the end of net news

the end of net news

Joe Vitale
Cyberwriting: How To Promote your product or service online (without being flamed)
175 pp. paperback, $18.95

Although there's nothing very new or original in this book, and although the book isn't very well written, we know the publisher is eager: the book bears a 1997 copyright date but it's already been in stores for weeks. The publisher is going to be disappointed.

Vitale offers some useful advice. Don't flame. Check your spelling. Don't broadcast irrelevant and unwanted messages. Be honest. Avoid empty advertising. But he misses the main point: newsgroups are not a broadly-effective marketing tool because most news groups have failed. Many good questions, if not met with uncomprehending silence, now elicit indifferent answers from a handful of children, followed by a flood of email urging the writer to participate in chain letters or get-rich-quick schemes.

The 27 items currently available on alt.hypertext today break down as follows:

It doesn't matter, then, whether Vitale can teach you to camouflage your advertising as if it were a relevant posting: there are no relevant postings left to emulate.

childred fighting Unfortunately, Cyberwriting fails to explain a curious phenomenon that Vitale cannot have overlooked: a remarkable proportion of newsgroup postings are written in a style we otherwise associate with petulant children. Newsgroups -- even technical newsgroups -- are filled with taunting and gloating. For example, people obsessed with justifying their computer preferences rail endlessly about the technical, moral, or stylistic superiority of one Fortune 500 company over another.

One reason newsgroup writing is so bad is that newsgroup software looks like email software, and postings often resemble electronic mail messages. This is unfortunate, because electronic mail enacts dialogue while newsgroups enact declamation. Where public speakers see their audience, newsgroup writers see only the other discussants.

Because newsgroup exchanges can resemble electronic mail, writers often address their remarks to individuals, not to the general audience. The common result is public incivility -- disputation and insult between individuals. The presence of the audience inflames passions and makes compromise costly, but because the audience isn't visible -- because the software makes postings seem just like mail -- writers often forget the audience completely and wrangle among themselves.

The absence of hypertext links, too, makes it difficult to write well for newsgroups. Because responses must be posted immediately, lest slanders and misinformation go unrefuted, news is often written hastily, without consideration, and with excessive heat. If the response isn't immediate, the damage will already be done; a considered response may appear after the initial outrage has vanished from the news server. Yet, as archives and search engines have appeared, the original misinformation may persist indefinitely; as Nelson realized in his 1981 Literary Machines, without bidirectional links, immediate response is your only hope of refutation.

By making discussions more permanent, yet leaving them open to revision, expansion, and dialogue, links could make news groups a more livable place, a place where even busy people might find participation could bring rewards. By creating a virtual environment that enacts the presence of the audience -- not merely the disputants -- software might be able to protect the interest of the broad range of readers, not only the interests of trolls and flame artists and children who want help with their homework.

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