From the Boidem - 
an occasional column on computers and information technologies in everyday life

March 22*, 1997: Changing the World Via the Internet - A Case Study

It probably happens all the time, but like a tree falling in a forest, if we're not there to witness it, it might as well not have happened. This time, I was there. This month's column is devoted to a swift and brief meteoric appearance on the newsgroup scene, accompanied, of course, by an equally swift disappearance. But it's also about the fine line that distinguishes between having a legitimate point of view and quakery, and how the internet can all too often help push us over that fine line.
The caption reads: REPENT! Then check out my web site: http://www.armaggedon/
(That, by the way, is another of many examples of an incorrectly configured URL in comics.)

Quack theories love an audience, and you can expect to find them making use of whatever media is available, starting, perhaps from street corners. But what better medium is there than the internet! At a minimum cost you can make your pet theories available to the entire world. No need to find a publisher, just get a free web site, learn some very basic HTML, and you're in business. And if that's too complicated, send your musings to newsgroups, where you're more than likely to find one or two people who are willing to listen (probably at the expense of your having to listen to them).

I don't know how many quack theories are floating around the newsgroups, and I'm not about to check. My guess, from a very brief examination, is that a group like alt.alien.visitor is filled with theories and counter theories on everything ranging from cosmology to why NASA and the US Air Force lie to us when they don't admit that the earth is flat. But there are countless newsgroups filled with legitimate researchers who occasionally (perhaps frequently) get visited by people looking for a means to promote their pet theories.

In the middle of February of this year the following post from Australia, under the subject heading: Cyberspace and world change showed up on an Israeli mailing list I subscribe to (the list is both a listserv and a newsgroup and can be accessed either way): This particular list is little more than a conduit for announcements on tools for academic research. Other than this post, the only activity on the list in the past few months has been a discussion on the usefulness of a particular search tool for scientific materials. Thus it was a bit of a surprise to find a post of this sort. I didn't do anything other than file the posting, but my curiosity had been aroused. In particular I was attracted by a few items in the post: Two or three days later the next post arrived: Once again, a number of items caught my interest: I diligently read the appended "gift" and couldn't make heads nor tails of it. Though the author tells us that the article is an abstract of a paper presented at an International Philosophical Congress, it's worth noting that the congress was held in 1990, and since then it apparently hasn't been published. The subject matter is, of course, totally legitimate, though to my mind our author had nothing more than run-on platitudes to say about it. It wasn't the sort of thing that you'd expect would generate much discussion. And it didn't - at least on the list I was reading.

The author himself told us that he "got hundreds of replies". Replies can be sent directly to the original poster, or to the entire group. When there are "hundreds of replies" you can expect to find at least a few of them on the group list, but on the list I was reading nobody responded in public. But apparently the original post did generate some reactions, because that same day an additional posting, from the same poster, appeared, under the subject heading: Falsely accused of spamming:

Is sending the previously linked abstract to a number of lists spamming? On the face of it, I'd have to say no. It's a means of trying to generate some recognition, but not necessarily spamming. (I've discussed spamming from a different perspective in a previous column.) It depends, however, on whether the posting is related to the subject of the mailing list/newsgroup, and on the number of lists it was sent to. From the above posting it's impossible to tell where the complaint about spamming originated. With so much "make money fast" spamming that seems to go on without any curtailing actions being taken against the perpetrators (or so it seems) it's strange to read that the rather innocuous postings of our author caused his posting priviliges to be "withdrawn for the next 48 hours worldwide". Still, there's something pathetic in this last post: The next posting was a reposting of the abstract, apparently posted because due to the withdrawal of our author's posting privileges he wasn't sure it had gotten through (a legitimate concern). But that hardly prepared me for the final posting entitled Why I am leaving mailing list: These are the words of a new convert spurned. Only ten days early we were informed that he was new to mailing lists, and now, in a huff, he's leaving them, hinting that it's because the censorship wielded by those committed to maintaining the status quo keeps this media from making it into a tool to help transform society for the better. The strange part of all this is that, although one would have to squint a great deal in order to get the impression that I'm part of the status quo, I somehow feel guilty. After all, I also believe that the internet can be "a tool to help transform society" for the better, yet I did nothing to support this brave, though apparently naive and misguided, warrior for justice.

So that's the end of it, except it's not. I just had to know to how many more mailing lists our author had written. It was a bit after the fact already, but search tools for newsgroups are available. Searching Usenet on AltaVista didn't bring any results. Using DejaNews was more successful. But an advanced search on Reference.COM that allows searching for anything generated from a particular e-mail address hit the motherlode. (For anyone interested, the attached page, though only here as an example, is a copy of the first page of results from that search. The links may no longer be active, but the texts in question are quoted here anyway.)

And as to the results:

The results from the Reference.COM search show that the first letter, under slightly different titles, was sent to fifteen (15) mailing lists. These lists ranged from library science ("Books on World Social Transformation"), to International Relations ("International Relations and World Change"), to philosophy, psychology, environment, technology, education, and more. From my search it appears that only one of these first postings generated any public response, and it that case it was only one response.

The second letter seems to have been sent to nine of the first fifteen lists, though once again, I can't be sure that I found everything that was posted. The complaint about being accused of spamming, and the public withdrawal from all newsgroups show up only on the Israeli list I'm subscribed to.

So what are we to make of all this? I can't help having the impression of this being a case of someone who has found the solution to the world's problems. He's presented his paper (or at least submitted it) but that didn't generate the desired response. Over the past six years he's probably sent the same abstract to numerous journals, or quoted from it in letters to the editor of numerous Australian newspapers. He's reached just about everybody he can reach, and there are no takers. And then he gets an internet account and discovers mailing lists and newsgroups, and sets out to spread the word to the entire world. Nobody listens, and the world loses out on another opportunity to bring about significant (and I don't mean the bandaid and look good stuff) social change.

That's it for this edition. Reactions and suggestions can be sent to:

Jay Hurvitz

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