funding for the
experiment ended the last day of february, 1987. Usenix does not have
any current relation with the Stargate experiment.
Stargate information Systems (), was formed to manage the undertaking
separate from USENET and Usenix. Though originally designed as a
non-profit consortium, the five member Stargate team (all
volunteers), later decided to consider making it a for-profit venture.
The idea was to make use of part of the WBTS (television) vertical
blanking interval to transmit USENET newsgroups simultaneously
throughout North America. Both Wbts and Startgate buy satellite
time from Southern Satellite Services of Douglasville, Georgia.
By using the WTBS vertical blanking
interval, data becomes available in the vast majority of locations
where WTBS can be received, without any special actions or special
headend equipment normally being required of the local cable
companies. Since the data is in the vertical interval it was normally
expected to pass through most cable companies' systems directly to
USENET subscribers. People who are not able to get the data from WBTS
on cable could buy relative inexpensive home dish satellite equipment.
Since the costs of the data broadcast operations are fixed the goal is
to be able to lower the per-subscriber rates as the number of
subscribers grows. Most other technologies require the addition of
substantially more and more equipment (modems, ports, CPU cycles,
etc.) as the number of subscribers rise. Stargate does not face this
kind of scenario.
The experiment was declared a technical success in January 1987 by the
Usenix Board of Directors and an experiment subscription phase lasting
six months began on June 1, 1987.
Moderation of Newsgroups
Stargate intends to carry only moderated newsgroups. This is to
assure that the most abrasive and obvious of the USENET abuses (both
purposeful and accidental) do not occur... In a large and growing
network, even if only 1% of the postings are `inappropriate'
(misplaced, duplicated content, harassment articles, etc.) it can
still add up to a tremendous amount of material. [net.news.stargate
8/9/85 article - "Stargate"].
Moderation is seen by some (especially those who pay the phone bills)
as a way to get more bang for the buck, to get higher quality
information, particularly technical, without having to wade through
a lot of ``noise and chatter''. There is also the advantage of timely
discussion without the delays associated with relayed deliveries in a
distributed system. Others, however, feel differently about the
matter. To one,
USENET is like a technical conference. If all that was going on were
technical sessions, there would be no point to going (you would just
stay home and read the proceedings). However, people go to socialize
with colleagues and exchange gossip - companies even pay people to
do this. A network of only moderated groups would be akin to a trade
show in Albania. [news.stargate 2/5/87 article - "USENET is a paid
in full Conference"].
An interesting idea was raised as a way of reducing information
overload without resorting to moderation. It was to set a monthly
limit to the number of postings allowed each user. These posting
credits would be transferable. The controversy elicited by this
idea centered around the perceived differences in quality between
posters. Equal limits to everyone would be unjust to the
``high-quality'' posters, while setting unequal limits would be ``fascist
censorship''. Since this idea is clearly problematic, it is not likely
to be implemented in the near future. The judgement of the moderator
is presently the only means of screening out postings of poor quality.
Another user criticized Stargate as the 15% solution, since only about
15% of the total volume of news on USENET is moderated. There is a
general feeling that moderated USENET material alone will not be
enough to recover costs and that want ads, part numbers, stock market
quotations or some other commercial service must be carried as well.
While it depends on the types of services and how they are
implemented, it is quite possible that these services could be of an
entirely different character from that of USENET.
High Participation Costs
Since many sites currently access USENET with
a local telephone call for free, they may not wish to pay the monthly
access fees charged by Stargate. One USENET participant has
estimated that less than 50% would be willing to afford the initial
costs which he estimates at $2,400/year. [net.news.stargate 10/7/86
article - ``Again ... what is it going to COST?????'']. He also
suggests the moderators would want to be paid if others are making a
profit from their labour, thus increasing participation costs. He
doesn't see Stargate as being viable, especially since they will be
competing against the ``old'' ground-based USENET, as well as large
centralized bulletin board systems such as Compuserve and The Source.
The Stargate Team has not yet come up with a working budget for
operations, perhaps preferring to wait until the experimental
subscription gives them a better idea of what the costs will be.
During the six-month subscription phase the costs would include
between $500 and $1000 for a subscription fee as well as $800 for a
demodulator and data decoder. A ``buffer box'' to offload most data
collection functions from host CPUs may be available at a later date
Another potential problem is defining what constitutes a ``site'' for
the purposes of billing.
Many companies/universities have one main news machine that fetches
the news on behalf of the whole organization, minimizing the cost...
Can different campuses of the same company/university redistribute
Stargate materials over their tie-lines? How about different
divisions of the same campus? How about different machines? How
about clusters of workstations and their server?... Where do you
draw the line? There had better be one! If you make it very
restrictive, Stargate will be out of the question for organizations
with many machines; if you make it very permissive, sales will be
limited... [news.stargate 20/3/87 article "Stargate, local feeds,
These considerations show that the economic issues are at least as
complex as the technical. The control over the development process
may go to the creators of a product, but the ultimate power to
maintain the existence of the product is in the hands of the
consumers who pay for it.
Copyright Restrictions on Redistribution
If Stargate is to be a
viable commercial enterprise, it must have a large subscriber base.
This means many more sites than just the backbone nodes. The problem,
though, is that if the backbone nodes continue to freely provide their
local feeds with the information received, the fees they would be
willing to pay Stargate would not be sufficient to maintain the
satellite service. This means that the information passing through
Stargate has to be proprietary, i.e., copyrighted. Copyrights
impose legal restrictions on redistribution of the material without
the consent of the owner, in this case Stargate Information Systems.
The threat of Stargate imposing such restrictions on material taken
from ``public-domain'' USENET, has incensed many USENET participants.
Several of them now mark their postings with copyright notices
prohibiting any restrictions on redistribution.
Copyright 1987 Zhahai Stewart; this article may not be included in
any compilation or formulation which restricts further distribution;
otherwise it may be freely distributed and quoted. [news.stargate
17/3/87 article - "Re: Restrictions on Stargate"].
Copyright 1987 Kent Paul Dolan. All Rights Reserved. Incorporation
of this material in a collective retransmission constitutes permission
from the intermediary to all recipients to freely retransmit the
entire collection. Use on any other basis is prohibited by the
author. [news.stargate 28/3/87 article - "Re: A modest proposal"].
(C) Copyr 1987 John Gilmore; you can redistribute only if your
recipients can. [news.stargate 21/3/87 article - "Stargate bullshit].
Stargate does not intend to copyright anything that is in the public
domain since this is illegal, it seems. What they will probably do is
write into the contract they make with their recipients an agreement
not to exercise their right to redistribute any information they get
via Stargate. Whether the above examples of copyrights will deter
this has not yet been tested in court.
Stargate will, however, be able to copyright any information it
specifically creates or derives from the public domain. This
derivation may take the form of an edited compilation or digest of
USENET newsgroups. How much change is necessary to assume ownership
is legally moot. One concerned netter wrote:
I personally do not want to have the content and expression which I
have created and freely given `usurped' by the mere duplication of
my title (on someone else's title) at the front of a `digest'. You
might or might not succeed in legally defending such a ploy, but it
is morally reprehensible... If you are going to try to `steal' my
efforts by imposing commercial restrictions, then my check will be
in the mail to the first group willing to take you to court.
[news.stargate 18/3/87 article - "Re: Restrictions on Stargate"].
A related issue is the confusion over whether Stargate will be a
broadcaster or a common carrier. This is a legally ``grey'' area
which has yet to be clarified by governmental decree. Since common
carriers must not tamper with the material transmitted, many
USENETters are advocating that Stargate declare itself a common
carrier and carry all net traffic. The feeling, though, is that
Stargate must assume, if it is to avoid expensive lawsuits, that it is
a broadcaster and is therefore responsible for the contents of its
transmissions. Unmoderated newsgroups with their penchant for
obscenities and semi-libelous flames, would be too risky for
inclusion in this service. Copyrights would also be enforceable in
The main difference, perhaps, between USENET and
Stargate is that the former is decentralized while the latter is not.
This has great implications for many ``grass-roots'' members of USENET
who may not be able to afford membership in the Stargate ``club''. There
is a spectre of elitism inherent in the siphoning off of many of the
valued, technical, moderated newsgroups from the freely accessible
USENET to a forum that is controlled by a small number of people who
are making a profit from their power to restrict redistribution.
To today's `The Stargate Project', users are both a source of free
information as well as a seller's market. We all happily create
information, send it to them, they sell it to their subscribers (us)
and coerce us into not passing it on for free like we've been doing
for years. This is all great except they are charging us both ways -
for phone calls to the stargate hub to post things, and for
receiving the info coming back down. And they sit in the middle and
control it. [news.stargate 21/3/87 article - "Stargate bullshit"].
For many of the people on the system the exchange of ideas, programs,
etc. was and still is shareware. To them information on the system
is perceived as a resource and they are incensed that some people
would change the resource into a commodity.
Summary of Stargate
Stargate will not mean the end of USENET. As long
as there are sites willing to pay for ground-based transmission,
USENET will survive. It will not escape unchanged, however.
Undoubtedly, many of the moderated newsgroups that remain will be
lacking the intellectual expertise of those who choose, for reasons
monetary or otherwise, to participate in Stargate-moderated forums.
Technology and economics are the two key factors in the development
of a computer network. If the product in demand can be delivered more
cheaply due to an advance in the technology, the new technology will
supercede the old. This was the original aim of Stargate and, for
many who are tired of the volume of poor quality postings on USENET,
it will be a blessing.
The power of the system administrators, especially those of the
backbone sites, is absolute. They are able to impose their will over
the users of the sites they serve simply because they are the ones
paying the telephone bills for the transmission of information. If
they decide to cut costs by eliminating newsgroups, they can do so.
In June 1986 a user attempted to create a newsgroup
called net.rec.drugs. This was not a network ``High Times'' but a
serious discussion about the social effects of recreational drugs.
Many sites, including backbone sites, refused to carry it. They were
perhaps fearful that it would invite trafficking and other
illegalities. The response was to flame against this censorship and
to create an alternative backbone for the controversial groups that
the whole USENET wouldn't carry. This sub-network was termed the
Funny Bone. [news.groups 3/4/87 article - ``Ineffectiveness of
censorship on an anarchic net'']. It died a quiet death during the
Re-organization, but was revived and is carried under alt. now.
Only a relatively few sites get it because it is carried on a choice
basis. It shows that truly determined users can sometimes succeed in
overcoming local control.
Newsgroup Cuts In Toronto
When the administrator of a backbone node
decides that the node can no longer carry certain newsgroups, mainly
because of costs or information overload, two things usually happen.
First, there are a number of flames about censorship. However, it is
hard to argue that ceasing to pay money to support a service donated
to other people who do not contribute to its major cost is censorship.
Second, if other nodes want to continue to receive the newsgroups that
have been dropped they scramble and find an alternate way. In
October 1985 the system administrator at utzoo (the backbone node
feeding most of Eastern Canada at the time), posted:
Effective one week from today...utzoo will cease to accept or
forward... net./philosophy, politics, religion, bizarre, flame... The
reason for all this is simple: our phone bills are reaching the
danger point. That list of newsgroups, with their subgroups,
constitutes 25% of recent traffic... Our expenditures on the
network are justified in terms of the technical information flow.
None of the above groups can be defended in this way.
[net.news.config 11/10/85 article- "Impending newsgroup cuts"].
One system adminstrator suggests that that this is a perfect example
of how anarchy should work: personal initiative and emphasis on
personal responsibility. When the inevitable flames appeared he
replied, he who pays the piper calls the tune. The cuts were made.
Many system administrators have done the same thing in other regions.
In this situation as in many others, however, members of local nodes
got together and figured out a way to continue carrying the
USENET is a world wide, cooperative computer communications network
distinguished by both its rapid rate of growth and its lack of
centralized control. This paper has attempted to descibe this network
and point out some of the major issues including its attempts to deal
with information overload.
While previous literature on the topic of computer networks has not
directly addressed the political ramification of information overload,
our research on USENET has shown that control on an anarchic network
goes to those with the technical expertise to maintain and upgrade the
system and those with the money to pay for the transmission of
information. Such control is not absolute, however. Censorship on
the net can be overcome, given the will, and threats of lawsuits by
only a few discontented people can deter the most promising technical
All the indicators in North America and across the world (especially
in France) make it clear that USENET will be under considerable
pressure to continue its rapid rate of growth not only in the number
of users and nodes but also in terms of the volume and variety of
information. It does allow people to interact with a great variety of
information, permits feedback and in most situations allows a great
deal of conversational permissiveness.
It is a hybrid network that has many of the elements of a citizen
managed utility/network that Masuda envisions, but it is also having
adolescent growth pains responding to an external environment that no
one foresaw. Some might say there is a generation gap. That is,
USENET was originally designed as a task oriented network, but since
1983 the expanding number of users have perceived the social
creativity interests to be as useful, if not more useful, than the
original tasks. So the ``founding fathers'' who are footing the bill
and and spending a great deal of volunteer time keeping the system up
and running are saying, we must not forget what the system was
originally designed to accomplish. The ``teen age children'', on the
other hand, are spending a great deal of time tying up the ``telephone''
and speaking about things which are important to them.
The really interesting part is that both groups are technically
literate and imaginative and both groups are beginning to tinker with
the plumbing of the system/network as well as its architecture. The
real question, then, revolves around Dunn's ideas as to how many
resources should be allocated to corporate functions and how many to
social development functions.
A network such as USENET is a wholly new type of community, one with
a potential to become uniquely citizen-oriented. As such it can
provide a fertile ground for much further research into the nature of
human socio-political communication.
Stargate, UULINK and UUNET
The researchers are continuing to monitor
the interaction among Stargate, the UULINK software and UUNET, an
alternate transmission system. As of May 1, 1987, the Usenix
Association was proud to announce the startup of UUNET, a non-profit,
common-carrier, communications service designed to provide access to
USENET news, UUCP mail, ARPAnet mail, and various source archives at
low-cost by obtaining volume discounts from Tymnet. [news.admin
11/4/87 article - ``UUNET Communications Service Available'']. All of
these technologies will continue to bring about important changes in
the overall system.
Currently the researchers are designing an
on-line questionnaire directed at the backbone site administrators to
gain insights into the problems and rewards of being a backbone site.
We are also trying to communicate with other nodes in the system to
find out if and how they are able to keep the newsflow going when
backbone sites decide to cut off certain newsgroups.
Forming New Newsgroups
Another area of active concern is the
development of new newsgroups. How much difficulty is there is
getting a newsgroup off the ground? What is the average lifespan of a
newsgroup? Why do certain newsgroups have difficulty getting the
proper approvals? What happens when apparently popular newsgroups
cannot get approval? In this vein we are also pursuing several
projects directed at extending user communities by connecting existing
and as yet unconstructed networks into metanetworks.
How does netiquette change over time? That is, how do
people attempt to personalize the medium by simulating visual and
verbal cues on the net, using different presentation and writing
styles, and individualizing their signatures?
There are several other areas that we are currently gathering
information on, but it is too early too tell where these trails will
lead us. One of our current problems is trying to find appropriate
theoretical models that would aid us in understanding the politics of
the net. If anyone has a good idea we will be sure to listen.
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