E-mail systems offer two functions that have led to the creation of a new form of communication, even though these functions are already more-or-less available in paper-based mail services: these are the possibility of sending copies of the same letter to multiple addresses, and that of automatic forwarding. Sending multiple copies is very easy in e-mail: all you have to do is to prepare a list of the addressees and enter the ``send'' command once. Automatic forwarding, similarly, is far more reliable than asking your local post office to forward your mail when changing your address. Connecting the two functions, however, produces a very effective form of non-simultaneous group-communication which is unimaginable in paper-based mail.
In ordinary e-mail systems these two functions - automatic forwarding and multiple copies - cannot be connected in order to prevent undesirable network traffic: but several pieces of dedicated software are available for the creation of such ``mailing lists'' or ``discussion groups.'' In fact mailing lists are simple extensions of ordinary e-mail created via the definition of an e-mail address that is set to forward all incoming messages to a list of recipients. Mailing lists or discussion groups usually have two e-mail addresses: one is used for forwarding messages to all members of the group (this address usually indicates somehow the topic of the discussion) and the other is for sending commands to the list-handling software.
For example in the electronic discussion that formed the basis of the paper ``Philosophy and Electronic Publishing'' participants sent their comments to the following e-mail address:
The address indicates that the computer which received and forwarded the messages was located in the University of Vienna (``univie''), Austria, (``at''). The abbreviated username ``mii-pesp'' stands for ``Monist Interactive Issue, Philosophy and Electronic Publishing.'' The discussion was processed by Listserv software which also created an automatic archive of all the messages. If a participant missed some messages, he could send an e-mail to the list-handling software ordering it to send the archived file to his address. The e-mail address of the software was: ``firstname.lastname@example.org''. And the e-mail that ordered the software to send all the archived messages of November, 1995 consisted of the following one-line command: ``get mii-pesp log9511.''
In addition to archiving the messages list-handling software offers a number of services such as subscribing and unsubscribing to and from the mailing list, searching in the archive, and listing the names of the participants of the discussion. The most basic commands, i.e. subscribing and unsubscribing, are almost the same in each software. In any event, most list-handling software has a short on-line user's manual that can be received by sending a message to the address of the software with the word ``help.''
In fact the Monist discussion-groups did not allow automatic subscription directly through the list-handling software: participants were invited personally and were then added to the subscriber list manually by the moderator of the relevant discussions. This form of controlled participation is not uncommon in scholarly electronic conferences: the same social rules may apply to the virtual academic community as to the real, even if electronic discussions are in general more democratic than face-to-face ones. In an electronic seminar the professor cannot enjoy the privileges he derives from sitting at the teacher's desk; e-mail does not transmit non-verbal authority - though, in a fashion similarly to real-life seminars, some students participate actively while others follow the discussion only in a passive way.
In the case of the Monist discussions, after forming the list of participants and issuing the target-papers, the rest of the communication was unmoderated. That is, messages were forwarded to the participants without human intervention. This is not necessarily so in all academic mailing lists: often a person called the ``listowner'' receives the messages first, groups them according to their subject and forwards to the members in digests. HUMANIST (the very popular mailing-list on humanities computing, owned by Willard McCarty) is an example of this type. At this point some may think that the moderator is some kind of censor, but in reality his or her work offers an extremely valuable service to the participants: in addition to grouping the messages he can handle technical problems before they reach the point of disturbing the participants.
Unmoderated electronic discussion requires great self-control from the participants and there are some important rules that should be followed in addition to the general standards of personal communication. As Willard McCarty put it in the guide to Ficino, one of the first (moderated) electronic seminars:
Sociologists of communication speak of the `social context cues' given us by various media; these communicate paralinguistic information about the speaker, such as social status, age, sex, and physical handicaps - in brief, his or her `social context'. E-mail has a few or none of these cues. Many people have argued that their absence removes ordinary social constraints, so that users of e-mail tend to behave in a freer way than they would otherwise, say in face-to-face communication. `Flaming' - the highly emotional, uncontrolled outbursts for which e-mail is infamous - is said to be a result. In the positive sense, however, the absence of cues allows individuals the freedom to create their online personae exclusively through what they say. If the medium is properly managed, social structures and conventions can thus be reformed along more intellectual lines than most of us are accustomed to. (McCarty, 1990, p. 4.)
Following the above remarks McCarty's guide also contains a media-specific etiquette for electronic seminars. Below I attempt to summarize it with some additions of my own:
The ``Subject'' field supplied by the mail software is an essential part of the message. This is because in addition to private correspondence people generally subscribe to several discussion groups and use the subject-field to decide which messages they wish to read and which to delete. The subject-line therefore must always be accurate and comprehensive. It is also advisable to include in the body of your message at least part of the original message that you are commenting on or replying to in order to remind other participants of the topic you are addressing. However, use the automatic reply function of your mail-software with caution, because it normally copies the original message in its entirety which is in most cases a superfluous repetition. Perhaps the most difficult decision is whether to comment privately or publicly, in other words whether to start a private conversation with a group member or to share all the ideas with the entire community by sending replies to the list address. McCarty recommends the latter, because his experience suggests that ``it is almost impossible to predict what members will find relevant.''
This is true, however, only for discussion groups of a very wide scope (e.g. ``philosophy'' in general); in other cases off-topic messages will often force members to quit the group. If you have a question that is obviously off-topic, but have no better idea where to ask, you should apologize for this and ask for private replies, or you can also ask people to forward the question to a more relevant list. On the other hand forwarding a letter that was not explicitly written for this purpose is against the etiquette of discussion groups: although e-mail software makes this very handy, you should always ask permission before doing so. Before addressing questions to list-members it is also recommended that one download the archived digests of messages and search for earlier discussions of the same topic to avoid repetitions. Though McCarty again expresses a somewhat different point of view: ``As in oral cultures, repetition in the electronic seminar can serve as a mnemonic device, a way of holding problems or issues up for continued attention.'' (McCarty 1990, p. 6.)
Finally, it must be noted that the mailing list is not the only form of group-communication on the net. The strongest rivals are the so-called Usenet groups; these were founded by computer-scientists as an independent network of thematic discussion and news-exchange, but today's web-browsers allow almost as easy access to them as to e-mail lists. Although there are several Usenet groups discussing philosophy-related issues, this form of communication does not enjoy high popularity among humanists. This is perhaps due to the fact that they are more difficult to access outside campus (i.e. via phone line), and also because, prior to the appearance of web-browsers, their access required special software. Since Usenet discussion groups are unmoderated, their language resembles oral conversations even more than that of e-mails.
An additional written form of group communication is called Internet Relay Chat, or IRC. Contrary to e-mail and Usenet discussion groups, this is a simultaneous form of communication; in other words it requires the simultaneous - virtual - presence of all participants. Although attempts have been made to apply it in academic communication, it usually proves to be too quick and spontaneous for a serious exchange of ideas.