What a dreaded word — one sure to push buttons among people who value free communication and openness to new ideas.
Of course, as a listserve moderator, I’ve been accused of it from time to time. If you’ve never used listserves for communication among a working group, or any kind of group, this essay might warn you about some of the hazards.
Much as we all value free speech, even the most “free” societies have recognized some exceptions to that right:
(1) Defamation (libel or slander) – telling something untrue and damaging about someone, either deliberately lying or with “reckless disregard for the truth”.
(2) Certain kinds of propaganda or entertainment aimed at minors that take advantage of unusually unsophisticated minds.
(3) Shouting down: Using a material advantage in one’s own speech to drown out someone else’s speech. This is why a well-run meeting has only one person recognized to speak, who must yield the floor before someone else can speak. It’s also why many of us believe there should be legal limitations on the ability of moneyed interests to buy advertising or influence the media to move public opinion. Ironically, the U.S. courts have used an absolute “free speech” position to knock down limits on campaign spending by the wealthy.
#3 is the case that most often applies to email communication. I think we all understand this about spam, right? Just to be sure, I’ll explain.
Junk mail, as in U.S. Postal Service mail, has long been a minor irritation and a waste of resources. But suppose that, rather than having your mailbox stuffed full every day, you came out every day to find a couple of bushel baskets full of junk mail, knowing that the mail you want to pay attention to (maybe one piece out of 200) is buried somewhere amid the junk.
That’s what spam does. Because email can be sent in unlimited quantities for free, it would overwhelm all desirable mail, rendering the medium useless, if given free rein.
This is what’s wrong with the “What’s the problem? I just hit ‘delete’!” response that we sometimes hear when questions of “censorship” come up. Your time is limited, and once you get in the habit of hitting “delete”, you’ll soon delete real mail by accident.
But there are many different kinds of undesirable email. The word “spam” is usually applied only to the most flagrant.
Time for another list. Let’s see if I can classify them.
(1) Email that the sender has no reason at all to think the recipient could ever be interested in: just sending to any email address, not even caring whether the address is valid — This covers the endless Nigerian money moving, male enhancement, “Take our online survey for a coupon”, etc. etc.
(2) Email that the sender has extremely little reason to think the recipient is interested in: Maybe, years ago, you registered at a web site to get access to some material that required registration. Maybe you checked, or failed to uncheck, a box. Maybe you were dumb enough to give your email address to a store where you bought something. This allows all kinds of marketers to jump to wild conclusions about your interests. Since email is effectively free, they have nothing to lose by sending you news of their latest “deals” ad nauseam.
Well, actually, they do have something to lose in that you will get sick of their spam, and might blame it on the original gatherer of your address. But you might not know where all these spammers got your address. Email lists are sold very cheap by people with no ethics.
(3) Email that you might have once had a vague interest in, but no more, yet there’s no way to easily stop it. An example might be any number of cases where you signed an online petition for what sounded like a good cause at the time, but you’ve since lost interest. The maker of the “petition” will thereafter send you helpful “updates” about the campaign. If they’re ethical, it will be easy to unsubscribe. If they’re unethical or sloppy, your address will have passed into many hands before you decided to unsubscribe. Those many hands are likely to spam you about all their good causes forever.
(4) Trolls, flames, off-topic morons, clumsy clicks, and assorted others — These are usually sent by individuals to relatively small lists, sometimes just by mistake (clumsy clicks), or with a genuine mistaken impression that you’re interested. Maybe there’s hostility involved (flames). Maybe someone is new to the medium of email and doesn’t even know how to arrange addresses effectively in the “To”, “CC” and “BCC” boxes. These cases are very different from #1-3, and will have a chapter devoted to them after I treat the plain old “spam”.
Before getting into #4, which is the real topic of my post, I’ll run through various ways that people try to limit the obvious spam, which is #1-3. This is just background info that might be relevant later.
BAD ways to limit spam:
Your email provider is probably stopping a lot of mail before you ever see it. You can never know what they are stopping, or why. If it’s an honest service that just wants to protect you, it will only be checking for malware in the messages and letting everything else through. If they’re concerned about “protecting children”, or you asked them in some way to put a “child filter” on it, they might exclude anything containing certain words. That’s why spammers often have things like “pen*$” in their messages.
Then there’s “scoring”: assessing every message by how many characteristics it has in common with spam messages generally. Use of certain words, number of addresses in the BCC box, links in the HTML, whatever someone thinks is typical of “spam” messages. It can be very sloppy, and block messages that you want.
Another method is the blacklist, and this is as sloppy as the word filter. Somewhere, someone gathers input about “spam” messages going around, catalogs their characteristics about where they’re coming from, and then blocks any message that has those things in common with the “known spam” messages. Email providers subscribe to these lists, which are presumably being updated constantly, or maybe not.
What no one will tell me, when I ask my own provider why a message was blocked, is where they get the idea that any message is “known spam”. Having seen some email interfaces with a “this is spam” button, I suspect that this is one source of input.
Think about that, though. They’re asking every email recipient to tell them when something is “spam”. But do people agree on its definition? I doubt it. I’ve been accused of “spamming” for sending people exactly what they signed up for. Some people think “spam” is anything they don’t like at the moment. Others will surely hit the “this is spam” button by accident.
In our nightmares, of course, email providers are censoring email for content, especially political content. That’s quite possible, but difficult to prove, since you don’t see what you don’t see, and they won’t tell you about it.
GOOD ways to limit spam:
– Don’t give anyone your email address without good reason
– Don’t give anyone someone else’s email address without good reason.
– This applies more to category #4, but if there’s a particular clueless person who keeps sending to you, some email clients allow you to enter the address of origin in a “block” list, or you can actually complain to the sender’s email provider.
– If your amount of spam becomes intolerable, start over with a new email address, informing only the people you wish about the new address.
These simple rules imply several things:
(1) Don’t ever post a full email address, recognizable as such, on a web site. There are bots that crawl the web, harvesting such addresses for spamming. This is why someone will often post an address like “info attherateof ocpeace dot org”, rather than spelling it out just as it would be typed. Needs a human to read it.
(2) Don’t ever use a cc list when a bcc will do. Using a cc list means that you want all the people to whom you’re sending to have each other’s addresses, and be able to reply to all easily.
(3) When forwarding a message from someone else, don’t include the person’s address in the “From” line being forwarded, unless you want the recipients to reply to that person.
(4) If some kind of signup, giving an email address, is required at a web site to accomplish something, like leaving a comment or accessing “members” content, think about how much you can really trust the people who run that web site. Do you know them personally? Are they a well-established, reputable company?
(5) If you’re a listserve owner, don’t allow anyone to subscribe to your listserve without having some assurance that it’s a real person who’s interested in the subject matter of your listserve. If a spammer gets subscribed, he can harvest addresses from the messages he receives from the listserve.
THAT #4 CATEGORY
This is the real subject of my post, and includes cases where someone might, sincerely or not, speak of “censorship” by a moderator of a listserve.
THE NATURE OF LISTSERVES
You have a group of people who want some kind of established way of being contacted by email as a group, without someone having to type in each address every time. A listserve allows the sender to type in ONE address and have the service send it to all subscribers. This is usually a free service, and any idiot can set one up. Very useful, if used right.
There are several uses for a listserve that I’ve seen, each with different rules for how they’re used. I’ll try to put them in categories below, but remember that rules & such about how they’re used are really whatever the “owner” or “moderator” decides.
(1) ANNOUNCEMENT LIST: An organization wants to send out announcements to anyone interested: the general public, the press, whatever. All public information. The only restriction on subscribers is that they consent to be subscribed. Since the org generally wants this list to be as large as possible, very few messages should be sent. The more messages are sent, the fewer people will want to be subscribed. That means only a very few people will be authorized to send to it. Obvious examples are the gpoc_announce and ocpeacecoalition Yahoo groups.
(2) MODIFIED ANNOUNCEMENT LIST: This is a hybrid beast of which I know only one example: the OCCP Yahoo group. Any subscriber is allowed to send to it, but the understanding is that the listserve is mainly for announcements. An exception is made for short articles, or links to long articles, as long as the quantity doesn’t get excessive, but any sign of discussion of the above messages is slapped down. It seems to require a lot of monitoring by the moderator, but somehow it works pretty well, as medium-sized lists go.
(3) BROAD DISCUSSION LIST: These usually have very few subscribers, since the quantity of messages can get rather large. The subscribers are assumed to have some broad interest in common, and anything generally relevant to that is considered on-topic. An example is gpoc_discuss.
(4) NARROW DISCUSSION LIST: If the topic is narrow enough, the number of subscribers can be surprisingly large. OrangeCountyBirding is about that, and only that, strictly moderated. Each message is expected to be on-topic and signed with full name and city of residence. With such enforcement, the number of subscribers can reach well into the hundreds, since the number of messages, and the topic, is limited.
(5) WORKING GROUP LIST: Should be the strictest of all, but you’d be surprised. Supposedly, there’s an ongoing project, and every subscriber is actively working on that project. Messages are understood to be relevant to hands-on projects that they’re engaged in. This is what I had in mind when I established ocpcinternal. Failure to understand this by some subscribers has led to excessive off-topic messages, like general announcements & such.
HOW THINGS BREAK DOWN
I’ll use the simplest kind of listserve, #1, for an example.
The sender of announcements knows that the number of messages must be limited to avoid losing subscribers. Some arbitrary number, like “x messages per week” is a rule of thumb. Since people are invited to send things to the moderator for transmittal to the list, there will nearly always be more submitted to the sender than can be sent to the list. The moderator needs to come up with some standards for priority among them. Something like “Local action alerts only. No statewide or federal stuff unless it’s about a local action taking place, no opinion articles, no general information articles.”
But then, maybe traffic is light one week. The sender says “What the hell…” and sends something that the listserve wouldn’t ordinarily be used for.
When people see this, they think: “Oh, he sent a good article explaining the merits of single-payer healthcare (for example). He should also send this one about the war in Iraq.” The announcement dude then receives several general articles, not local, not action alerts, with requests to post to the announcement list. And they’re from friends whom he doesn’t want to offend. He is now under some pressure to increase the number of messages sent, and to broaden the guidelines for what to send.
If he yields to temptation and includes more such messages, that encourages more such submissions, more extra posts to the listserve, and subscribers start melting away.
WHAT HAPPENS WHEN THINGS BREAK DOWN
When a subscriber to a listserve gets tired of the messages being sent, there are several possible responses, going from the best to the worst:
– Use the “unsubscribe” functions available at the bottom of every message received through the listserve. If that doesn’t work for some reason, reply to a message from the listserve, which will automatically go to the “owner”, explaining the problem.
– Write to the sender of the message, or the “owner”, asking to be removed.
– Go to the listserve’s web page and put oneself in “no email” status, meaning that the subscriber could still go to the web and check for any messages that might be of interest. Once this is done, the subscriber will rarely, if ever, actually check the web page, yet everyone involved still sees x-number of subscribers still on the list, thinking those people are being reached by the messages.
– Write an angry message to the sender or “owner”, accusing them of “spamming”. This is done by people who forgot that they ever subscribed, or who don’t even seem to know what a listserve is.
– Simply start ignoring and immediately deleting all messages that come from that sender.
– Use some “blocking” function on one’s own email client to automatically move messages from that sender to a “trash” folder, or block it altogether.
– Complain to the sender’s email provider that this is “spam”. (again forgetting having subscribed)
HOW THINGS REALLY BREAK DOWN
The example above was chosen for simplicity, in that an announcement list has only one person usually responsible for sending messages. In listserves where any subscriber, or most subscribers, can send to the list, breakdown can happen rapidly, without warning. Each person can have a different understanding of what a listserve is for, and some may even be hostile to the listserve itself, wishing to render it useless.
I’ll try to cover the easiest subgroups first.
a. Noobs — Someone who just hasn’t yet learned how to use email effectively can be forgiven much before it’s time to draw the line. Maybe the noob will send to a listserve and also send to several people who are on the listserve in a cc list, making duplicate messages for them. Maybe the noob doesn’t understand how to view the “To” and “CC” boxes in the email client. Maybe the noob doesn’t know how to recognize when a message is coming from the listserve (doesn’t know how to read headers). It’s impossible to predict what a noob doesn’t know. All a moderator can do is try to dialogue with the noob and explain things. If it goes on for months with no improvement, it might be time to take some drastic action if people are really irritated by the mistakes.
b. Off-topic posts — Sometimes noobs, sometimes just people who think everyone should care deeply about whatever they care deeply about at the moment, will fail to understand that a listserve is established with a purpose in mind, and there are many other listserves available for many other purposes. The “Broad Discussion List” naturally opens itself up to this, since the subject matter defined for the listserve is usually a bit fuzzy to begin with. Nevertheless, people will sometimes send rather silly things. Usually, they just need some enlightenment, but maybe not. A persistent off-topic poster can begin to get into the “troll” category below, or might be a person who doesn’t play well with others and needs to be removed for that reason alone.
c. Flamers — Flame wars can legitimately arise from the subject matter of the listserve, or can be provoked by trolls. On a discussion list, the moderator needs to watch every day just to make sure nothing excessive is happening, like personal back & forth that promises to be endless. What to do about it is a judgment call, and not always an easy one.
d. Trolls — There are people who like to go onto listserves and fora just to mess with other people. If left unrestrained, they render whatever medium they’re using useless. It is deliberate sabotage. Extensive literature on the subject is available if you just Google “internet troll”. Salient features of messages from trolls include:
– Things phrased in such a way as to inflame emotions
– Minor errors of fact, inviting replies to correct trivial errors
– Typos and grammatical errors, or just nonsense, tempting people to reply just for clarification
– Violent reactions to admonishments: screaming “Censorship!” in reaction to a warning.
– Repeated posts of the same silly statements, still hoping for a response.
– Failure to respond to simple questions, or to acknowledge mistakes in earlier posts
WHAT TO DO?
When things like this arise, sometimes the moderator will be asked by other subscribers to do something about it. Before doing so, remember that moderators are nearly always UNPAID VOLUNTEERS. That usually means that the response that is the least work for the moderator is likely to be the best, if you don’t want the moderator to just quit and delete the listserve.
Nevertheless, there are several options:
— Admonishment and explanation: Sometimes people just need some enlightenment about email etiquette and how to properly use the listserve. It means work for the moderator, so there’s a risk assessment to be made before investing time in it.
— Temporary “moderated” status: If the participants in a flame war are normally valued members of the group, but just need some cooling down, this might be a reasonable solution. “Moderated” status means that any message sent to the listserve by a specified subscriber goes to the moderator for approval before being sent to the list. If the subscriber in question is a prolific one, it can mean a lot of work for the moderator to read each message and decide whether or not to approve. In any case, it means a delay in getting that subscriber’s messages out to the list.
— Permanent “moderated” status: Generally doesn’t make much sense. If the subscriber is so untrustworthy as to deserve it, it’s probably someone who doesn’t belong there at all. Lotsa work for the moderator.
– Removal from the listserve: If someone clearly doesn’t get it, this is the best response. No fuss, no muss. No one ever has a “right” to be on a listserve.
– Deletion of the listserve: If many subscribers don’t get it, and want the moderators to be more easy-going and “open”, while creating work for the moderator and driving away valuable subscribers, it’s time to shine it.
RULES, AND WHY THEY DON’T WORK
“Ok, so tell me what the rules are, already!”
You’ll see this sometimes when someone is cautioned about the nature of the messages being sent. They might be off-topic, long and weirdly formatted, rude to other subscribers, useless jokes and forwarding of chain mail, rough in their language, or just excessive in number.
There are many and varied ways of clogging a listserve with superfluous or offensive messages. No one can predict what a troll or noob might come up with next, hence no set of “rules” can really do the whole job.
Trolls can be very skilled “rules lawyers”. “Rules about posting” can become their favorite topic. A moderator who engages in such discussion is a sucker. The moderator isn’t being paid, and can either do as he likes, or quit. Don’t mess with the moderator unless you’re ready to take over the job.