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07: Metadiscussion as Primary and Secondary Content of Messages

Metadiscussion data


Metadiscussion is discussion about the forum itself -- comments about other postings and their appropriateness, arguments about conventions, attempts to define the forum, and so on. Like electronic chain letters and other forwarded e-mail (06), metadiscussion has gotten a reputation on the Internet as "noise in the channel that interrupts discourse" (Korenman and Wyatt 1996), a distracting waste of time and bandwidth, a phenomenon that disrupts rather than promotes community building. A joke forwarded around the net, "How many Internet mail list subscribers does it take to change a light bulb?", pokes fun at distracting metadiscussion. The apparent chaos (of 1331 meta-posters) represented in the joke obviously is not a condition we wish to emulate in substantive discussions in the classrooms and residences of academia, and in fact many unmoderated Internet discussion forums have disintegrated as they lost their original focus and serious participants gave up their struggle with the "noise" of the rabble.

On the other hand, the metadiscussion generated by the "rabble" can be highly democratic, inclusive, energetic, and constructive. Everyone potentially helps construct the (evolving) conventions and norms of the discourse community. In the controlled context of a college dorm or class mailing list in particular, I would argue that metadiscussion can be a very valuable part of the educational and community experience. In my writing classes at Stanford, I set up electronic discussions to be serious in purpose but rarely moderated them, preferring to let students work through the process of asserting conventions and ownership of these forums for themselves. Likewise with dorm mailing lists at Rinconada over the years, I have constrained my participation in metadiscussion as well as other discussion because I am inevitably seen as (and of course serve as to a large degree) a kind of authority figure despite my efforts to share authority as a fellow resident and member of the community. The process of asserting conventions and taking ownership of the e-mail list can go on for weeks or, intermittently, all year long. I have participated judiciously in these discussions, sometimes adding an academic or intellectual perspective to a debate about the value of electronic vs. face-to-face discussion, and once (in 1996-97, not during the study year) intervening explicitly as an authority figure to cool a flame war that was causing hurt feelings.

In 1995-96, I classified less than 4% of the messages as metadiscussion (primary content) and an additional 4.5% as having secondary metadiscussion content.

Most of the secondary metadiscussion content came in the form of brief apologies by the poster about the length or frequency of his/her postings, as in the example. These kinds of apologies seem to carry assumptions and assert norms about how people use e-mail and the e-mail list (cf. Korenman and Wyatt 1996) -- for example, they don't want to read long messages in general or many short messages from the same person; many e-mail messages constitute "clutter" or a chore to read; people's time as well as electronic bandwidth should be respected; etc. These assumptions and norms would be interesting to analyze in further depth.

The most energetic metadiscussion (as the primary content of messages) was about the use of anonymity on the list and what constituted appropriate or inappropriate content. In the "Mr. Peepers" incident, two residents figured out how to send an anonymous message to the dorm and used the opportunity to write what they intended as a satirical invitation to "the Gaynet adult pornography site" on the Web.Several people responded swiftly, either missing or intentionally overlooking puns such as the directions "to penetrate our site." Betty [all names are pseudonyms] objected to the content of Mr. Peepers' invitation and solicited immediate group action against what she construed as the promotion of pornography. Charlie objected not to the content but to the use of anonymity, asserting that "This is OUR list. These are your friends you are talking to. Isn't there a certain amount of respect (or at least courtesy) you should show them?" Seeing the earnestness of their dormmates' reactions and the extent to which their innocent (from their viewpoint) joke had misfired, King and Daryl quickly took responsibility for Mr. Peepers and issued an apology to the dorm.

The Mr. Peepers incident, which took place in the first weeks of the year, helped set a tone and establish norms of mutual respect and responsibility on the Rinconada e-mail list that lasted all year long.

In early November, Phyllis forwarded to the list the infamous "Top 75 reasons why women (bitches) should not have freedom of speech" (excerpted in the quoted message) by "the four players of Cornell." This sophomoric and misogynist list (intended, like Mr. Peepers, to be funny) made national headlines and garnered thousands of reactions worldwide. The four young men, who were stupid enough to attach their names to their text, were flamed by both men and women, made apologies, and faced disciplinary action by university administrators. Within the dorm at Stanford, the "75 reasons" list generated numerous reactions and helped initiate a month-long series of discussion threads about gender issues (for example, 15: Rape and Gender). A number of these reactions included metadiscussion, as in Duncan's plea to "think twice before passing this kind of thing on" and Adelle's appreciation of how "people expressed their ideas ... without becoming rude or over personal." Later, after weeks of gender-related discussion that included a forwarded follow-up to the "75 reasons" list written by a group Cornell women, Betty offers her positive assessment of the quality of discussion.

Metadiscussion as Secondary Content: Frequency or Length of Messages

Date: 11/19/95
Subject: Dorm T-Shirts
From: Phillip

What's up Rinc!

Sorry about cluttering everyone's email again, but I just have a quick message....

[Information about dorm t-shirts follows]....


Metadiscussion as Primary Content: Identity of Sender and Appropriate Content


Date: 10/25/95
Subject: [no subject]
From: Mr. Peepers

Dear Rinconada residents,

You have been selected to receive a complimentary membership to the Gaynet adult pornography site. You have been assigned a special login name and password given below:



To penetrate our site, please use a condom and use any World Wide Web browser and access the site

Hope to see you soon!

Love and kisses,

Mr. Peepers

Date: 10/25/95
Subject: this is ridiculous, and revolting, and wrong
From: Betty

Dear Rinconadans,

I'm sure you all received the e-mail message from our friend "Mr. Peepers." I find pornography to be unhealthy, immoral, and disgusting -- and I want to do something about it. I am therefore inviting any of you (male or female) who are interested to join me in taking action against pornography, especially against mass distribution of information like this without consideration of whether or not the people who receive it will be offended by it. I will have a meeting sometime next week, either to start an organization or a petition or SOMETHING. This is important to me, and I hope it will be to some of you too. Please e-mail me if you have any interest in working with me.

Thank you, Betty

P.S. I also encourage any of you who were equally offended by Mr. Peeper's message to reply to it and tell him exactly how you feel.

Date: 10/27/95
Subject: Anonymity
From: Charlie

I just wanted to bring attention to another point that concerns me regarding the letter sent to the list yesterday under the name of "Mr Peepers." This letter was mailed anonymously to the list. This sort of thing is not uncommon on the net. There are plenty of anonymous remailers or other ways of modifying message headers out there. But I was hoping that this would not become a problem on our list. This is OUR list. These are your friends you are talking to. Isn't there a certain amount of respect (or at least courtesy) you should show them? If you don't want to put your own name on what you are saying, you might want to consider whether you should be saying it at all.

I don't think any of us would like always having to wonder whether a letter really comes from who it says it's from. Please think before sending letters to us in someone else's name.

Thanks :-)


Date: 10/25/95
Subject: An Apology
From: Daryl

Dear fellow Rinconadans,

If you look at the header of this file, you will see a very unusual address listed for the sender of this message. Using a very complicated and esoteric procedure, we, Daryl and King, are able to manipulate the "from:" field of a message to make it look as if someone else has sent a message. If any of you thought that Mr. Peepers was a real person, let me assure you that he is not. We composed that message as a joke, however, in retrospect, that move was rather spurious and more of the behavior expected of a Berkeley student. Seriously though, we apologize for any offense taken from that message. Our intent, small-minded though it may have been, was to tickle the funny bone, not to bludgeon the conscience. Please accept our heartfelt apology and rest assured that we will NEVER send a message like that one again...

King & Daryl

Date: 11/9/95
Subject: I'm disgusted (fwd)
From: Phyllis
>>Top 75 reasons why women (bitches) should not have freedom of speech:
>>1. She doesn't need to talk to get me a beer.
2. If she's in the kitchen like she should be, no one can hear her anyway.
11. If my dick's in her mouth, she can't talk anyway.
27. Dikes (unless I can jump in the middle).
28. Where does speaking come into "barefoot and pregnant?"
34. The life expectancy of the average male goes down with every bitchy word.
35. Female drunks are annoying unless they put out (for which they dont
need to talk)
38. If she can't speak, she can't cry rape.
42. Honestly, do they really have anything useful to say?
43. Only one set of lips should be moving at a time.
47. Nothing should come out a womans mouth, SWALLOW BITCH!
48. The Mute button only works on the TV.
59. Silence and sex make a great combination.
61. Intelligent car conversation? Hell no. Her head should never be above
the dashboard.
70. If I wanted your opinion, I'd ask for it.
71. Hell, if I wanted your opinion, I'd give it to you.
74. Unless the words are "Doctor, can you make these bigger?," shut the
fuck up.
75. Big breasts should speak for themselves.
>>Written by the four-players of CORNELL: Evan Camps, Brian Waldman, Rikus Linschoten, and the late-season acquisition, the Deion Sanders of sexism, Pat Sicher.

Date: 11/9/95
Subject: Re: perpetuating filth
From: Duncan

I agree with Gregory. I think there are serious issues for both men and women involved in this kind of message. A "list" like this serves on the one hand to reinforce stereoypes that some men might jokingly hold about women, and on the other hand to reinforce an inaccurate "all men are pigs" image by those who conciously or subconciously project the views of four people on a larger group. On behalf of my gender I would like to emphasize that the majority of men do not think this way about women, that many find it sick that some people actually perpretrate such filth, and that the guys who wrote this in the first place are probably loving every angry repsonse that they receive. In the future, please think twice before passing this kind of thing on; just because the person who sent it to you recommends it does not mean that you have to. Nothing against the person to sent it to the list; I am just reacting to the issue.


Date: 11/9/95
Subject: "filth" responses
From: Adelle

To all fellow Rincs,

Just a little note about the list sent out and the responses. It was nice that for once people expressed their ideas about e-mail without becoming rude or over personal. I guess people are starting to become more considerate of others over the e-mail. What was so hard about doing this?


Date: 12/5/95
Subject: A forwarded message worth reading.
From: Betty

Not mine -- Carolyn's. I usually skip right through forwarded messages if they're long, but everyone should read the statistics in the e-mail from the Cornell women -- they're truly worth reading... and very very frightening. The dialogue in this dorm about sexual issues (rape, discrimination, pornography, etc.) has been really intelligent and eye-opening and I hope it continues.

Here's to equality and respect...



Anonymous forwarded e-mail joke

Q: How many Internet mail list subscribers does it take to change a light bulb?

A: 1,331:

  • 1 to change the light bulb and to post to the mail list that the light bulb has been changed
  • 14 to share similar experiences of changing light bulbs and how the light bulb could have been changed differently
  • 7 to caution about the dangers of changing light bulbs
  • 27 to point out spelling/grammar errors in posts about changing light bulbs
  • 53 to flame the spell checkers
  • 156 to write to the list administrator complaining about the light bulb discussion and its inappropriateness to this mail list
  • 41 to correct spelling in the spelling/grammar flames
  • 109 to post that this list is not about light bulbs and to please take this email exchange to alt.lite.bulb
  • 203 to demand that cross posting to alt.grammar, alt.spelling and alt.punctuation about changing light bulbs be stopped
  • 111 to defend the posting to this list saying that we all use light bulbs and therefore the posts *are* relevant to this mail list
  • 306 to debate which method of changing light bulbs is superior, where to buy the best light bulbs, what brand of light bulbs work best for this technique, and what brands are faulty
  • 27 to post URLs where one can see examples of different light bulbs
  • 14 to post that the URLs were posted incorrectly, and to post corrected URLs
  • 3 to post about links they found from the URLs that are relevant to this list, which makes light bulbs relevant to this list
  • 33 to concatenate all posts to date, then quote them including all headers and footers, and then add "Me too"
  • 12 to post to the list that they are unsubscribing because they cannot handle the light bulb controversy
  • 19 to quote the "Me too's" to say, "Me three"
  • 4 to suggest that posters request the light bulb FAQ
  • 1 to propose new alt.change.lit.bulb newsgroup
  • 47 to say this is just what alt.physics.cold_fusion was meant for, leave it there
  • 143 votes for alt.lite.bulb


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© Copyright 1997 by Richard Holeton and Stanford University