Molotovs and mailing lists

Molotovs and mailing lists: By Austin Bunn. When bomb-throwers target e-mail discussions, no one can escape the carnage.


Austin Bunn
March 4, 1999 1:00AM (UTC)

It starts, as usual, with an argument about tone -- in this case, vibrato. Back in December 1994, Katherine Nagel watched the Early-Music mailing list erupt for the umpteenth time into "The Wobble War," over the use (and abuse) of vibrato in medieval music. "Mild-mannered effete snobs" turned into "raving lunatics," she says. It was "truly vicious."

Fed up with the race-to-the-bottom routine, she posted a curt, sociological summary called "The Natural Life Cyles of Mailing Lists." According to her theory, all lists went through initial stages of "enthusiasm" and "evangelism" that rapidly spiraled down into "discomfort with diversity," and then to "stagnation," "smug complacency" or (if you're lucky) "maturity."

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She missed one critical step between "discomfort" and "maturity" -- spontaneous combustion. Not all mailing lists go through it, and even the bad cases usually survive. But more often than not, a single person lights the fuse.

Take a close look at the wreckage and talk to survivors, and it's evident that mailing-list flare-ups are the handiwork of agent provocateurs determined to pump the bellows. They want to take your attention hostage and jam your mailbox with their agenda. At best, they're a kind of online performance artist trying to expose some elusive truth; but at their worst, they're rogues waging list-serv terrorism.

How else do you explain the exploits of "Mediafilter," who hijacked the Nettime list-serv -- a high-brow art and academia mailing list -- by subscribing all its readers to a doppelgdnger list from which no one could unsubscribe? Or "Antiorp," a gender-bending culture jammer who ritually mail-bombed the same Nettime list with thousand-line, crypto-poetic screeds against "korporate fascist konglome.rantz"? Or Kerouac biographer Gerald Nicosia, who list members say argued so voluminously against his detractors on Beat-L, the Kerouac fan list, that it went under?

For their part, the apparent aggressors call their work "art," social experimentation, even self-defense. And sometimes it legitimately is. Pinning them down, though, is beside the point. They're already a confusing mix of impulses: puritanically close readers, conspiracy theorists, composers of annoyance. Often, they're so high-strung the only thing they seem to do well is snap. But as victimized as they might feel, the traumatic effects of their actions can't be ignored.

Levi Asher, webmaster at Literary Kicks and one of the Beat-L peacemakers "who got shot at," says he signed off the list for a few months "to save my sanity." That's serious language -- and it's getting more serious all the time. On Feb. 19, a San Francisco judge heard the case of a $500,000 defamation suit filed by Nicosia against Diane de Rooy, a member -- or assailant, depending on your perspective -- of the erstwhile Beat-L and the new Subterraneans-L, who published a critique of Nicosia on her Web site. The judge has requested more time before ruling, leaving the case in limbo.

Certainly, the Net is no stranger to flame wars and toxic personalities. Entire books -- like Julian Dibbell's "My Tiny Life" and "Lineland: Mortality and Mercy on the Internet's Pynchon-L Discussion List" -- have been built out of online civic meltdowns. What happens when a list falls under siege is well-documented (and if you don't know already, you will). But what are these loose cannons after? And, perhaps more urgent, is there any defense against them?

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The best barrier against such attacks -- having a human moderate the list -- is often the first casualty. On Nettime, Ted Byfield works as the list arbitrator, "approving" every post before it goes on to the list's 1,050 subscribers. When Antiorp began the avalanche of art-spam, Byfield initially screened out just some of his/her 10 daily missives. As moderator, he had already received complaints from readers about Antiorp's obtuse and logorrheic posts.

Eventually, Byfield began screening all Antiorpisms out to save time and "subscriber patience." But once notified, Antiorp went "ballistic," says Byfield, sending hostile mail and alerting the list's service provider, Netcom. Days later, Antiorp fudged headers on some mail to impersonate Byfield on a separate list. Byfield promptly unsubscribed Antiorp from Nettime, but he says, "For all I know, it's subscribed ... It does use a number of pseudonyms." (Attempts to contact Antiorp were unsuccessful.)

Moderating mailing lists is not only hard work but, as the case of Mediafilter shows, it can be easy to sabotage. Last fall, Paul Garrin (aka Mediafilter) conducted what he then called an "electronic disturbance" on Nettime. First, he got the entire catalog of Nettime subscribers by querying the list's electronic administrator "majordomo" with the command "who nettime-l." He then created in one fell swoop a new "Netttime.free" with the same member list. The first post announced, "Welcome to Nettime.free, the renewed, UNMODERATED AND OPEN revival of the Nettime Community."

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The only catch was that the majordomo address didn't allow the new members to sign off Nettime.free. One observer christened the new list "Nettime.asshole." Garrin claimed his experiment was intended as "comedic parody," a commentary on list moderation itself. "Rerouting Nettime was a staged 'exercise' as an 'operation' using an emotional trigger," Garrin then wrote to the original Nettime along with a disingenuous apology. His experiment had lasted a whole three days. When approached for comment, Garrin wrote, "Come back to me with some interesting questions and I will address them."

Short of forcibly ejecting people from public lists -- which, in the era of disposable e-mail accounts, is pointless -- the slyest method for keeping people in line might be some custom software designed by the folks at FringeWare. Paco Xander Nathan, the head of the Austin, Texas, alternative bookstore and moderator of the FringeWare mailing list, has developed an application to cripple e-mail accounts. "When I get tired of somebody's antics, I'll just make their data pipe slow," he says. "Not slow enough that they realize they're being squelched, but [enough to] keep their e-mail feed bouncing slightly" and to drop messages. (Fortunately or unfortunately, the application is not for sale.)

Users often have an even simpler solution: mail filters. When TR-L, the private mailing-list for the Technorealism movement, grew overwhelming with long, deconstructionist postings by new media consultant Mark Stahlman, some members rigged their e-mail software with "bozo filters" to bury his posts in subsidiary folders. Brooke Shelby Biggs, a writer and one of the TR-L members, says it wasn't so much a matter of disliking her TR-L colleague but feeling that the conversation (of 20 posts a day) had swung hopelessly out of balance. "It gets this way on every list I've ever been on," she says. "Someone comes in and tries to throw a Molotov cocktail on the list -- it's like trying to reason with someone who has a weapon."

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But that's the tricky knot of the problem: Often these provocateurs have something essential to contribute, but the sheer wattage of their energies endangers the connection they're trying to create. Where Biggs sees a weapon, Antiorp sees performance art, Mediafilter sees social critique and Stahlman sees a hidden agenda needing to be exposed.

"Stahlman strives to uncover the deeper truth in any situation," says author Douglas Rushkoff, another TR-L subscriber. "It is his purpose and intent to reach into a discussion and then open up its can of worms. But once all the worms are out, it's almost impossible to talk about anything at all."

Stahlman himself cops to his ambition to "strip bare the assumptions" in a given situation. But he stresses that "real" conversations about technorealism were held live, and that the list was an "internal planning list" and also a kind of "a hoax" which had "an agenda for doing things ... which was never made explicit." (With TR members shaking their heads over his reportedly 10,000-word posts, one wonders what the live conversation about Technorealism must have been like.)

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If Gerald Nicosia carried a weapon on the Beat-L, it's because, he says, he felt surrounded by them. The 300-person Beat-L was created in 1995, and hummed along peaceably for a year until Nicosia joined the list. At that point, the list exploded regularly -- like "a civil war," says Levi Asher -- in fights between Nicosia and a handful of detractors who disputed his work as literary executor of the estate of Jan Kerouac (Jack's daughter) and as Kerouac biographer. (Nicosia authored the book "Memory Babe.") It was an impossibly convoluted controversy, with ridiculous nastiness to match. "How long did your father jerk off in a flower pot to raise a blooming idiot like you?" one member asked Nicosia. List creator Bill Gargan got fed up and dumped it in February 1998.

By most accounts, Gargan, a librarian at Brooklyn College, mediated as well as he could. He moderated the list, reduced the number of maximum posts per day (from 100 to 50), tossed off some of the most aggressive Nicosia attackers, even negotiated with Nicosia by phone. "Gerry is very combative and confrontational -- and the whole thing mushroomed," says Gargan, noting that Nicosia would reply to each critique with a 10-page letter addressing every point. "I just didn't need all the aggravation." Nicosia, in his defense, says he was "outnumbered." "Three or four people would each be making a dozen posts a day," he says. "There is no way you can keep protesting -- you just can't keep fighting it."

And certainly, nobody could keep reading it. Still, the conflict continued in the Subterraneans-L and got sillier even as the stakes shot up. Nicosia detractors claimed he was responsible for marketing a "Kerouac blanket" now sold at Restoration Hardware (Nicosia laughs off the charge). But when Diane de Rooy, a technical writer and sometime journalist, published a scathing critique of Nicosia's work on a Web site and announced it on the list, Nicosia initiated legal recourse against her in August 1998.

How do you cope with a list terrorist who feels terrorized himself? You sign off. That is, perhaps, one of the most brutal lessons of riding out the rockier patches in mailing-list metabolism: The only way out is to abandon ship. "[Beat-L] was like a tarbaby," says Asher. "And there were people who became very emotionally invested in the fight and didn't want it to stop." But a deeper truth is that list members also fall in love with the
controversy. Asher aptly calls it "co-dependency." It's also a kind of
electronic rubbernecking, where the misfires and cattiness are an essential
part of the show.

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Inevitably (and mercifully), the curtain falls. John Sampas, the Kerouac literary executor, had been a longtime member of Beat-L, but in secret. For his first and final posting last November, he posted an unpublished poem by Jack called "Psalm" to the Subterraneans-L, and left the list. It reads, "Like steel/I will be, God, growing harder in the forge-fires, grimmer, harder, better." It ends poignantly: "Strike me and I will ring like a bell." It's as if Kerouac himself were hardening himself for the flame war to come.

For the feuding and clanging factions on the list, the post resonated deeply. Sampas' offering seemed to call for some "maturity," as Nagel's "Natural Life Cyles of Mailings Lists" would put it. By now, a small peace has visited Subterraneans-L -- perhaps because both Nicosia and de Rooy are off the list. But that doesn't mean the critiques have stopped, says Asher: "People now complain that it's boring."


Austin Bunn

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