11 Beyond the Borderline

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and newer, graphical systems haven't bothered to implement such capabilities.

Every system has its share of similar stories, many of them worse than these. They undermine the social groupings of the networks by damaging the trust and openness that are the first enchantments the online world holds for many new users, and by setting everyone else off.

In 1996, CIXen lived through months of prolific postings from a guy who specializes in the kind of petty malice that turns every normal person into raving, gibbering Furies. He just knew exactly how to get people. Eventually, some of them decided to get him back by making him look stupid.

On CIX, as has already been said, anyone can start a conference and make it open, closed, or secret. A small, annoyed group started such a conference and using standard CIX commands faked a lot of messages to make it look as though CIX's management were censoring messages in secret conferences (a serious violation of the system's basic norms, if it had been true). They then added him to the conference and waited. He promptly went into an open conference for technical support and laid his accusation against the management, something CIX's owners, unaware of the joke, regarded as so libelous that they threw him off the system on literally twenty-eight minutes' notice. (Their outsized reaction was undoubtedly colored by having had to deal for months with this user and the fallout of complaints from other users on the system about his behavior . )

There ensued a weird and contentious few weeks, when half of the system argued passionately that disliked though he was, he shouldn't have been thrown offline just for being a jerk. The other half was too delighted he was gone to care about fairness. One user summed it up this way: "WHAT DO WE WANT? <USER> BACK! WHEN DO WE WANT IT? Difficult question ..."

After a few weeks his account was reinstated, prompting more decisions. In one large, closed conference where a vote was held, 5 (out of 160) of the conference's participants voted to white-ball him, so the moderators gave up and cloned the conference, leaving it up to individual members to choose whether to frequent the original conference, where he was reinstated, or the new copy, where he didn't exist.

Curiously enough, the experience did improve this particular user, though not instantly, especially because the twin conferences' moderator took the trouble to explain to this user what had been done and why. A few months later, he was able to venture the small joke that he was staying on the system, "just to stop a large chorus of cheers from starting." A reply came from one of CIX's oldest users: "every community has its village idiot." By early 1997, this user had improved to the point where fully half his messages had useful information in them rather than random sniping. The situation can only improve as this user's old reputation fades over time, as has happened to others who began online as nuisances and grew to become pillars of their communities.

For this kind of community pressure to work, you need some very specific circumstances. You need a relatively small online service, where everyone knows each other so it's not easy to escape to a completely new area where no one knows your previous behavior: CIX has 16,000 members, which sounds like a lot but actually feels quite small. You need a subgroup of professionals within that system whose opinion matters to the problem user so that he is willing to change: this was the case on CIX. Finally, you need someone who is willing to spend the time to teach some manners: in this instance, the job fell to the conference's host.

Because Usenet is so much bigger, it's had a lot more village idiots, most of whose stories are recorded in the "Net.Legends FAQ," subtitled "Noticeable Phenomena of Usenet."[2] The "Net.Legends FAQ" catalogues notorious Usenet posters, including the good guys (like Gene Spafford), the harmless (like Homer Wilson Smith), and the obsessed; the list was compiled from answers to a call for nominations in alt.folklore.urban. There was, for example, the case of Serdar Argic, who apparently managed to run a daily search on all of Usenet[3] for mentions of Turkey, and followed up all such messages with lengthy and historically


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