I would like to focus on the question of identity. How does a writer establish identity, and how do participants indicate the impression they have of each other?
For the given amount of time for this analysis assignment, I think in my context it is more effective and prolific to use introspective rather than ethnographic methods. (I hope this is okay.)
First let me explain what I do before I come to the point where I ask myself about the identity of Newsgroup participants.
I am not a very experienced Internet Newsgroups user, but quite a long time ago, I was an active participant of "Conferences" or "Echos" on different Nets such as Fido Net, CH-Link, etc. These Nets were mainly connected Bulletin Board Systems (BBS). As far as I can see now, they seem to be the ancestors of today's Internet Newsgroups.
Whenever I plan to get involved with a to me unknown conference, I am "lurking" for at least one week. This means, I am just a passive reader, reading all the messages, but not writing any. In other words, at this point, I am still invisible to the rest of the conference. The purpose is to get used to the style of writing, to find out who the "major players" are, and what the "pecking order" is. No one taught or told me to do so, but I remember a lot of examples where a new participant posted a first unfortunate message that ruined his on-line image for a long time.
Quite helpful during this lurking period are periodically posted messages with statistical information about who wrote how many messages about what. Usually the moderator (mod) does this. (I am not sure if Internet Newsgroups are moderated at all.) This person is important anyway. What is his/her style of leading the discussion and mediating quarrels? The mod is also responsible for the rules, which I also try to get before I write my first message. These are a collection of statements, such as what is this area about, what are the conventions, what is allowed and what is not. Quite often these rules are COMPLETELY different for each conference, so it doesn't help if one already knows others areas.
I am visiting conferences mainly to get certain information or ask for expert advice. For this purpose, it is crucial to know about the reliability of the participants. One way to make sure they know what they are talking about is to know who they are, to know more about their identity.
What do I do to identify a person? If I know the person behind an email address in real life (IRL), the problem is solved--or rather transferred to another level, where other rules apply.
If I do NOT know the person IRL, and if I already have read messages coming from this address, I try to recall my (more or less complete) memory of what this person has written before. If I want to be SURE who this person is, I search for messages this person has written before, and I re-read them.
Cues to decide if it is the same person: - Is the signature the same? Sometimes more than one person uses the same email account. - Is the appearance of the messages consistent, e.g., the style of language, the types of spelling errors, certain typographic features such as capitalization, indention, way of quoting?
To check a message for these properties takes me usually only a few seconds. If the current message and the previous messages are consistent, they are most probably from the same person.
If I haven't read any messages from this person before and can't find earlier ones, I am getting VERY careful. There is absolutely NO guarantee that ANYTHING this person writes is true, so (s)he starts with an initial credibility of zero.
(Note that there were no domain names available to get additional information from. The only cue about the origin of a message was the home BBS of the sender. As one could be member of a lot of BBS at the same time, this didn't help a lot.)
If I have read messages from this author before, I already have an idea about this person. My impressions can come from the following things:
- Frequency: How active is this person? Is (s)he posting more than a message a week, or even more than a message a day? A possible conclusion can be: The more active the person is, the more likely (s)he is an experienced participant. (This does not mean that (s)he is reliable.)
- Activity: What is the size of the messages the person posted? What is the average ratio of quotes to replies? This can tell me something about how much time (s)he spends on a single reply. Together with the amount of messages in a certain time it tells me more about how much time this person spends for this conference.
- Originality: Which new threads did this person start? This is an important cue to get to know something about the interests of this person. Even if (s)he didn't initialize any threads at all, it can be meaningful.
- Reactions: To what sort of messages did this person reply? Obviously this is also a hint to the interests of a person. There are people who do only initialize new threads, and others who do only reply to already ongoing threads.
- Success: How successful was (s)he when discussing controversial issues? Quite often a thread ends by someone having the best arguments for or against something. If a person is successful in such fights for several times, it definitively leads to a good on-line reputation. (This doesn't mean that it is the only relevant factor for on-line reputation.)
- How often is this person mentioned (quoted) in other messages? Being quoted often can be an indicator for having written important or controversial things or in other words: having impact on the conference. (This doesn't mean that everybody agrees with the quotes.)
- How did this person reply to messages? Was the tone friendly, supportive, empathetic, angry, or aggressive?
- How did this person reply to personal messages from me? (Note: In the conferences described above, it was possible to address an email message to a single person rather than the whole public. These sorts of messages are invisible to the other participants.) I guess this gave me the most important cues about the identity of another conference participant. The impression I got from a reply to my email overrides most of the previously mentioned cues. As soon as I have successfully started a "direct" relationship to another participant, the question of identity is shifted to another level.