This Message Cannot Be Sent: exploring organization and control on NY Tech Meetup’s email listserv

As one of the most popular hubs for on and offline technological conversation in NYC and beyond, New York Tech Meetup positions in a highly ambiguous cybersocial terrain. First founded as a Meetup group in 2004 by the creator of Meetup.com himself, Scott Heiferman, the group now boasts close to 40,000 members, currently ranking as the world’s most populous Meetup.com group.  Since 2004, New York Tech Meetup has been established as an independent non-profit organization, garnering a motley crew of major corporate sponsorships from Google, Morgan Stanley, Tumblr, American Express, Bloomberg, and the MLB.  While monthly demo nights are the organization’s most spotlighted and financed activity, the network of technologists remain constantly connected through digital portals as well, namely through exchanges on their email listserv (NY Tech Meetup).  

The New York Tech Meetup mailing list branches from Meetup.com’s offline pursuits, emerging as a distinct cyber-civilization of technologists unbounded by geographic constraints, synchronous communication, and well-established social dynamics characteristic of the physical world. In the cybersocial anthology From Usenet to Cowebs: Interacting with Social Information Spaces, Danyel Fisher outlines several subtleties of online communication that distinguish it from interaction in real life. Fisher writes,”The online world can be far more muted. While some cues are there, … they can be harder to find… There may be no way at all to know who might be listening in, or how much attention they are paying; there are almost no ways to learn the tone of a space except to immerse yourself in it” (Fisher 4). New York Tech Meetup’s virtual clubhouse operates both peculiarly and emblematically on several dimensions worthy of ethnographic analysis.   

In particular, I will explore the social organization and regulation of the NYTM listserv through the lens of several particular email threads.  I will address the forces that implicitly and/or explicitly govern listserv culture and the context in which these regulators emerge. Firstly, I will analyze how the aesthetic and function of email, as the group’s central online communication medium, shapes conversation and self-regulation. Secondly, I will discuss how social status is established on NYTM’s listserv, offering certain members control to steer conversation and authority over other members. Lastly, I will discuss how a different constellation of criteria governs moderation in times of community crisis and conflict and the role of official leadership.

  1. Email as a medium and moderator

While members of New York Tech Meetup dominate the frontiers of modern, cutting-edge technology, the group’s cyber-community resides on rather primordial terrain. Relative to the live stream, customized content available on many social networks and online forums, email is a relatively primitive platform to communicate with masses of people. The function and aesthetic of email influence the form and content of the community’s communications.

Mailbox maintenance and clutter control

Unlike Reddit Groups or the Hacker News forum, an e-mailbox does not inherently sort messages by content, and tends to integrate several realms of our lives that we’d like to keep distinct.  As an essential extension and expectation of our work, personal, and online lives, modern netizens have to maintain a healthy electronic mailbox to lead a successful offline life. Though spam and junk mail cost us mere nanonseconds, these mailbox squatters are the universal bane of our modern existences, infiltrating our most important communication tool. While we only have to visit /r/nyctech when we want, New York Tech Meetup’s mailing list offers little option to deliver messages at our hearts desire. Due to the listserv’s limited delivery customization options paired with our perpetual aversion to unwanted email, NYTM community must uphold content and behavioral standards, or risk cluttering inboxes and losing subscribers.

Email communication associates with offline identity

In addition, as email communication is generally not anonymous, users more likely adopt social etiquette found in the real world.  Unlike avatars or handles in many online communities, email accounts usually attach to a person’s real name, leaving a much thinner veil to hide behind and a much longer trace of digital footprints. While email exchange may be appropriate for most MeetUp groups, who interact in cyberspace in attempt to ultimately interact offline, NYTM’s listserv operates as a largely independent faction under the NYTM umbrella. Despite the physical distance that may separate listserv contributors, their online behaviors inextricably associate with their physical person, encouraging self-moderation and integration of the social courtesy expected IRL.

However, the threat of being held personally accountable for uncivil listserv behavior is not always a very effective form of moderation. In “Self-disclosure in Computer-mediated Communication,” Andrew Joinson articulates several cyber-psychological phenomena that perpetuate a “general model of disinhibition on the Internet,” blurring the lines between “flaming and excessive self-disclosure” (Joinson 180). As the online experience offers users an illusion of invisibility, many NYTM members act with social invincibility; they lack a sense of contextual or personal awareness that would curb inappropriate behavior in real life. Several NYTM members try to awaken this consciousness in others. For instance, responding to disrespectful behavior on the mailing list, Adrian Stoch states, “It amazes me as to the indifference some people show here for the perception they are creating among their peers.” As the email listserv inevitably and intimately links real life and online identities, one would think that the same social standards would apply in both mediums. However, behind computer screens, misbehaving members become seduced by solitude, and in turn, other members regulate behavior that they thought the personalized nature of email communication made obvious.

  1. Earning the right to regulate: member status and unofficial authority

While NYTM is now one of the most prominent representatives of NYC’s technology scene, the group had much humbler beginnings. Some members have been posting to the same listserv for over a decade. Longevity often functions as social currency on NYTM. Ethnographies of other technological communities reveal a common correlation between a member’s dedication, contribution, and social status. In researching the Debian development community, Gabriella Coleman found that the non-elected leaders earned their roles “because they initially undertook the work necessary to accomplish the tasks of their position” (Coleman 136).    Similarly, long-term participation in NYTM’s mailing list entitles certain users to inaugurate and correct the behavior of newcomers. One member Anthony Zeoli, who has written over 2792 messages to the group and is the fifth most frequent poster, regularly polices newbie conduct on the listserv, such as discouraging work solicitations posted to the mailing list.

Newcomers, on the other hand, do not necessarily hold the same veneration for older members that the old-timers hold for themselves. For instance, after Zeoli criticizes a new member’s advertising message, Dave Sandford notices an inconsistency in Zeoli’s argument. Directed at Zeoli, Sandford writes, “A week ago a guy who publicly humiliated another guy on this forum (Subhan Tariq) for pitching his startup consulting firm (Ruyah Consulting) is now doing the same thing… Subhan was humiliated … essentially told he wasn’t that seasoned.” In other words, Dave is challenging the fact that Zeoli does not follow the same mailing list manifesto that he preaches. Here we see that not only do well-established members wield authority over newbies to quell ‘deviant’ listserv behavior, some also engage in the same conduct that they criticize.  Another newbie, Elizabeth Chan, finds the established members special treatment both unfair and counterproductive, arguing that these NYTM’s elites hinder the group’s mission, as she states, “The problem with this gate keeping is the networking, innovation or familiarity with new players in this business is stifled if your not in this arbitrary club and don’t already know the rules. Cause only a select few can have any notoriety in this place.”

Though members’ de facto moderation seems elitist and self-righteous, such protocols also foster quality content and group morale that attracted the newbies in the first place. In Janet Lynne Sternberg’s Misbehavior in Cyber Places, she posits that enforcing behavioral guidelines in online communities can be “considered a hallmark of community: ‘the presence of a set of standards for conduct [may] be construed as prima facie evidence for the existence of online communities” (McLaughlin qtd. In Sternberg 209). In this vein, as older members such as Zeoli regulate listserv behavior, they actually strengthen the quality of the content and culture of the community. While newcomers may find Zeoli’s behavior pretentious and obnoxiously meddling, his attempt to maintain a modicum of Netiquette on the list could simply be an unselfish gesture from, in his own words, “someone who cares about the list.” Unlike Subhan Tariq, whose only messages to the listserv have just been company promotions, Anthony Zeoli contributes to the mailing list on a near daily basis, largely sharing information useful to the general tech community. Alongside his obvious active participation in discussions, Anthony demonstrates a nuanced and deep consideration of the community, even in his posts that solicit work. For instance, even the small gesture of including a warning tag in his email “[Services] Available for consulting work (skip this message if you don’t want to read it),” illustrates his familiarity with the NYTM mailing list culture.  Though Anthony breaks rules that he himself enforces, perhaps not only has he contributed enough to let it slide, he also has such a sophisticated and savvy understanding of the group’s culture as to know how to accommodate them.

Furthermore, without visuals cues or titles that indicate status, it truly takes an active   member to know one. Unlike most forums, which display a user’s rank, title, and/or post count beside their postings, NYTM newbies must initially observe members and trust established protocol in order to grasp the social dynamics of the group and eventually gain credibility with its most important members.  Paradoxically, from the perspective of a newbie, the listserv distributes social authority invisibly and unjustifiably, and yet an old-timer sees the process as blatantly self-evident and gradual. For instance, after Dave Sandford asking Anthony, “Who died and made you the moderator? What gives you the right to promote yourself while telling others they can’t,” frequent NYTM contributor D.A. Guatierrez defends Anthony’s power and status. Guatierrez retorts, “Believe it or not, there is a litmus test: If you have been active on the list, providing value to the community, there really isn’t a problem with a bit of self promotion… And no, there is no list of ‘allowed’ versus ‘not allowed’ names. But just from the fact that Anthony’s name is recognizable, it’s clear that he’s contributed.”  Elite status and special privilege, such as a member’s right to moderate, are privileges earned through commitment and hard work, as determined by the fraction of the community around to observe the meritorious behavior.

III. Trouble in the threads: conflict and punishment

While NYTM listserv veterans socially police newbie behavior, moderators de jure also regulate listserv conduct. One incident in late February provoked administrative response and, consequently, community controversy. In sum, the email thread “About minorities and tolerance in tech: what actions can be done” swiftly devolved from a sympathetic discussion about systematic discrimination into a victim blaming, oppression Olympics, ridden with inadvertent hate speech. While several people sent bafflingly racist messages, Richard Burton was the central instigator and offender. Here’s just one example of his disturbing commentary, directed at a black man: “You were never a slave, stop acting like you’re treated like one… I never owned slaves. I owe you nothing; not even the funky hairs behind my left testicle…. What I don’t do, is share the *many” accounts of racism that I experience being a white man in a black neighborhood. I’ll bet my bottom dollar that you haven’t experienced anything near … in terms of racism.”

Role of and reactions to official authority

Without hearing a provocative peep from Burton for the next several weeks, several NYTM members raised suspicions that the group’s administrative authority, Jessica Lawrence, may have banned him. Several members grew publicly enraged at this Jessica, threatened by her sudden authority over the culture and content of the listserv. Damion Hankejh, who particularly lamented Burton’s absence, proceeded to attack Jessica’s moderation abilities and worthiness as a human being in general, as he says, “The leadership* of this forum is a bag of crap — they couldn’t ascertain the value of a member by any measure — shame on you Jessica Lawrence, et al…she has accomplished entirely nothing worthy of mention in technology entrepreneurship.” While he and several others argued that the ban against Burton was “censorship” and infringement upon their freedom of speech, others were concerned about Jessica’s ability to wield ultimate power despite her lack of involvement in the listserv community.

While these member’s concerns are perfectly valid, they neglect how the official moderator’s ultimate and invisible regulation may be necessary for this particular group’s cyber- communication. From a legal standpoint, the New York Tech Meetup listserv is bound to the same Terms of Agreement as all Meetup.com groups, which grant the Meetup organizer, i.e. Jessica Lawrence, full permission to moderate at her will. On their website, Jessica attempts to be transparent about moderation, stating, “Our … mailing lists should never be used to demean, discriminate, threaten, bully, or in any other way diminish the sanctity of a community that thrives the most when members are being supported… We have kept the discussion forum unmoderated to allow for free exchange of ideas, but that does not mean that any and all behavior will be tolerated” (NY Tech Meetup). Though some members vie for a more visible and engaged moderator on the listserv, greater personal involvement may compromise the moderator’s neutrality.

Moderation: censorship or liberty?

However, top-down moderation not only preserves the “sanctity of the group” but can even protect individual member’s first amendment freedoms. In fact, moderation is not always  a euphemistic form of censorship, but also a tool to relieve community’s from self-censorship and the control of social regimes. Moderation can counteract the hostile and threatening culture created in email threads such as “About minorities and tolerance in tech: what actions can be done?” and  “Why Blacks and Latino’s complain so much on the job,” as hot-headed displays of bigotry and defamation are let loose. With people like Richard Burton spewing personal attacks ranging from “Hank you’re just bitter about being black” to “Anthony, you lack an IQ,” it’s no wonder that the thread is largely overwhelmed with responses that share his victim-blaming, racist perspective.

Assaulting those who disagree, the NYTM listserv assailants could be characterized as grown-up cyberbullies. As these personal attacks intimidate members with differing opinions, the cyberbullies dictate the visible culture on the listserv according to their own opinions. Through social brute force, a self-perpetuating chilling effect emerges, in which the opposition retreats out of fear of retribution and lack of otherwise visible support. For instance, Rudy Rigot, who actually created the controversial “About minorities and tolerance in tech: what actions can be done?” thread, says, “I’m starting to …  spot all of the names of people who can’t help making totally pointless ad hominem attacks frequently. When I see them involved in a thread, and I have something to contribute, I generally don’t, because I know that if they happen not to like what I say, I don’t want to waste my day being bullied by some guy in public.”

Furthermore, as I have previously discussed, the digital footprints that follow NYTM’s cyberbully victims, would also have potentially damaging offline consequences, which oppresses adverse opinions further. According to Principles of Cyberbullying Research: definitions and principles, “The permanent status of the information on display and its multiple potential observers (not always known) expose the victim in a way that makes it very difficult for him/her to defend against it” (Bauman and Cross 34). As the NYTM attackers threaten both the offline and cyber lives of their ideological opponents, they patrol opinion and deploy the same regulatory authority that they claim to abhor. Based on this logic, several NYTM members view the moderator’s decision to ban these cyberbullies as a defense of free speech. A poignant example is Bill Greenbaum, who begins his message by acknowledging his lurker status. Though he may not have listserv credentials, Greenbaum applauds Jessica for dutifully protecting the community, as he says, “if someone (e.g. Jessica Lawrence or whoever) has taken responsibility to protect the wellbeing of list members, that makes it a safer for all of us to express ourselves.  I applaud that, and I know I am not alone in doing so.“

To “know he is not alone”, Greenbaum actually articulates a much broader theme of authority that I have attempted to address throughout this essay. In the NYTM listserv, we can see official and self regulation succeed when it acknowledges the invisible, whether it’s the silenced majority, victimized for their opinions, or the digital footprints left in the wake of obscene listserv messages. As we see in the case of NYTM member Anthony Zeoli, community regulators tread a fine line between protecting and promoting their online turf. The ability to perceive what you may not directly experience, to be socially omniscient is a central attributes of a successful moderator, though a rare one. Works Cited

 

Bauman, Sheri, and Donna Cross. Principles of cyberbullying research: definitions, measures, and methodology. New York, NY: Routledge, 2013. Print.

 

Coleman, E. Gabriella. Coding freedom: the ethics and aesthetics of hacking. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2013. Print.

 

Joinson, Adam N.. “Self-disclosure In Computer-mediated Communication: The Role Of Self-awareness And Visual Anonymity.” European Journal of Social Psychology 31.2 (2001): 177-192. Print.

 

Lueg, Christopher, and Danyel Fisher.From Usenet to CoWebs: interacting with social information spaces. London: Springer, 2003. Print.

 

Marshall, Jonathan Paul. Living on Cybermind: categories, communication, and control. New York: Peter Lang, 2007. Print.

 

Thomas, Douglas. Hacker culture. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2002. Print.

 

Sternberg, Janet Lynne. Misbehavior in Cyber Places: The Regulation of Online Conduct in Virtual Communities on the Internet. Diss. Misbehavior in Cyber Places: The Regulation of Online Conduct in Virtual Communities on the Internet. 2003. Print.

 

Works Cited

 

Bauman, Sheri, and Donna Cross. Principles of cyberbullying research: definitions, measures, and methodology. New York, NY: Routledge, 2013. Print.

 

Coleman, E. Gabriella. Coding freedom: the ethics and aesthetics of hacking. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2013. Print.

 

Joinson, Adam N.. “Self-disclosure In Computer-mediated Communication: The Role Of Self-awareness And Visual Anonymity.” European Journal of Social Psychology 31.2 (2001): 177-192. Print.

 

Lueg, Christopher, and Danyel Fisher.From Usenet to CoWebs: interacting with social information spaces. London: Springer, 2003. Print.

 

Marshall, Jonathan Paul. Living on Cybermind: categories, communication, and control. New York: Peter Lang, 2007. Print.

 

“NY Tech Meetup.” Meetup. N.p., n.d. Web. 11 May 2014. <http://www.meetup.com/ny-tech/>.

 

Thomas, Douglas. Hacker culture. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2002. Print.

 

Sternberg, Janet Lynne. Misbehavior in Cyber Places: The Regulation of Online Conduct in Virtual Communities on the Internet. Diss. Misbehavior in Cyber Places: The Regulation of Online Conduct in Virtual Communities on the Internet. 2003. Print.