Bottom Line

Crime, Moderation, and Punishment

by Joel Snyder

It is time to get tough and pronounce a death penalty on bad netiquette.

"It became necessary to destroy the town in order to save it."--U.S. Army Report on the razing of Ben Tre, Vietnam (1968)

The Internet is not family entertainment. Like nature, it does not suffer fools or tolerate mistakes very well. If you're looking at the Internet through the rose-colored, G-rated glasses of America Online, Prodigy, or your local free-net, prepare for a rude shock. The Net has its own culture, ethics, personalities, and modus vivendi, and if you threaten any of those, you'll get nailed to the wall faster and harder than you'd ever thought possible.

The most common defense offered when someone makes a network faux pax is: "Everyone was a newbie once and is entitled to a few mistakes." That's OK, up to a point. And that point is when the victim's rights come into play.

Let's use an example to make this clear. Suppose you're on a mailing list where people discuss their obsession with the old TV series Gilligan's Island. You're engaged in the usual Mary-Anne vs. Ginger debate when suddenly in comes a message: subscribe gilligan-l That's someone making a mistake. He or she didn't read the directions and has sent a subscription request to the entire list instead of the list owner.

Now, two years ago, you'd probably get one of those every four months. No problem--because, after all, "Everyone was a newbie once. . ." You would have easily turned your cheek and ignored it.

Last year, this sort of thing began happening with increasing frequency--about once a week--in the most interesting lists. How much patience are you expected to have? How much junk e-mail are you supposed to pay to receive? How many times do you grin and bear it?

Well, I think of myself as a friendly and tolerant person, but I've just given up. Two of my favorite mailing lists (for frequent flyers and on the former Soviet Union) have more messages sent to them in error than in useful discussion. The situation with newsgroups is even worse.

Look Out for Number One

A lot of Internet pundits keep reminding us to be kinder and gentler--a million points of polite light. After all, they write, "There are sentient beings at the other end of those keyboards." Sure, that's OK. I have no problem with the sentient ones. What's getting me upset is the increasing amount of uninvited dross entering my electronic living room. Besides, intolerance is more in vogue now that the Republicans are back in power.

I think it's time for the victims to take action. Follow along with Snyder's Four-Point Plan and you'll not only feel better; you'll have a cleaner mailbox!

First, remember your defensive driving skills. This is particularly relevant to mailing lists, which are run by computers and which are smart enough to protect themselves (well, maybe not some computers). Ask your list owner to change the parameters of the mailing list so that you have to be a member to send anything to it. That will cut out the subscribe me messages right off. There are very few mailing lists that couldn't institute this change and come out stronger.

A problem with this approach are the mailing lists that are gatewayed into a non-e-mail forum, such as a Usenet newsgroup. In those cases, try asking gateway operators if they'll consider moderating the mail as it moves through the gateway.

Second, consider moving mailing lists and newsgroups to an entirely moderated status. A moderated list (or newsgroup) is one in which each and every message is read by a real human being who then decides if it's worthy of passing onto the list. As I like to say in my lectures, "A moderated mailing list is a joy forever."

If you want an example of the best moderated mailing list/newsgroup on the Internet, read Peter Neumann's Risks Digest, a forum on risks to the public in computers and related systems. (Your best bet is to pick it up as the newsgroup comp.risks.) Risks Digest usually has one or two messages per week, each containing useful and pithy discussions on a topic.

If you can't find someone to moderate a mailing list or newsgroup, perhaps you should think twice about whether the list or group is worth having. If no one feels they will benefit enough to offer his or her services as a moderator, are you just wasting bandwidth and disk space?

Obviously, not every mailing list or newsgroup is a candidate for moderation. Some are such low-noise sites that moderation wouldn't add anything. Others may have special characteristics that make moderation undesirable. Remember, our goal is to reduce junk. We may need an open forum on, say, Holocaust revisionism, but is there really a freedom-of-speech and censorship issue with the newsgroup A little moderation might decrease the 27,855 messages that group received last month and increase the signal-to-noise ratio.

Third, place blame where blame is due. Some people may be morons, but they can't all be stupid. What I see is a lot of folks going into the Internet access business without investing in a training program for their users. Number one on my hit list is America Online.

Let me throw you some numbers and explain what I mean. The former Soviet Union list I follow had 1,136 messages last year. Of those, 49 were from America Online ( subscribers. Of those, 42 weren't really messages; they were list-management messages to the whole mailing list. Or look at it another way: Of all the messages sent fro AOL subscribers, 82 percent were noise.

Are these users stupid? I don't think so. (Well, I hope they aren't.) It appears to me that America Online has seen the Internet as a massive marketing opportunity to draw in more subscribers and has kludged up a connection and simply dumped their normally coddled subscribers onto the Internet without any help or training.

I tried to call America Online to ask about Internet training. After spending two minutes navigating its voice-mail system, I was told, "Unfortunately, the wait time on hold will be more than 15 minutes." No wonder America Online users seem clueless at times: There's no way for them to get answers except the school of hard knocks.

Thrown to the Wolves

As Doonesbury's Zonker Harris says, "It's probably too early to talk impeachment." But let's not pick on America Online. It's growing quickly, so it makes an easy target. When you see someone who is obviously confused, make his or her service provider know that it should be providing better service.

I have a nice canned e-mail message that I send off (with a copy to the confused person) to service providers admonishing them to find this person and give him or her some help.

Will the mega-services get a clue and provide better help in general? Probably not, but we can always put some pressure on them to know that letting confused newbies on the Net without a little coaching is bad manners.

Fourth, punish evil when you find it. If someone commits an obvious sin on a mailing list or newsgroup, let them know you're not happy. I don't mean sins of confusion; I mean sins of evil.

This issue of Internet World is about advertising, so I'm sure you'll hear plenty about unsolicited advertisements in inappropriate places. When you see one, forward the note back to the author with a simple subject line telling him or her that it is inappropriate. If everyone did that, the lesson would be strong and the punishment swift.

The multilevel marketeers and phone-card salesmen are particularly bad this month. Earlier today I returned a note to someone noting that people who were discussing TCP/IP internals were not the market for his diet-supplement program.

A colleague of mine has a more drastic approach for unsolicited commercial e-mail that makes it into his mailbox: He returns 30,000 copies to the sender. While I wouldn't advocate wasting that much of the network's resources, the crime is particularly heinous and should be dealt with severely.

Joel Snyder ( is a senior partner at Opus One, specializing in telecommunications and information technology.