Given the recent christening of USENET2 (http://www.usenet2.org) and the near-universal perception that spam-rich, zero-privacy USENET newsgroups are hemorrhaging in the morgue (news at 11!) who would believe that vibrant social networks survive on the open frontier? However incredibly, amid the swampy quagmire, certain newsgroups seem to stand up and offer rich community forums that thrive year after year. While I am neither a participant nor a regular reader, I briefly analyzed behavior on newsgroups rec.photo.darkroom and to a lesser degree, on a younger newsgroup rec.photo.digital. I used both a newsreader and the structured archives of http://www.dejanews.com. What appears from the clutter is a remarkably supportive, perhaps even tight-knit culture, especially amongst the far-flung dedicated hobbyists of rec.photo.darkroom.
Informal community leaders, for example an individual I'll call "Wise Old Owl", has posted 2000 messages, often 3-6 per day over the last 2 years. Wise Old Owl clearly spends an hour a day, sometimes less, often more, catching up on the day's ramblings and then altruistically/therapeutically generating insightful answer after answer for the benefit of the group. Wise Old Owl is hardly a traditional leader, leading by force, rather he leads by almost obsessively tending to the health of the community knowledge. It is not the leaders who set the agenda, but the newbies and occasional posters would initiate, sincerely pleading. The Old Faithful will entertain questions, choosing the direction threads will usually head. Conversation are very jumpy and disjoint, yet extremely thoughtful. The ability to help people with explanations placed in apt historical context is one of the most impressive contributions of "Wise Old Owl". It seems likely that participants must experience a very pure technical intimacy at having obscure problems with their darkroom techniques solved --far better service than the local camera store-- with the unexpected bonus of a century of richly relevant photographic history.
Indeed Wise Old Owl is not the only one, but there are but a few community "leaders". Three such individuals left for a week unannounced at various times over the last two years. Unbelievably, strangers came together, generated an outpouring of profuse thankyous, wondering about the "caregivers" sometime return. As if kids deprived of their rightful mother, participants rallied into collective heartfelt mourning! Solitary hobbyists suddenly began emoting in extended non-technical exchanges until the "purveyor of wisdom" returned --however intangible, loyal social structures emerged from the stocatto threads.
Identity seems to be a second-order or even third-order priority in the hands-on solutions-oriented environment of these two newsgroups. ".signature" footers foster return-visit identity recognition. Yet the popularization of masked email addresses in the last year (to stop spam) has made identity-perception more of a challenge. On the bright side, this practise of anonymising yourself from bots yet cryptically displaying your email address to humans reveals the creativity (and varying desires for privacy) of different authors. In my view the best way to get a feel for who a poster is, is to view the web sites often mentioned in their posts. While personal web sites are no longer de jure in the age of data-mining and distrust, "you are what you consume" so the reading habits of participants help form a strong picture of their mind. It seems unfortunate that such a supportive group rarely expresses friendship in its very pure factual discussions. Perhaps it is "male side-by-side activity-based intimacy"; indeed there appear to be few females. While there are unnervingly few social cues (even a dearth of emoticons), the invisibility of one-to-one out-of-band email relationships made it hard for me to spot friendships among the group.
Some examples of basic social control were apparent. Social-policing took place in the form of usually mature, surprisingly frequent, chastising. These USENET folk are well-aware of netiquette by now (1998), yet time constraints mean that snide (sometimes brutal) sarcasm slips through (eg "Read the newsgroup FAQ please ...that's what we get from another AOLer"). Noisemakers are safely ignored, like advertisers, without comment. Yet Kodak customer support representatives are constantly (and wittily) mocked and flamed for constantly (gently) pushing their products over the newsgroup --testing the limits of the "no advertising" rules in the FAQ, no doubt fresh from having read "NET GAIN"!
On the whole loose social regulation works amazingly well. Sometimes to the point of tedious parliamentary orderliness on occasion, especially in what seems a more orderly and tight-knight rec.photo.darkroom, but it provides coherence among disparate interests in the end. The FAQ (http://pobox.com/~cg/photo/darkroom-faq.html) is very specific about what is and is not appropriate topic material. In rec.photo.digital, what flow that exists is jarringly interrupted by incessant newbies posting the inevitable, inimitable "what's the best digital camera?" Thankfully, the digi-cam ("still video camera") market is in such rapid flux that the answer actually changes week-to-week. So the newbie is often welcomed, if grudgingly, into a discussion of this week's latest cameras and pricepoints.
Clearly even a single passionate individual sitting at the sidelines passing notes can foster an incredible amount of institutional memory and participant longevity (and acquire worldwide brand recognition for themselves!) Highly dynamic/ephemeral collaboratively-filtered communities are perhaps front-row-center in the Internet Dream, yet continuity of elders provides a backbone that makes rec.photo.darkroom work so well. The storyteller, even if somewhat amateur, creates real loyalty in what is obviously a gathering --distributed across darkrooms of the world. Given so real a community (more so than puff&fluff communities such as "the black community", "the european community" or "the camera-users community"), social policing instituted by the regulars is quite real, if sometimes authoritarian, as all policing must sometimes appear.