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Social Psychology of USENET Newsgroups:
Of Spaming (alt.spam) and Humor (alt.humor)

Table of Contents
Introduction: Coming to Grips with Newsgroups
Method of Study: Learning NewsXpress
Results of Analysis: How Long is Your Thread?
What's It Like to Participate: Coming Out of the Closet
Annotated Index to Social Forces in Newsgroups: Community Responses

Introduction: Coming to Grips with Newsgroups


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This report represented a synopsis of my experiences with newsgroups over the past three weeks. I have learned not only how to thoroughly use NewsXpress to locate newsgroups, but also to keep a running tab on those of interest to me. There are many psychologically fascinating interactions which occur within newsgroups, from frustration to anger to laughter and all points in between.


Method of Study: Learning NewsExpress


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The first time that I ever looked at a newsgroup was at the beginning of this class. Using LavaNet, I have access to NewsXpress, which is very handy in that it is all based on the "point-and-click" method. Previously, I used UH UNIX Pine to look up newsgroups, however it took a long time to look though each one (that is until I learned about Ctrl. W). It was not as user friendly, so I decided to stick with LavaNet's NewsXpress. With NewsXpress I simply used their search engine to locate specific topics. Once you find the topic you are looking for, NewsXpress has a subscribe option which opens a window of all of the newsgroups you have subscribe to. They also developed an option to where you can simply click on a button and your newsgroup window will come up when you light up the Internet. This is very handy as you can have your newsgroups at hand all the time. You then have the option of looking at the entire contents of the newsgroup in a tree format, much like directory structure. If you find a particular thread or posting of interest, you can simply tag it (much like a bookmark) for later reference. These tags show up in your handy window, which makes navigation really easy. You can also choose to mark all read and unread messages. With NewsXpress I found the interface to be very intuitive, and have yet to encounter any dramatic problems.

Upon reading a message, I found myself doing a quick check to see if it was actually applicable to the thread it was part of and made a coherent statement within its context. The problem that I found in reading long threads was that the posters tended to digress away from the initial subject as the strings of replies got longer. This was sometimes rather tiresome, and I found myself utilizing the "Skip Thread" option many times (especially in very large newsgroups).


Results of the Analysis: How Long is Your Thread?


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Within most of the newsgroups I frequented, I found that people generally tend to post short messages (40 lines or less). Therefore, responses would generally include the entire original posting. The most common format I found when responding to an original message was to put the original message in blue with a "<" before every line. The response would then be posted in black following the initial message. For length, I found that most postings did manage to stay reasonably small (with only one 497 line message noted -- but I doubt often read). As to the one-topic-per-message rule, I found that generally within messages this was held to -- however, across a sting, topics tended to drift widely.

As one of the newsgroups I was following of (alt.spam)deals specifically with a very volatile topic, I found that flaming was a frequent response to receipt of junk e-mail and spaming. Flaming was mentioned quite a bit, again due to the nature of the newsgroup, however actual flaming of another individual to another individual within the group was rare. Some instances of retorts to ethnic or sexist slurs were found, though they were generally back and forth between two individuals.

Old/Long threads were generally abandoned for new threads once the topic had either lost it's appeal or has gone so far off the original subject that a new thread is deemed necessary. Mostly, long threads center around a specific theme. For instance, in of alt.humorthere was a very long thread on telephone answering machine messages. Because of the wide variety of possible material, it appears as though this thread has yet to be exhausted and continues to grow. Topics of too specific a nature (i.e., public posting to another individual in the newsgroup), usually tend to last only as long as the conversation does or until the flames run out. As well, inappropriate postings, such as going onto a religious newsgroup and saying that Satan lives, tend to get predictable responses (like flaming -- get the pun?).

Newsgroups also tend to attract people with like interests and values and agreement tends to be fairly wide scale. In terms of disagreement, there are varying degrees of civility, frequently depending on the nature of the posting and of the newsgroup itself. In the case of a heated topic, such as gun control, it seems as though the number of responses increases and individuals tend to take sides and group together to defend their views. The hotter the topic, the more personal the retort. For example, Deacon Blues (a.k.a. Ryan) wrote regarding the abortion issue: "...In Matthew 30:30, it says 'Thou shalt not suffer an abortionist to live, nor shall one man lie with another as a Priest lies with an altarboy.'" BECman indicated, "Thats funny, my bible only has 28 chapters in Matthew. Perhaps you have the 2.0 version. HaHaHa, would that be the 'Mormon' bible ?" As in this example, the messenger would be the focus of one's aggression or agreement in such a situation. However, it appears that the initial message is the attractant to starting a thread, with the messenger being of little consequence (the previous example having a thread of 8 -- all of which had their own opinions not necessarily directed toward Deacon Blues). Initial messages that deviate too far from the norm of the topic are generally ignored, unless the messenger is purposely attempting to be inflammatory. Again, this creates a my side/your side atmosphere.


What It's Like to Participate: Coming Out of the Closet


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For the first two weeks in following alt.food.com, I lurked around simply reading the postings already there, picking up a few good tips here and there. This was sort of my "testing out" period, wherein I learned about how the members of the newsgroup reacted to topics brought up, what kinds of topics were brought up, which topics succeeded and which failed. I was enticed to enter when I came across a very long thread centering on bizarre junk food habits. Most posters were women, and with such a long thread, I felt at ease in sharing my inner most junk food habit with them. I suppose this was sort of an easy way to slip into the newsgroup environment, as this was a none-too-serious thread. When I came across a posting related to Cheetos, I felt the need to share my late-night popcorn Cheetos recipe with my fellow junkies. A debate also erupted regarding the various merits and shortcomings of Cheetos "crunchy" versus "puffed" (little support was given to the stale, chewy category -- though it did have a few stalwart defenders).

When I first started looking at newsgroups I was inundated with too many subjects, so I simply picked topics of interest to me (rec.cooking, rec.games). I followed these for a little while, picking up new information here and there, but I soon became bored with the same old thing and decided to look at something a little more entertaining and risky. Clicking on "All Groups" in my menu, I began just scanning all of the groups. Soon I came across alt.spam, a newsgroup dedicated to talking about spaming, ways to stop spaming, people who spam, spamers to watch out for, etc. After reading a few postings, I decided to subscribe to it (clicking on the "Subscribe" button), and soon it was in my newsgroups window. I continued my search, and, feeling the need for a little levity, I found alt.humor. I was amazed to find 1504 postings!

With only three weeks of experience with newsgroups, I find that I am beginning to approach more serious threads and post messages of more important content. I find myself posting less often to less serious subjects (i.e., the Cheeto incident), and more often to topics about which I have stronger opinions as well as those which require greater knowledge and understanding. I have not as of yet flamed anyone (although I have felt the temptation to do so). It is my opinion that one should not just flame someone on a whim, but should be able to stand back and look at both sides of the issue. Frequently I see individuals who waste their time and energy in flaming out of anger or ignorance. In my 8 postings to date, I have yet to find a situation worthy of flaming. As well, the responses I have received to my postings have thus far been favorable and wholly satisfying (I believe I may have started something with my popcorn Cheetos recipe! It's now being made on the East coast by other women). So far, all of the responses I've gotten are public responses, and therefore I find them when I am keeping track of the threads that I watch. I am beginning to recognize people and am being recognized by people within my newsgroups, and am slowly becoming a "member" rather than just a "visitor".


Annotated Index to Social Forces in Newsgroups: Community Responses


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Having searched rather extensively for newsgroups which center on social and/or psychological forces within newsgroups, I found none which apply directly. However, I have noticed a relationship between the spaming group that I am following and their sense of Internet justice. This comes from self reports of counter-spaming and mail bombing, and the public posting of names of known spamers. It seems as though that there has become a sort of vigilante self-regulation within the on-line communities. That is to say that although spaming and mail bombing in an of themselves are by no means acceptable behavior, when they are directed as counter-attacks they appear to be acceptable means of distributing justice to the original spamers or mail offenders. This alternate justice would not be acceptable in an off-line world, however on-line it is considered to be "eye for an eye" justice.

There are a lot of individuals who are concerned with the issue of spaming, and help is offered from other individuals in this group. I found one message which was particularly helpful, and am including it here should anyone wish to jot the address down for future reference. The message went: "Re: help I'm being Spamed to death. From: JOWazzoo. Organization: Fight Internet Spam Today (FIST). References: Amy wrote: I have written this guy several times telling him to take me off his list, yet today when I open my mail, there is another letter from him, I'm in that "TO"List with about 50 other names and addresses. Can anyone help me? His address is NamastePub@aol.com. Thanks. Response: Copy the email with ALL headers & post with a small message to the Newsgroup: news:news.admin.net-abuse.email." Information was also available from corporate sources via the WWW, as this message shows: "Subject: No Relief From Internet Email Spam In Sight - SF Examiner. From: JnnyMcrthy. Organization: AT&T WorldNet Services. Message: No Relief From Internet Email Spam In Sight - SF Examiner. Find this article at: NewsLinx Daily Web News. http://www.newslinx.com/."

I have also found that the Internet is a means of relieving social pressure, as evidenced in the 1504 postings in alt.humor (as mentioned earlier). This is one of MANY joke/humor oriented newsgroups, the others of which I noticed were just as large or larger. Humor newsgroups appear to represent a release from any of the frustrations and pressures of both the off-line and on-line worlds.

I would like to leave you with some examples from this group (the first one I picked specifically for Dr. James, a.k.a. Dr. Driving). I hope they help remove a little stress.

Subject: Lighter Side of Car Accidents
From: Gr8-Vu in Malibu

Let me explain how it happened...

1. The other car collided with mine without warning of his intentions.
2. In my attempt to kill a fly, I drove into the phone pole.
3. To avoid hitting the bumper of the car in front, I struck the pedestrian.
4. I was on my way to the doctor with rear end trouble when my U-joint gave way, causing me to have an accident.
5. I had been driving 40 years when I fell asleep at the wheel and had an accident.
6. A truck backed through my windshield into my wife's face.
7. I collided with a stationary truck coming the other way.
8. Coming home, I drove into the wrong house.
9. I though my window was down, but I found out it was up when I put my head through it.
10. A pedestrian hit me and went under my car.
11. I pulled away from the side of the road, glanced at my mother-in-law and headed over the embankment.
12. The guy was all over the road. I had to swerve several times before I hit him.

Subject: Lawyers
From: April Gray

Lawyers typically aren't funny -- unless by accident. Case in point: The following questions from lawyers were taken from official court records nationwide...

1. Was that the same nose you broke as a child?
2. Now, doctor, isn't it true that when a person dies in his sleep, in most cases he just passes quietly away and doesn't know anything about it until the next morning?
3. Q: What happened then? A: He told me, he says, 'I have to kill you because you can identify me.' Q: Did he kill you?
4. Was it you or your brother that was killed in the war?
5. The youngest son, the 20-year-old, how old is he?
6. Were you alone or by yourself.
7. How long have you been a French Canadian?
8. Do you have any children or anything of that kind?
9. Q: I show you exhibit 3 and ask you if you recognize that picture. A: That's me. Q: Were you present when that picture was taken?
10. Were you present in court this morning when you were sworn in?
11. Q: Now, Mrs. Johnson, how was your first marriage terminated? A: By death. Q: And by whose death was it terminated?
12. Q: Do you know how far pregnant you are now? A: I'll be three months on November 8. Q: Apparently, then, the date of conception was August 8? A: Yes. Q: What were you doing at that time?
13. Q: Mrs. Jones, do you believe you are emotionally stable? A: I used to be. Q: How many times have you committed suicide?
14. So you were gone until you returned?
15. Q: She had three children, right? A: Yes. Q: How many were boys? A: None. Q: Were there girls?
16. You don't know what it was, and you didn't know what it looked like, but can you describe it?
17. Q: You say that the stairs went down to the basement? A: Yes. Q: And these stairs, did they go up also?
18. Q: Have you lived in this town all your life? A: Not yet.
19. A Texas attorney, realizing he was on the verge of unleashing a stupid question, interrupted himself and said, "Your Honor, I'd like to strike the next question."
20. Q: Do you recall approximately the time that you examined the body of Mr. Edington at the rose Chapel? A: It was in the evening. The autopsy started about 8:30 p.m. Q: And Mr. Edington was dead at the time, is that correct? A: No, you stupid, he was sitting on the table wondering why I was doing an autopsy!

That's all folks!


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