David Mandl on Thu, 27 Mar 1997 06:52:45 +0100 (MET)

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<nettime> Closed Mailing Lists Article (Village Voice)

Closed Encounters:
Far from the Madding Mailing List
by Dave Mandl

The Village Voice, 12/17/96

Cyberspace, with no shortage of pests, pervs, and just plain people you
don't feel like talking to, is not all that different from real life,
and while the democratic nature of the Internet is one of the things
that makes it so appealing, it's not *un*democratic to want to exert a
little control over whom you spend your cybertime with.

"Open" mailing lists--unrestricted, e-mail-based discussion groups--are
among the Net's most visible forums for the free exchange of ideas. But
"closed" lists, which limit membership--and whose very existence is
sometimes kept secret--have been more successful at nuisance control.
Unlike their open counterparts, which use subscriber-bots to allow
anyone in the world to sign up automatically, membership in closed lists
usually requires the approval of the owner, or the recommendation of a
current member. And whereas the members of open lists may decide to
offer themselves as target groups for advertisers, closed lists usually
aim to protect their members from cyber-marketeers.

Some closed lists are not noticably different from open ones. EBIKES, a
list for the discussion of bicycling run by local cyclist Danny
Lieberman, is advertised publicly in several magazines. Membership is
effectively unrestricted: the list is closed "more in a technical sense
than a practical one," according to Lieberman, the main goal being to
exclude those unwanted mass-mailers known as spammers. Lieberman doesn't
actively "moderate" the list (that is, screen individual posts for
appropriateness before letting them through), but subscribers posting
off-topic are given a warning and removed only if they ignore it.

Other closed-list owners make a conscious effort to avoid the glare of
publicity. The members of Nettime, a list devoted to Net criticism, are
generally invited in by list owner Pit Schultz, who has met most of them
at conferences or through mutual friends. Few people have been turned
down, but one applicant was rejected when it was found out that he was a
journalist for a slick magazine. A poetry list founded by Charles
Bernstein has a stricter policy: subscribers are explicitly asked not to
post any information about the list. Some lists go further, forbidding
subscribers to discuss them with outsiders even by word of mouth.

Elitism has less to do with this selectivity than the simple desire to
create an electronic "intentional community"--or simply to keep a list
from getting too big. Music writer Douglas Wolk, who set up a closed
list called betternoise for the discussion of music, has no pretensions
about it: "We're not a secret society or anything; we're really not that
important." Still, like many of his peers, Wolk has made a conscious
effort to keep his list small--membership is frozen at 30--bucking the
net's trend toward bigness-for-the-sake-of-it. "It actually feels like a
community," Wolk says. "It isn't a town meeting, it's a dinner party."
And like a dinner-party host, having personally invited all his guests,
Wolk isn't worried about letting people say what's on their mind: "There
have been some heated discussions, but they're heated, respectful, smart

Antiweb, a Net-criticism list run by Malcolm Humes, was put together
even more deliberately. According to Humes, "I was looking for contrasts
and complimentary skills, so we could learn from each other, and a
gender balance. I saw it initially as a guild of craftspeople who could
collaborate or subcontract on projects, whether non-commercial or
commercial. Poets, writers, artists, techies..." The list isn't
moderated, but "occasionally I nudge and nurture a little by trying to
coax us away from personality flareups or extreme off-focus
digressions." Humes acknowledges that there will sometimes be hurt
feelings among people who can't get on certain closed lists, but
"[there's] no need to feel left out if you can't join us," he insists;
"just go create your own collective list for whatever focus you have,"
using free software like Majordomo. "I envision many small diverse
'community' mailing lists, sort of a tribal or club affiliation thing."

Closed mailing lists are as old as e-mail--think of small groups of
friends exchanging jokes or gossip electronically--but the increasingly
painful level of noise on the net may now give the idea greater urgency.
(Wolk estimates that there are already more closed than open lists, of
which there are many thousands.) Even without noise, however, the move
away from open lists seems like a logical evolutionary step. Just as
anthropologists have found that that groups tend to organize themselves
into certain natural sizes, there may be natural limits to the number of
people who can engage in reasonable discourse in one place and time on
the Net. People will always have a desire for town meetings,
semi-anonymous happenings, and even flamefests, but dinner parties and
other gatherings of self-selected groups will continue to be where most
of the fun is.

List of publicly accessible mailing lists: http://www.NeoSoft.com/internet/paml/
Majordomo FAQ: http://www.math.psu.edu/barr/majordomo-faq.html
EBIKES info: http://www.ebikes.org

Dave Mandl

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