T H E  N E T W O R K  O B S E R V E R

  VOLUME 1, NUMBER 11                                NOVEMBER 1994


  This month: The Internet lingua franca
              Users' groups as collective action
              A bunch of new network resources


  Welcome to TNO 1(11).

  This month's issue is mostly taken up by a longish article by
  the editor about computer users' groups as a form of collective
  action.  It is widely held that knowledge about computers will
  increasingly influence both economic success and political
  participation, so we had better understand the social dynamics of
  technical knowledge.  I can't offer any finished conclusions, but
  I can suggest some good questions to ask.  What kinds of social
  networks does computer knowledge circulate in?  How are these
  networks going to evolve as computers become more pervasive?  How
  will they be structured in gender and class terms?  Perhaps most
  importantly, will they provide the basis for democratic action
  in relation to the larger social implications of computing?  I
  briefly consider two types of such networks: users' groups and
  organizations that are considering getting networked.

  A brief article describes a useful message I got from someone
  on the net who had trouble following some uncommon vocabulary
  in a how-to I wrote for the net community.  Will we evolve an
  Internet dialect of English, shorn of local slang and extended
  with network jargon?  Should we want to?

  The "follow-up" section discusses the extensive correspondence
  provoked by my article about the gendered metaphors of network
  use in TNO 1(10).  It also provides instructions for fetching the
  text of Karen Coyle's talk at the 1994 CPSR Annual Meeting (which
  I had mentioned in my article) and describes several new sources
  of information on the net, most of them on the World Wide Web.


  Writing in English for a global audience.

  Long-time TNO readers will be aware of a twenty-page guide to
  professional networking that I wrote, entitled "Networking on the
  Network".  (See TNO 1(1).)

  This is the most ambitious of several continuously revised essays
  I've written about professional skills.  My strategy is to write
  out my own ideas, send them out far and wide on the net, invite
  everyone's comments, keep revising my copy, and make sure that
  every copy I send out includes both a date and instructions for
  fetching the current version.  When I get good comments, I save
  them up and then make a batch of revisions.  Sometimes people
  (on or off the net) will suggest extra topics and I'll go back
  and add more paragraphs here and there.  Over time the essay has
  gotten pretty comprehensive, although it is still weak on the
  larger concepts involved in organizing things.

  I've gotten several comments from people outside the United
  States, for example telling me about cultural differences.
  Most recently I received a very helpful message from a student
  in Germany listing English words and expressions that he had
  difficulty understanding.  I thought these lists might be of
  interest because so many people on the net are now writing for
  a global audience, including many people who are still learning
  English or who speak different dialects of English:

    "Here is the list of all the words which are either slang or
    were not shown in my (rather large) dictionary): cuteness, to
    track down, space cadet, jerk, to pass the salt, politicking,
    prune back, to sweat it, and hype.  I add a list with words I
    was very unfamiliar with. Other foreigners might have the same
    problem: illicit, mundane, to fawn, reciprocate, supplication,
    insidious, revile, injunction, inadvertently, admonish, ledger,
    relentless, and millennial."

  So what do you think?  I can easily imagine someone in Germany
  having difficulty with these expressions.  Should I rewrite
  my essay to remove all of them?  It wouldn't be that difficult.
  I'm inclined to change about half of the words (especially space
  cadet and jerk) and leave the others.  Some are difficult cases
  because I don't know how culturally specific they are (cuteness,
  sweat it, hype, to fawn).  Others are easily enough replaced
  with simpler synonyms (to track down, illicit, reciprocate,
  supplication, inadvertently, etc) and still others seem difficult
  to replace since their meaning is fairly specific (insidious,
  relentless, and millennial).

  I wonder if we can negotiate an Internet lingua franca that
  is based on English but that does not include a lot of slang,
  local cultural references, and difficult words.  Do we even want
  to do this?  Certainly we want to be aware of whether people can
  understand us.  At the same time, we don't want to be constrained
  to an inexpressive subset of the language, much less submit to
  any sort of centralized language authority.  That's not how the
  net works.  But I do think that the request for simpler language
  and less local slang is a reasonable one.


  New roles for user groups.

  A few weeks ago I got a call from someone who runs a human rights
  group for her county.  In practice they are a network of human
  rights activists around their county, and they would like to
  get themselves on the net.  Some of their reasons for this are
  organizational: it's easier to stay coordinated if you have
  efficient communications.  But one of their reasons is more
  specific: one of their jobs is to respond quickly to hate crimes.
  If someone gets beaten up in a particular locality, they need
  to get the word out quickly to the people who can contribute
  something helpful: background information about that particular
  category of hate crime, liaison to the press, pointers to support
  services for survivors, connections to attorneys who can assist
  the survivor through the legal process, and so on.

  I get a lot of calls like this.  The calls fall roughly into two
  categories, according to the caller's principal perceived need:
  either technical support or political advice.  I usually cannot
  provide either of these things in sufficient quantities, but I've
  got enough of a Rolodex by now to pass the people along to others
  who might be able to help.  I've done zero follow-up, though,
  so I have no idea whether my pointers have actually been helpful.
  In any event, these calls have set me to thinking about several
  important things, all of which pertain to the very complex and
  increasingly consequential sociology of knowledge about computer

  Many people think of computer use as a solitary activity, in
  part because of the stereotype of the asocial technical nerd.
  But computer use has always been a highly social matter, and
  in recent years it has gotten much more so.  Most computer
  users aren't computer people, yet they need continuing access
  to computer expertise to keep their computers working.  In
  organizational settings this access is organized through highly
  ritualized relationships between a user community and a technical
  staff, often with software to help manage the steady stream
  of requests for assistance.

  Workplaces also have a variety of other social mechanisms for
  circulating computer knowledge.  One important roles is played
  by the advanced users who make a point of keeping their technical
  knowledge current; these people often provide a much-needed
  communication channel between ordinary users and experts, as
  well as providing informal mentorship to the apprentice users
  around them.  (See the wonderful paper by Bonnie Nardi and Jim
  Miller, Twinkling lights and nested loops: Distributed problem
  solving and spreadsheet development, in Saul Greenberg, ed,
  Computer-Supported Cooperative Work and Groupware, London:
  Academic Press, 1991.)

  But as computer use spreads into other settings, like people's
  homes, small organizations, and poor nonprofits, new social
  organizations of computer knowledge start to arise.  Part of
  the democratization of the computer is the democratization of
  computer knowledge, which increasingly becomes community property
  in the same way that automobile knowledge is community property.
  Some people know a lot more about either computers or automobiles
  than others, and people go to great lengths to enter into stable
  relationships of trust with others who possess this knowledge.
  Going to an unfamiliar computer/automobile repair shop selected
  from the yellow pages is a notoriously dangerous matter, so it's
  important to have a neighborhood mechanic who needs to tend to
  his reputation, a brother-in-law who fixes cars on the weekends,
  a quick night-school repair course to learn the basics, books
  that explain how to avoid getting ripped off, and so forth.

  This distribution of computer/automobile knowledge through the
  community is obviously not entirely equitable.  Both kinds of
  knowledge are, of course, distinctly identified as belonging to
  men, and the circulation of this knowledge occurs principally
  in strongly homosocial settings.  People who have weak social
  networks are more apt to suffer -- one consequence of this is
  that middle-class people whose social networks are structured
  vocationally tend (as a rough generalization) to have less access
  to automobile knowledge than do working people whose social
  networks are structured through family and local geography.  It
  will be interesting to see whether computer knowledge develops
  similar class-based dynamics as well.

  Perhaps the most important site for the circulation of computer
  knowledge in communities is the local users' group.  Most cities
  have dozens or even hundreds of users' groups, mostly defined in
  relation to particular languages, operating systems, applications
  packages, and so forth.  Many Macintosh users' groups have
  hundreds or thousands of members.  These groups might organize
  a monthly meeting where people can go to get free software, ask
  technical questions, advertise their services, hear presentations
  by vendors, or do some personal and professional networking.

  Users' groups are fueled by a fascinating confluence of different
  interests, among which the most fundamental is computer users'
  need for technical information.  Some people, like professional
  computer consultants, have a powerful interest in keeping their
  knowledge up-to-date, a task made incredibly difficult by the
  extreme speed with which the computer market evolves.  Other
  people, like individual computer hobbyists, may not care very
  deeply about computers as such, being drawn to such organizations
  by particular contingencies that arise in the course of doing
  something else -- "whenever I do such-and-such, the computer
  bombs out with such-and-such a message; what's going on and how
  do I fix it?".

  Users' groups are an interesting example of collective action,
  and it is important to understand their properties as such.
  It is widely held that access to technical information will be
  a crucial determinant of both economic survival and democratic
  political participation in the future; if so, the dynamics of
  users' groups will strongly condition the future development of
  society.  Not having conducted formal research on these matters,
  I don't want to speculate about them.  I would, however, like to
  suggest some of the ways that users' groups might (or might not)
  become increasingly important in the future.

  Recall the anecdote I told at the outset about the person who is
  trying to get her (social) network of human rights activists on
  some (technical) network to facilitate their work.  One immediate
  problem is critical mass: it's no use getting a few people on
  the net unless the people they need to communicate with are also
  on the net.  The social geography of network-use is a complex
  matter that warrants more investigation; the boundary between
  the networked world and the unnetworked world, for example, runs
  clean through the middle of my own department, and this makes for
  tensions about the meanings of technology and information in my
  professional life.

  But for now let's look at the question in an idealized way,
  starting with a community of people who are currently not
  networked.  Most likely the idea of becoming networked will not
  occur to everyone simultaneously.  Rather, particular individuals
  will get enthusiastic about the net and will set about persuading
  the others to join in.  Their challenge will be to convince a
  critical mass of people that getting on the net is worth it for
  them.  Maybe the necessary critical mass decides that the net
  holds benefits for themselves individually, without regard to
  the community's workings.  Or maybe not, in which case everyone
  will be waiting for everyone else to get on the net, and it will
  be necessary to make some kind of collective decision to get

  This is a nuisance, but it is also an opportunity.  Let's say
  that a certain nonprofit organization has made a decision to
  get all of its staff and activists on the net, and that we're
  talking about a couple hundred people.  This organization is
  now in a strong bargaining position with the various network
  service providers.  What might they want in exchange for their
  collective business?  A group discount?  A special area set up
  on the service for private discussions among people associated
  with the organization?  A customized interface (e.g., menu
  entries) for those users?  Storage of various files?  Support
  for a listserv-like distribution list for information from the
  organization?  Support for distinctive forms of interaction in
  that group (e.g., instantly displaying notification of certain
  kinds of alerts)?  I don't know what negotiating agenda would
  actually be most helpful, but various groups could use the net
  to compare notes about what they've asked for, what they've
  gotten, what they've been told is possible and impossible, and
  so forth.

  A larger question here pertains to the future evolution in the
  market for network access provision.  The conventional wisdom,
  subscribed to by America Online and Microsoft for example,
  holds that the future lies in providers that offer access to
  the widest possible range of services within a common interface.
  (See for example the very interesting article on "marketspaces"
  in the current (I think it's Oct/Nov/Dec 1994) issue of Harvard
  Business Review.)  This tends to assume, though, that customers
  will approach these services as individuals.  Another possibility
  is that users will frequently organize themselves into groups,
  for example through the organizations they work for or belong
  to.  In this case, it will be important for service providers
  to customize their offerings to the needs of particular groups.
  In particular, it will be important for the service providers to
  understand how computer networking is part of the larger lives of
  these groups, and for the groups themselves to understand these
  same things well enough to ask for whatever arrangements will
  best benefit them.

  I've been speaking just now of specific organizations rather
  than users' groups more generally.  But it would not surprise me
  to see users' groups become more like users' unions, organizing to
  exert pressure for better support services, more useful features,
  new releases that actually fix bugs, greater customizability, and
  other things.  This sort of thing already happens in an implicit
  way through the social networking of advanced users who develop
  a consensus among themselves about the virtues and vices of new
  products and system releases.  Wise companies keep their ear to
  the ground for this type of discussion, sometimes by monitoring
  e-mail discussion lists about their products.  As more and more
  users join network discussion lists, this effect will intensify.
  The next step is to move beyond sharing opinions to actually
  organizing -- involving stakeholders, developing agendas, taking
  action to back up their positions, and so forth.  The necessary
  infrastructure for these activities largely exists already; what
  is needed is the cultural background of advanced social skills
  that this kind of democratic action requires.

  It may seem silly to imagine groups of Microsoft Windows users
  acting like protest groups and presenting demands.  This sense
  of silliness derives partly from our cultural images of protest,
  which at least in my own country derive largely from strikes and
  anti-war protests.  Most likely the organizing of users' groups
  will employ different cultural forms.  After all, who needs to
  carry picket signs around when the relevant public is on e-mail?
  The sense of silliness may also derive from our stereotype of
  the details of computer functionality as socially and politically
  unimportant.  It's definitely infuriating to get thrown into DOS
  with an inscrutable error message, but who has time to organize a
  revolution about it?

  But as computers become more pervasive in our daily lives,
  their workings will have increasingly profound consequences.
  Imagine what the world will be like once the so-called
  Intelligent Transportation Systems (which were called Intelligent
  Vehicle-Highway Systems until the folks in charge realized that
  the latter phrase was bad public relations) become widespread.
  These are systems that employ computer networking to collect road
  tolls, distribute traffic information, enforce regulations on
  commercial vehicles, and ultimately provide for fully automated
  cars driving in convoys down the fast lane.  The workings of
  these systems will someday soon become a matter of urgent concern
  to pretty much everyone.  It is far from decided, for example,
  how (and even whether) privacy will be protected in such systems.
  Maybe they will maintain digital records of everywhere you've
  driven in the last year, and maybe these records will be
  susceptible to secondary use by marketers or to subpoena by the
  authorities.  The users' groups for such systems will have an
  serious interest in influencing their operation.  Some of this
  influence can be exercised by individuals simply refusing to
  participate.  But this will probably be about as easy as refusing
  to carry a credit card.  Stronger measures will be needed, and
  well-organized ITS users' groups might provide the only practical


  This month's recommendations.

  Vicki Smith, Managing in the Corporate Interest: Control
  and Resistance in an American Bank, Berkeley: University of
  California Press, 1990.  A rare and fascinating study of the
  internal politics of a large American bank that is undergoing
  all kinds of morale-crushing restructuring.  Many restructuring
  programs such as "reengineering" are aimed at getting rid of
  middle managers, and the advertisements for these programs
  routinely portray middle managers as obstructionists who, it is
  said, "resist change".  Smith, though, portrays in some detail
  the impossible situation that middle managers in this bank were
  being put in, as well as their heroic attempts to maintain some
  semblance of social cohesion and morale among their staffs as
  the company pressed endlessly for quantitative measurements and
  arbitrary speedups.  Of particular interest is Smith's detailed
  account of a training session for these managers in which the new
  interpersonal order of the company was defined.  These trainers,
  in the best Human Potential Movement tradition, steadfastly
  refused to acknowledge the structural and logical contradictions
  in the company's program, employing a wide variety of rhetorical
  and interactional devices to reframe any problems in terms of
  individual psychological shortcomings.

  Richard A. Posner, The Economics of Justice, Cambridge: Harvard
  University Press, 1981.  Most Americans have little understanding
  of the intellectual underpinnings of the harsh new order that has
  arisen in Washington, DC.  But it's time to start studying up.
  Richard Posner is the foremost exponent of something called "Law
  and Economics" whose leading assumption is that the purpose of
  the law is to maximize economic efficiency (as opposed, say, to
  ensuring justice).  He writes a great deal (for example, check
  out his most recent book, "Sex and Reason", Harvard University
  Press, 1992).  Those interested in the future of privacy policy
  will definitely want to read the relevant chapters of "The
  Economics of Justice".  They consist of a rambling set of ex
  cathedra statements about legal concepts of privacy.  Although
  certainly not dumb, he is generally dismissive of arguments for
  the protection of privacy.  For example, he rebuts the common
  argument that lack of privacy would encourage an oppressive and
  bland conformity to public norms, Posner finds no problem with
  the notion that everyone would have to behave themselves.  As
  large private interests develop behind pervasive electronically
  mediated invasions of privacy, we can expect such arguments to
  become much more commonplace.  As a result, it is important to be
  ready for them.

  Nathan Rosenberg, Inside the Black Box: Technology and Economics,
  Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1982.  A set of really
  smart papers about economic aspects of technology based on
  detailed qualitative investigations of particular technological
  industries.  He points to numerous important and frequently
  overlooked phenomena such as the large amount of interlocking,
  overlapping, and cross-fertilization among these industries.
  He is opposed to simplistic single-factor theories that derive
  everything from the isolated properties of machines or markets
  or societies.  He is also a careful scholar and an interesting



  Many people commented on the article in TNO 1(10) entitled "Is
  the net a wilderness or a library?".  My favorite comment was
  the observation by Ilene Frank <ifrank@dudley.lib.usf.edu> that
  "browsing" is actually quite similar to one female-gendered
  activity, namely shopping.  Perhaps that's an ominous sign for
  the future development of the net, though I like to think that
  no self-respecting serious shopper would be satisfied seeing
  digital photos and video clips of goods -- the net, thankfully,
  won't have textures or smells or dressing rooms any time soon.

  A number of people took strong objection to that article.  One
  kind of objection accused the article of sexism.  I'm afraid that
  I have not been able to determine the precise grounds on which
  this charge is made.  One possibility is that I was taken to
  approve of various stereotypes about men and women, for example
  about exploration having historically been constructed as a
  masculine activity, or to subscribe to those stereotypes myself.
  But I don't wish to make any statements about what activities men
  and women (or boys and girls) are inherently, naturally good or
  bad at.  I'm just interested in the gendered meanings that have
  been attached to certain activities, and in the role of these
  meanings in influencing who will have access to those activities
  in the present day.  It's very hard to measure the magnitude of
  this influence, given its subtlety and the wide variety of other
  factors that are also in play.  It's a conjecture.

  Other people seem to have interpreted my article as a call for
  librarians to be installed as the Internet Information Police,
  making sure that everyone organizes their information in the
  approved way.  I would certainly never approve of such a thing,
  and I very much doubt that it could even happen.  If people want
  to make information available on the net in a disorganized or
  specialized or eccentric way then that's their perfect right.  My
  point is simply that we shouldn't claim that the net makes vast
  amounts of information accessible unless the hard librarian's
  work has been done to order the stuff so that people can find it.

  Several people told me about interesting projects that partly
  answer my request for tools to let people help one another find
  information in things like gopherspace and the web:

  Raul Deluth Miller <rockwell@nova.umd.edu> mentioned a MOO (an
  object-oriented MUD, a system for letting people chat with one
  another in real time) that's connected to gopherspace.  The URL
  is  gopher://boombox.micro.umn.edu:70+/11/gopher/GopherMoo

  Margaret Riel <mriel@weber.ucsd.edu> mentioned AskEric, a project
  of the Eric Clearinghouse for Information.  It's a "national
  collection of people who will find information for teachers on
  whatever topic they are interested in".  I'm afraid I haven't
  got the necessary pointers handy, but you can look it up with any
  net-searching tool.

  Jean Armour Polly <jpolly@nysernet.org> mentioned the help desk
  that she runs to serve affiliates of NYSERNet.  A commercial firm
  called SilverPlatter pointed me at their web pages, whose URL is

  I've heard about other projects as well.  It would be great if
  someone (not me) collected them into a guide, if only to provide
  inspiration for people making choices about network technology
  right now.  It would be especially great if someone could conduct
  interviews with people who run on-line help services to see what
  their experiences have been, and what else might be done.

  Speaking of librarians, you really must check out the amazing set
  of Internet guides available by aiming your gopher or WWW client
  at una.hh.lib.umich.edu (i.e., gopher://una.hh.lib.umich.edu/ ),
  then select "inetdirsstacks".  For example, an amazing guide
  to Internet resources for non-profit organizations available at

  Long-time RRE readers know about my interest in something
  called "issues management", which is a profession that promises
  to rationalize companies' attempts to influence public opinion
  and policy-making by integrating aspects of research, lobbying,
  public relations, and so forth.  Well, the other day I got an
  advertisement in the mail from "Issue Action Publications Inc"
  (207 Loudoun Street SE, Leesburg VA 22075, USA) for something
  called "The Critical Issues Audit" ($24.95 plus $3 p/h), which
  promises to guide you through a process of assessing your own
  company's exposure to potential harm through changes in public
  opinion.  The idea is to make a rational economic choice about
  whether and how to invest in efforts to prevent public opinion
  from adversely affecting your company, and in particular what
  mixture of investments in research, lobbying, etc is optimal for
  this purpose.  If anybody feels like actually spending the money
  and sending it a report (without, of course, violating anyone's
  copyright), I'd be pleased to distribute it.

  The Institute of Public Policy Studies at the University
  of Michigan has assembled a Web page on telecommunications.
  The URL is http://www.ipps.lsa.umich.edu/telecom-info.html

  The American Communication Association has set up a good Web
  guide to on-line resources for communication research.  The URL
  is http://cavern.uark.edu/comminfo/www/ACA.html

  Some paleontologists are digging up a dinosaur in Canada and
  documenting their work on the web.  The URL is

  I'm told that a Noam Chomsky web site has been established on the
  net at http://www.contrib.andrew.cmu.edu/usr/tp0x/chomsky.html or
  you can ftp to ftp://ftp.cs.cmu.edu/user/cap/chomsky/

  The US Environmental Protection Agency now has a pretty thorough
  set of pages on the Web at http://www.epa.gov/

  The Journal of Computer-Mediated Communication is organizing
  a Special Issue on Communication and the Design of Virtual
  Environments.  See the JCMC announcement at URL

  Phil Agre, editor                                pagre@ucla.edu
  Department of Information Studies
  University of California, Los Angeles         +1 (310) 825-7154
  Los Angeles, California  90095-1520                FAX 206-4460
  Copyright 1994 by the editor.  You may forward this issue of The
  Network Observer electronically to anyone for any non-commercial
  purpose.  Comments and suggestions are always appreciated.

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