It's been a while since I spent any time in USENET, and diving back in for a week for this assignment didn't provide me with many especially interesting insights, beyond the sorts of things that are well understood and oft discussed (at least) among the cyber literate: logins and sigfiles, negotiations of nettiquette, newbies and cliques, tangled threads, and all varieties of social and interpersonal behavior. In my recent perusals, there was less flaming than I remember, and a generally increased ability to ignore obvious "pink mystery meat" (a circumlocution I saw used in order to avoid taking the name of SPAM in vain). I was struck most of all by the difficulty of analyzing conversation, 1) without the context of longer term, frequent participation, and 2) on what is (and what was designed to be) a "bulletin board system." While I know there are USENET communities, and that many people find them satisfactory and socially or professionally important, I find that bulletin board technology is just too awkward for ongoing social interaction. In particular, threading (especially as represented in contemporary GUIs) and temporal sequencing are at odds with one another. So I decided to go back to a different system, one that is unfortunately only available to affiliates of U. Michigan. However, I had kept a transcript of a particularly interesting discussion of MUDs from the early days, so I have analyzed that.
CONFER is a discussion forum used primarily at the University of Michigan. Used on a mainframe system since at least the early '80s, and more recently ported to Unix, it has a long history and widespread use among the Michigan community. There are dozens of CONFERs, each centered on a general community or topic (Meet:Students (student, general interest);User:Openforum (university-wide, general interest, largely staff); Meet:Ourselves (health and medicine); Game:Guild (gamers); Wing:Span (women's interests and issues) etc.). CONFERs can be public or private (restricted access). Each CONFER is divided into numbered items, and numbered responses. Each item is more or less a thread. Focus and coherence on each item are maintained by group consensus and negotiation. The system is entirely text based. A variety of user commands allow for marking all, choosing which items to follow, changing participant name (or alias) entering comments anonymously or pseudonymously, and searching the CONFER record or index. Each item and its responses is viewed separately, generally sequentially, and one can scroll up or down to read or review comments. Neither items, nor responses expire, so at any time an entire thread can be reviewed, and specific items and responses can be called up by number.
The examples here are from a staff CONFER for members of the Information Technology Division, including part-time, student employees. Thus all are experienced users of computers and the local systems. Many, but not all, know each other FTF. While many people use aliases in CONFER (often as an expression of identity or image, as in a CB radio handle), in this staff conference all participants use real names and share a work-related identity and context. There is play with aliases around many of the speakers' MUD identities. One CONFER feature allows users to enter responses with an on-the-fly pseudonym, that is textually marked with an exclamation point. Here, several writers did this occasionally to adopt their MUD persona"Laureen: "Wow, besides me and Chris, Waldo?" "Waldo ! : Shhhhh, Neutro!" "Biff ! : I'm watching you two."
Later, others did it to make serious points"Ariel ! : For the record, Ariel responds to such questions of gender with, 'it doesn't matter'..." "Anonymous ! : All in favor of censoring the Wizard in charge of the Leprechaun?"
And at one point, someone explained the use of dual names:"NOTE: sorry to confuse non-Mudders with names like Ajax and Waldo, but the use of pseudos is central to the game's social aspects."
Item 452 (LP-MUD) has a main thread of MUDs, particularly the one run on machines in the local (U. Mich.) network. The item was explicitly started because the topic was coming up often in the Introductions item, where it was off topic, though not seriously since "Introductions" is a pretty loose category: "The Introductions item is getting a bunch of this stuffso let's give it an item of its own." Later, after an extended round of off topic punning, item 459 (The punning item) was created, and listed as "related" to 452. Both of these new item creations are examples of how conversational focus is maintained within a structure of fixed, topical items, in a way that allows for the kind of branching that natural, spoken conversation typically has. As in these examples, participants often take the initiative to start a new item. Transitions are not always this smooth and friendly; sometimes, digressors will be chastised and/or invited or instructed to start a new item, and occasionally, the boundaries of the topic will be debated.
Within the general topic of the MUD, conversational threads ranged over general description (of a then new game), technical details, game hints, and eventually and extended discussion of the political and social aspects of mudding, especially concerning gender issues and dealing with obnoxious or offensive players. Threads evolve and mutate much as in spoken conversation: someone introduces and idea, or asks a question, one or more others respond to the original remark and/or each other. The extent of discussion varies widely. When no one has anything more to say on a topic, a new one will be raised hours or days later. The conversation begins with experienced Mudders exchanging information and hints. It shifts to more general description when two non-Mudders interject questions:"mud?" "My question exactly..Dan, I'm new at this-could you brief me, briefly?"
This leads to a general discussion of MUDs, and one particular MUD-and the technical details of connecting to it, and the idea of MUD addiction. After a time, the discussion came to center on what were identified as the social issues that emerged as the MUD grew popular, and drew players from far beyond the original, local community. Digression away from the central focus of the item is sometimes noted:"But we digress" (when the discussion veered into general issues of Telnet connectivity) "Getting back to the topic of this conversation, tastefully," (after the episode of punning (on foods) that spawned a new item) "Wait (this is really off the topic)" (about local computer site equipment)
Occasional and moderate digression is permissable (especially when it's noted as such) and the "rules" for what amount or extent of digression is permissible vary from CONFER to CONFER. A comment is seldom met with no response at all, and subthreads can and do occasionally overlap, and some responses will be entered well after the original posting. When this is the case, writers typically offer cues about which message they are responding to. These can be in the form of an address to a person, a reference to an author by name, a reference to a numbered response, or a summary of one or more previous comments:"perhaps this is the difference between Mark and Miguel./Ajay's situations?" "A couple of responses seem to want to unbalance the preference of people.." "Like I mentioned earlier" "Just at Laura was/is offended by 'Utterjerks'" "Ruminating over the whole response package here" "To further address the point made by John." "(ref: Linda :98)" "TS (179) when you mentioned." "Chris (188) Yes, I was referring to .."
Each of these phrases was used to refer to a comment that was not immediately preceding the current writer's posting. Direct address is also used frequently to respond to the preceding response:"Thanks Miguel," "to finish Linda's comment" "is that the technical term, Dan?" "who would you select, Gordon?" "Will do, Eric" "You have some good points Bruce," "Sorry Joe, I didn't mean to snap, my ACLU card was just acting upI think the point I really wanted to make was"
These show variously: a playful or humorous tone, agreement, disagreement, appreciation, a promise, an apology and emendation. Other speech acts or attitudes can be marked similarly. The CONFER-specific marker "forget" is used once in Item 459, here lightly (playing with the two levels: system command vs. conversational cue), though it can be a rebuke or strong statement:Dan: forget forget What the Oh!"
"Forget" is actually a CONFER command, to mark an item as not followed. Making it a statement in a response signals disinterest, boredom, or disdain for a topic-or more usually the direction a conversation is going or sometimes a specific participant's views, tone, or conversational style.
Because this is a staff conference and many people interact outside of the CONFER, the tone is perhaps more polite, and there is more direct named address than in some other CONFERs, but many of these social and conversational devices are common to the CONFER culture.