Cat People: Self-Regulation on Usenet’s alt.animals.cat Newsgroup
After wading through a few niche newsgroups on Archive.org and finding mostly spam, I settled on a topic that I assumed would have been popular and vague enough to warrant lots of discussions: cats. As someone who loves cats, used to have one, and will likely adopt one or more in the future, I was curious to find out how cat owners and enthusiasts of the past communicated online through Usenet.
On the alt.animals.cat newsgroup – a group with a name that invites all discussion of felines – users made numerous posts sharing pictures of their cats, asking for advice about their cats, and debating cat care practices. Pertaining to the latter, some hot-button issues arose more frequently and were argued about more aggressively than others. Some users claimed to feel unwelcome or even “attacked” in the community as a result. In fact, I came across a long conversation thread about this phenomenon, where multiple users shared their opinions about what they thought was acceptable in the alt.animals.cat newsgroup and what purpose they believed newsgroups served in general. This discussion thread, posted in early 2001 was simply titled “Agree.”
The initial post of the discussion:
I have been lurking around for a while and have noticed that there are some things the people in this group and others love to argue about.
2. inside vs. outside
3. wet food vs dry food
Can you agree to disagree and get on with it instead of being afraid to let someone have the last word?
Why can’t everyone put their .02 or .03 cents worth in and just get over it without having to argue? I believe in letting everyone have their say, and if I’m attacked, I will attack back, but I don’t usually attack first. and stating an opinion is not considered attacking, but you don’t have to be so ugly to each other. That’s my .01 cents worth. I’m saving the other .01 for later.kathathinks
Here are some of the responses to the above post, which all touch on the reasons why people used these newsgroups:
Well, the newsgroups are for discussion. If we don’t discuss issues, then why are we here?Krazee4Katz
I agree with this post(bg)
But I think its good to discuss these issues as they’re very important . There will always be newbies looking for information and they need to hear both sides of the arguments.Alison
I think discussion of the issues (or indeed any issue) is important and can be very educational …. it’s the associated bickering which may put someone off pursuing things further.Morag
I agree. The three topics the original poster mentioned are all important issues to cat owners and should be discussed. I stress discussed. Not argued over. The personal attacks and snooty attitudes tend to be distracting from the useful information that’s buried in those threads.
If I was a lurker and looking for information I’d skip right over 3/4 of the posts thinking they’re nothing but flames.
Reading this thread gives insights into what qualities users desire from their newsgroup – open discussion, education, kindness, balance, and ease of access to information, to name a few. The users self-regulate what they read and what they write in their replies based on what they value in this space. For instance, users here discuss skipping over posts or blocking (“killfiling”) users whose posts they want to avoid seeing due to conflicting views on how the newsgroups should be interacted with. In a way, people can create their own subcommunities within newsgroups based on who they decide to “killfile,” which serves as an individual mode of community moderation.
Another interesting term used in some of these replies is “flames” or “flaming” to describe vitriolic arguing behavior and name calling online. It is a word that is still used to express the same type of behavior today on forums, or even in the chats within multiplayer video games, because abusive language is still a relevant topic in our current online communication landscape. Although people can certainly become abusive in face-to-face arguments, I suppose that even early on in online communications people realized that the anonymity of online interactions empowered some users to embrace rudeness with little consequence. Of course, this behavior is one of the drivers for moderation or regulation within communities, because, as the example thread’s original post and its replies imply, flaming has the potential to drive users away from the community and fractures the existing community into subcommunities that no longer engage with potentially relevant discussions.
However, some of the newsgroup’s users do not actively participate in discussions, referred to as “lurkers.” Although many of these people who “lurk” do not make posts themselves, they are still a part of the community, and users who post on the newsgroup take the presence and needs of “lurkers” into consideration when it comes to newsgroup moderation. These non-participatory users still add to the value of the newsgroup, even though they do not contribute to its identity directly, because they gain information and possibly some distant social connection through their viewing. The number of lurking users gives the information that is exchanged additional weight and encourages people to share the knowledge they have because they think it may be useful to more people than just the users participating in a given discussion. Thus, lurking users influence how (non-flaming) posters self-regulate their behavior on the newsgroup.
Overall, the alt.animals.cat newsgroup is an appropriate representation of how Usenet communities talk about how users should behave. Even though there are no official community guidelines posted or agreed-upon definitions of what counts as abuse (some people are more sensitive to disagreement than others), most users agree that using abusive language is grounds for being ignored by other users in the community and thus losing influence over others’ opinions. Therefore, people who care about continuing to interact with the full community tread carefully when they join discussions, which creates a safer online environment than if there was no way to block problematic users on Usenet.