T H E  N E T W O R K  O B S E R V E R

  VOLUME 1, NUMBER 1                                  JANUARY 1994


  This month: Welcome to The Network Observer
              Political action alerts on the net
              And other creative, low-tech ways to use the net
              Enterprise integration


  What is The Network Observer?

  The Network Observer is a monthly electronic newsletter about
  networks and democracy.  As the editor of TNO, I will interpret
  both terms, networks and democracy, as expansively as possible.
  Networks include the Internet and other global computer networks,
  but they also include social networks of all sorts, computerized
  or not.  Democracy, for its part, includes all the means by which
  people get together to collectively run their own lives.  Social
  networks are vital for any kind of functioning democracy, and
  computer networks are vital if democracy is to survive and grow
  in the face of an increasingly global market economy.  The market,
  in my view, is like the police: of course you need it, but if
  it becomes the central organizing principle of your culture then
  you're in serious trouble.

  Where do you get the time to write this stuff?

  Writer's block.  When I can't make myself write the things that
  are supposed to get me tenure, I try to keep up the momentum with
  smaller writing exercises about whatever's on my mind.  Sometimes
  the results are interesting, and those are the bits I'll include
  in TNO.  If you find them interesting too then you're most welcome
  to subscribe.  And I hope you'll pass TNO along to anyone else who
  might be interested as well.


  Action alerts.

  Big public computer networks are new, and we haven't figured
  out what to do with them.  One thing we can do is share success
  stories; if someone does something really innovative with the
  net, let's get the word out.

  But some of the net's uses have been around for years without
  anybody paying much attention.  One such use is the action alert.
  An action alert is a message that someone sends out to the net
  asking for a specific action to be taken on a current political
  issue.  It's time to understand how action alerts work and
  abstract some guidelines for people who might wish to use them
  more consciously in the future.

  The action alerts I can think of fall into two categories, single
  messages and structured campaigns.

   * Single-message alerts.  One model for a single-message alert
  might be the recent flood of messages urging us all to counter
  an ongoing Christian right campaign by calling up Apple Computer
  to congratulate it on its policies regarding gay and lesbian
  families.  Several other such messages have passed through the
  Internet over the years.  A single-message alert will typically
  be sent out ad hoc a discussion group, or to a bunch of them, from
  which interested individuals will pass it along to other groups.

   * Structured campaigns.  Perhaps the best model for a structured
  campaign is Jim Warren's successful campaign to get California
  legislative information made publicly available on the Internet.
  Rather than send his messages out to discussion groups, Jim
  created his own mailing list devoted solely to this campaign.
  Another example is the mailing list that Amnesty International
  maintained for a while -- I believe it's no longer operating.

  Both types of action alerts are obviously modeled on things that
  have been happening on paper, and lately via fax machines, for a
  long time.  What computer networks do is make them a lot cheaper.
  In particular, a networked alert can travel extremely far from its
  origin by being forwarded from friend to friend and list to list,
  without any additional cost being imposed on the original sender.
  This phenomenon of chain-forwarding is important, and it behooves
  the would-be author of an action alert, whether a single message
  or a whole campaign, to think through its consequences:

  (1) Establish authenticity.  Bogus action alerts -- such as the
  notorious "modem tax" alert -- travel just as fast as real ones.
  Don't give alerts a bad name -- include clear information about
  the sponsoring organization and provide the reader with some way
  of tracing back to you.

  (2) Put a date on it.  Action alerts can travel through the net
  forever.  They may, for example, sleep in someone's mailbox for
  weeks, months, or years and then suddenly get a new life as the
  mailbox's owner forwards it to a new set of lists.  Do not count
  on the message header to convey the date (or anything else);
  people who forward net messages frequently strip off the header.
  And if your recommended action has a time-out date (e.g., do it
  by Thursday, February 17th or don't do it) then clearly say so.

  (3) Put clear beginning and ending markers on it.  You can't
  prevent people from modifying your alert as they pass it along.
  Fortunately, at least in my experience, this only happens
  accidentally, as extra commentary accumulates at the top and
  bottom of the message as it gets forwarded.  So put a bold row
  of dashes or something like that at the top and bottom so extra
  stuff will look extra.

  (4) Think about whether you want the alert to propagate at all.
  The Amnesty alert network actively discouraged this kind of
  forwarding.  Because of the extremely sensitive nature of the
  materials they were sending out, they wanted to know precisely
  who was getting their notices, and how, and in what context.
  And they wisely said so.

  (5) Make it self-contained.  Don't presuppose that your readers
  will have any context beyond what they'll get on the news.  Your
  alert will probably be read by people who have never heard of you
  or your cause.  So define your terms, avoid references to previous
  messages on your mailing list, and provide lots of background, or
  at least some simple instructions for getting useful background
  materials.  Avoid the temptation to explain the issue in the
  shorthand you use when preaching to the converted.  This can take

  (6) Give everyone something to do.  If your campaign only applies
  to a certain political area, such as Warren's California campaign,
  explain some alternative way that people from outside that area
  can help out.  Or, conversely, if your campaign is global, say so.
  Apple Computer, for example, is a global firm and deserves global
  reinforcement for its good deeds.

  (7) Put a good, clear headline on it.  And all the rest of the
  usual advice.  State the facts and double-check them.  Check your
  spelling too.  Use short sentences and narrow margins.  Write in
  language that will be understood worldwide, not just in your own
  country or culture.

  (8) Don't overdo it.  Action alerts might become as unwelcome
  as direct-mail advertising.  Postpone that day by picking your
  fights and including some useful, thought-provoking information
  in your alert message.  If you're running a sustained campaign,
  set up your own list, like Jim Warren did.  Then send out a single
  message that calls for some action and include an advertisement
  for your new list.

  (9) Do a post-mortem.  When the campaign is over, try to derive
  some lessons for others to use.  Even if you're burned out, take
  a minute right away while the experience is still fresh in mind.
  What problems did you have?  What mistakes did you make?  What
  unexpected connections did you make?  Who did you reach and why?
  Good guesses are useful too.

  (10) Don't mistake e-mail for organizing.  An action alert is
  not an organization; it's just an alert.  If you want to build a
  lasting political movement, at some point you'll have to gather
  people together, and it's really not clear whether the net is a
  good medium for doing this.  More on this topic in future TNO's.

  (11) [added 10/94] Get your facts straight!  Your message will 
  circle the earth, maybe to many tens of thousands of people, so
  definitely check your facts.  When you make mistakes, you cause
  great disruption in the world, as well as discrediting yourself,
  your organization, and the whole idea of network action alerts.

  (12) [added 1/96] Include a phrase like "post where appropriate"
  so that people aren't encouraged to send your alert to mailing
  lists where it doesn't belong.  Do not say "forward this to
  everyone you know".

  (13) [added 8/96] Don't just preach to the converted.  This is
  probably the most common error in the action alerts I have seen
  in the last year.  Somebody is very caught up in their cause, and
  so they send out a message that presupposes that they are right,
  rather than supplying the facts that someone who has never heard
  of the issue will need to evaluate it.  Facts, facts, facts.  For
  example, if you think that someone has been unjustly convicted of
  a crime, don't just give one or two facts.  Instead, tell the whole
  story in a sober, non-polemical tone, so that you readers can feel
  like they are making up their own minds, rather than being hectored
  to go along with something from the pure righteousness of it.

  (14) [added 8/96] Make it easy to read.  Use a simple, clear
  layout with lots of white space.  If your organization plans
  to send out action alerts regularly, use a distinctive design
  so that everyone can recognize your "brand name" instantly.
  Use only plain ASCII characters, which are the common denominator
  among Internet character sets.  Just to make sure, do *not* use
  a MIME-compliant mail program to send the message; use a minimal
  program such as Berkeley mail.  MIME is great, but not everybody
  uses it and you don't want your recipients getting distracted
  from your message by weird control codes.  Format the message
  in fewer than 74 columns; otherwise it is likely to get wrapped
  around or otherwise mutilated as people forward it hand-to-hand
  around the net.

  With regard to campaigns run through mailing lists, the important
  thing is to realize that such a campaign gets its power from two
  linked elements: (a) a reporter on the scene (for example, in the
  California Legislature) who can provide accurate, sophisticated,
  comprehensible, up-to-the minute accounts of the current state
  of play; and (b) a networked constituency who will read these
  accounts and is willing to act on them.

  In the particular case of legislative campaigns, this is a pattern
  that's developing throughout the world of lobbying.  The lobbyist
  who spins arguments in members' chambers is quickly giving way
  to the mass-mail and mass-telephone specialist who, armed with
  absurdly detailed demographics on the member's constituents, whips
  up letters and calls based on the issue of the moment.  And many
  organizations, such as the National Association of Manufacturers,
  have reportedly been using computer networks for this purpose
  routinely for years.  This is definitely not a healthy development
  overall.  But the practices that have emerged on the Internet have
  an important virtue when compared to the inflaming targeted phone
  call: the alert messages go out in "public", or at least in open
  network forums, and are subject to criticism from people who find
  them misleading.

  I'll have more to say about computer networks and lobbying in
  future issues of TNO.  The lesson to take home right now is that
  the Internet is providing some kind of vague approximation of a
  "public sphere" for political action, and we can all do democracy
  and ourselves a big favor by paying close attention to its logic
  and its ethics.


  New things to do with the net.

  Over the last several months I've been exploring two new things
  that I can do on the net without devoting more than an hour a
  week to them.  The Red Rock Eater News Service is a mailing list
  I've been running on weber.ucsd.edu with the assistance of Mike
  Corrigan.  It's not a discussion list.  I simply send out on RRE
  whatever falls into my e-mailbox that strikes me as interesting
  -- about five messages a week.  People who share my interests
  are welcome to subscribe to RRE, and people who don't share
  my interests are encouraged to start their own list.  RRE is
  currently pushing 500 subscribers.

  I've been trying to think of a generic name for this kind
  of mailing list.  Maybe it's a "reader", as in the Utne Reader,
  which samples various vaguely "alternative" magazines.  Or maybe
  it's a "filtering service", since in practice it mostly consists
  of messages from a fixed set of mailing lists: CPSR and EFF
  newsletters, the Bryn Mawr Classical and Medieval Reviews, the
  sci-tech-studies list at UCSD, and another, much higher bandwidth
  filtering service called net-happenings, organized by Gleason
  Sackman <sackman@plains.nodak.edu>.

  To subscribe to RRE, send a message that looks like:

    To: rre-request@weber.ucsd.edu
    Subject: subscribe yourfirstname yourlastname

  To subscribe to net-happenings, send a message like so:

    To: listserv@internic.net
    Subject: anything

    subscribe net-happenings yourfirstname yourlastname

  Whatever it's called, I wish that more people would run this kind
  of mailing list.  That way I could learn about a bunch of topics,
  like the issues on the com-priv (Privatization of the Internet)
  mailing list, without wading through tons of messages daily.

  In any event, my other network experiment is a paper called
  "Networking on the Network".  It's been distributed or advertised
  on several e-mail lists.  I wrote the first draft of it over the
  summer and sent it to a few hundred people, requesting comments.
  By now about twenty people have sent back anything from a single
  suggestion to detailed criticisms.  That may not sound like much,
  but it has made a big difference.

  As a result, the paper has grown to at least twice its original
  since, not to mention twice its original clarity, half its
  original attitude level, and improved sensitivity to the situation
  of people who aren't employed in elite institutions.  This is good
  for me, since it keeps me thinking about the ideas and I never
  have to declare it "finished" with all its faults.  And it's good
  for the people who might profit from its improvements.  But --
  and this just kills me -- I don't get any official credit for
  it.  Because it's just a file available on the Internet, it has
  never been "published", unless you count its appearance in the
  Risks Digest.  I've sent it to a couple of magazines and a book
  publisher, but somehow it's just not the kind of thing that
  anybody is set up to publish.

  But forget about that.  It's not for the sake of my resume anyway.
  It's a kind of community memory, gathering up suggestions and
  experience into a form that everyone can use.  My model in this
  regard is a paper David Chapman when he and I were both graduate
  students, "How to Do Research at the MIT AI Lab".  (In case you're
  wondering, I don't think it's in print any more.  And I've lost
  my copy.)  What he did was simple: he send e-mail to a few dozen
  wise (or at least experienced) people, asking "what's the one bit
  of advice you want to pass along to new graduate students in the
  lab?"  He had to do a reasonable amount of editing, and he wrote a
  lot of it himself anyway, but the resulting document was extremely
  useful and was widely and enthusiastically propagated.

  Every community can do this, and the Internet provides a perfect
  medium for doing so.  In particular, you can do it.  Send notes
  (the same note sent to each one individually) to the three dozen
  people in your field who you regard as wise.  Tell them you're
  trying to gather wisdom and advice for beginners (and specify "new
  graduate students", or "new employees", or "beginning activists",
  or whatever), and say that even one paragraph would be helpful.
  Tell them it doesn't have to be formal, and indeed it should feel
  much more like writing a personal letter (like they say in the
  instructions for authors in Whole Earth Review) than a formal
  article.  Then collect the answers, edit them together with headings
  and an introduction, make the resulting document available on the
  net (through gopher or WWW or an e-mail archive or whatever), and
  publicize it in the relevant listservs and newsgroups.  The document
  should include a date ("Version of 8 January 1994"), instructions
  for how to fetch the current version, and an invitation to send
  along further suggestions.


  This month's recommendations.

  Douglas Schuler and Aki Namioka, eds, Participatory Design:
  Principles and Practices, Hillsdale, NJ: Erlbaum, 1993.  A set of
  papers on the practice of designing computers with the involvement
  of their prospective users.  Most of the papers are grounded in
  the actual complexities of experience.  See also the special issue
  on participatory design of Communications of the ACM, June 1993,
  and a couple more relevant papers in the December 1993 and January
  1994 issues of the same journal.

  Seth Chaiklin and Jean Lave, eds, Understanding Practice:
  Perspectives on Activity and Context, Cambridge: Cambridge
  University Press, 1993.  A bracing collection of theoretically
  sophisticated empirical studies of routine activities -- each
  study finds large things through sustained engagement with small
  things, from sailors navigating a boat into port to AI people
  designing something on a whiteboard to school examinations.

  Robert Gottlieb, Forcing the Spring: The Transformation of the
  American Environmental Movement, Washington, DC: Island Press,
  1993.  An innovative history of the environmental movement
  in the United States.  Gottlieb paints a much broader picture
  than most.  In particular, he focuses away from the large
  national organizations and towards the diverse traditions of
  local, grass-roots work in communities across the country.  The
  environmental movement has its roots not simply in middle-class
  nature appreciation but also in industrial hygiene and simple
  community self-defense.

  Judith Lewis Herman, Trauma and Recovery, New York: Basic Books,
  1992.  A feminist psychiatrist looks at the psychological effects
  of severe trauma.  Her gaze is both clinical and political.
  She emphasizes that the experiences of trauma victims are never
  legitimized without a political movement to lend support to their
  voices.  Once brought out into the open, though, the experiences
  of trauma are pretty much universal.  One chapter, for example, is
  literally written in alternating paragraphs about rape survivors
  and soldiers, and another alternates between battered wives and
  political prisoners.  Her book is all the more important right
  now, given the backlash against victims of sexual abuse that has
  made the national magazines.

  Open a window into the exploding world of right-wing theory and
  networking with a free subscription to Imprimis, a small monthly
  newsletter published by Hillsdale College, Hillsdale, Michigan
  49242, USA.  Their US phone number in is 1-800-437-2268.  I don't
  know if they'll accept subscribers outside the US, but they say
  "Circulation 490,000 worldwide", so it's certainly worth a try.


  Company of the month.

  It's no secret that the initiative in computer research has
  shifted from academia to the private sector.  And private
  companies, especially the smaller ones where the real innovation
  is happening right now, are normally more motivated to publish
  their ideas through PR and sales brochures than through the
  open literature.  That's why it's important to keep up with what
  new companies are doing by getting ahold of the documents that
  companies put out about themselves.  All such documents should
  be read with a big critical grain of salt, but they should be
  read nonetheless.  So each month (when I can manage it), this
  department will recommend that you contact a certain company and
  ask for some basic brochure about the company and its products.

  I do not necessarily endorse these companies' work, but I am
  absolutely NOT recommending that you harass them.  Don't request
  the materials unless you are genuinely interested in reading them.

  This month's company is

  Enterprise Integration Technologies (EIT)
  459 Hamilton Avenue
  Palo Alto, California 94301

  phone +1-415-617-8000
  fax             -8019

  E-mail: info@eit.com

  WWW: http://www.eit.com/

  EIT are currently most famous for the money they just got to help
  build the Smart Valley CommerceNet, "an electronic marketplace for
  Silicon Valley's electronics industry".  This is important because
  it's the cutting edge of integration of computer systems *between*
  companies and not just inside them.  We can expect this to really
  change the structures of numerous markets, and not just in the
  computer industry.

  Phil Agre, editor                                pagre@ucla.edu
  Department of Information Studies
  University of California, Los Angeles         +1 (310) 825-7154
  Los Angeles, California  90095-1520                FAX 206-4460
  Copyright 1994 by the editor.  You may forward this issue of The
  Network Observer electronically to anyone for any non-commercial
  purpose.  Comments and suggestions are always appreciated.

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