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USENET: musings on a new MUSENET
Interesting the conversation about accountability and free speech has
turned toward discussing the weaknesses in Usenet. I've been thinking
about Usenet software a lot, and think there are some fundamental
methods that could vastly improve the dreary and
oft-discussed-lamented-cursed signal-to-noise ratio. I would propose
these ideas in some newsgroup devoted to the topic but these tend to be
frequented by fuddy duddies with too much at stake in the current
system and completely unimaginative and uninnovative, and interested in
yucky stuff like strengthening authentication (in stark contrast to the
sheer brilliance in our club). (For an existence proof, look at the
brouhaha on anonymity in news.admin.policy.)
Now, I think we should get a thread started on the ultimate news
posting software system. Let's recall the totally ad hoc nature of the
original Usenet, which just sort of *emerged* because people started
writing and running software for it. I fully believe this could happen
with `our' system, esp. if the systems are "workable" and very
attractive, and *effective*. I propose to call it MUSENET, because
it's what I'm musing on at the moment.
Above I called authentication mechanisms `yucky', and I still believe
that they should be avoided, or at least I want to be able to peruse
groups with no posting restrictions. But the authentication technique
really does improve signal-to-noise ratios. That is because, no matter
what anybody tells you, it is really only used for holding users
accountable for their posts, to the degree of complaining to their
sysadmins. I submit that high-signal-to-noise and total freedom of
posting (e.g. anonymity) are mostly mutually exclusive objectives, but
unfortunately each equally preferrable.
So, here's the idea. Let USENET continue to ferment in relative
`peaceful anarchy', with total freedom in posting. Lets start MUSENET
with significant registration mechanisms. Just having an internet
account wouldn't cut it. Some groups might be invitation only, others
you might fill out an application/background form and current members
vote on you, or whatever. The system should allow as much flexibility
across groups as possible. Wouldn't it be great if every new user had
to pass a multiple choice test on the group's FAQ? (sort of like
getting a poster's license!) Or that the faq was archived along with
group postings? Wouldn't it be great to peruse lists of members, their
backgrounds or ``electronic resumes'', and their interests? This all
should be possible. (Imagine reading a neat post and reading about the
accomplishments of the person behind it, where they work, etc.)
Now, imagine that every group also has an associated 'metagroup' for
discussions about the group itself, whether it should be split, posters
that are abusing it and the actions against them, etc.
*built into the software* would be mechanisms for "complaining" about a
post. If a user gets too many complaints, depending on the group
charter, he might be automatically expelled or suspended. I proposed
earlier the idea of a bank account that people can credit or debit
based on your postings, and membership dependent on nonbankruptcy!
There could be "trials" and "proceedings" against the accused in the
meta-group. Also, mechanisms for tracking article use would be great.
People could vote on articles they *liked* also. Each group would
automatically have an associated "supergroup" where the best articles
are percolated up, not by posting, but by positive vote mechanisms. It
would be a great honor to make it into certain of these groups. In
fact, there might be a net-wide "super hall of fame" (or even a "hall of shame").
I'd also like to see a lot of tracking about when articles are saved,
how long they are being read, that kind of thing--propagated back to
the poster! Can you imagine what kind of effect that would have on
quality? (er, maybe I mean `could'...) There is a tremendous amount of
analysis of articles that is going on *completely behind the scenes*
right now, totally separated from the articles themselves. Lets get
that beautiful data into cyberspace!
Group charters should be very specific about the mechanisms involved in
the particular group, and what kind of speech will be tolerated, and
how abuses will be dealt with. There should be some way for a group to
approve their "official faq", or more than one of such. Maybe it would
appear first as a regular article, and make it into FAQhood if there
are enough positive votes.
I also like the idea of "free-lance moderators" or "free-lance
editors". The newservers would not only propagate articles but
meta-articles built by these free-lance editors of their favorite
articles, perhaps in a single group but ideally globally. These editors
would be able to create very customized portfolios of their favorite
articles, even with their own comments on the stuff, and anyone can
read the portfolios instead of the raw unfiltered stuff. I think
anyone should be able to become a free-lance moderator. I think many people will.
There should be some way to keep around outstanding articles. I.e., if
they get enough votes, they are archived on some machine (ideally, the
site they originated from or whatever) and they can be referenced in
future articles. I think there ought to be a new "pseudonymous FTP"
where anybody with an internet account could set up a part of their
directory for archiving their favorite articles, made available to
other newsreaders, possibly on the local news server. (My luddite
administrators can seem to deal with anonymous FTP.)
Holy cow, I haven't even gotten to all the cryptography features.
Traffic should be encrypted. Everybody has public and private keys with
verification. No free posting--if an article is transmitted, it means
that it really was written by someone, by strength of their password
secrecy. Hashing on articles to ensure they're untampered, etc.
I think people should get away from the point of view that any
restrictions on posting are anti-free-speech. I see a lot of news
admins pretend that they don't want more control, and that any such
suggestion is an insult to their unimpeachible ethical standards.
There is a lot of hypocrisy going on right now. Lets make control
legitimate, something *everyone* can exercise. More control is not
censorship. It is the means toward improving s/n drastically.
Anonymity should be built into the software for the appropriate groups.
*no* tracking (e.g. storing machine routing paths) should be appended
to the articles that are posted anonymously. In fact, the new server
should act like our lovely remailers in this regard (cloaking/rerouting
OK, I have to mention hypertext too. What if articles could incorporate
GIF pictures or postscript files? Audio sound? have push-button
pointers to other articles and files and FTP sites? yowza!
Please don't misconstrue any of this. I don't advocate getting rid of
completely free posting areas, forcing everyone to be validated, etc.
In fact, I think these systems should always be there, and that they
*will* always be frequented even after much better systems with better
s/n will come along (there may also be a "creep" of outstanding
freely-posted articles into the selective groups by people who vouch
for them by posting them, and take the consequences for failures of
judgement, as determined by voting response).
Whaddya say, cypherpunks? want to be in on the next communication
revolution? Want to mold the onslaught of cyberspace the way you like
it, according to your distinct and prophetic vision? All we have to do
is put a little prototype code together...