Listserv cycles [was: Re: STOP IT!]
Mon, 31 May 1999 13:21:17 EDT

Anders observes that flamewars run in all-too-predictable cycles and asks:

> From a memetic-epidemological point of view, what can we do to break
> this loop? Are there memetic solutions other than the traditional
> ideas for moderation, banning etc?

We might first want to ask whether or not the phenomenon serves important, if somewhat unexplored, ends. Consider the analogy with various other cycles arising in natural systems, such as the flux in parasite/host ratios. Parasites are pesky, no doubt, but they arguably offer some boons. Many biologists suggest that sex arose as a defense to parasites. And hosts might wisely favor a co-evolved parasite to the murderous predator it crowds out of the niche.

Perhaps flamewars have some useful side effects. They might help drive the evolution of better rhetorical tools (see, e.g., Godwin's Law and its use in argument) or software tools (as Anders probably intends to suggest). Or, more ominously, perhaps flamewars kill off lists that have grown old, weak, and ideologically brittle.

None of this goes to show that we ought to *encourage* either parasitism or flamewars. But it does suggest that we ought to beware of unintended consequences of over-reacting to unwanted email. One thinks of the consequences of overusing antibiotics (banning all pesky email?) or of scratching infestations ("STOP IT" emails?).

T.0. Morrow