Date: Wed, 14 May 1997
From: David Mandl

Closed Encounters:
Far from the Madding Mailing List

Dave Mandl

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 discussions."

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.

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this article appeared in The Village Voice, 12/17/96