Tangled in the Threads

Jon Udell, October 6, 1999

What's Hard about Group Messaging?

NNTP conferencing closely resembles email. Why, then, is it so hard for people to grasp the concept?

Moshe Bar kicked off a long thread in the networking newsgroup with this description of a private conferencing setup he's created for his geographically-dispersed family:

Recently, I asked Jon Udell how to set up a simple news server to allow my family members (residing on 4 continents) to more efficiently communicate.

He told me that with innd on Linux it is as easy as

ctlinnd newgroup my.group

and, in expire.ctl:


You can also give only access to certain people by doing


I did just that and we now have two groups going on for the family. One is just chat. And one is for pictures, scanned Bar Mitzvah pictures, scanned graduation diplomas etc. I also posted some sound files there. I also have separate group for just my sister and me, for more private discussions.

Some family members just don't figure out how to use a newsreader and don't get the concept at all. But, they understand the web (more or less). Alas, my web server is on a different computer than the news server (and has to remain that way). Any ideas on how to write a series of cgi to access the news server and display the threads on a webpage?

Well yes, there are ways to mirror NNTP newsgroups into Web space. The BYTE.com discussions are one example of that technique. They're reflected from an NNTP server to a Web server by some clever software that CMP's Andy Newcombe wrote. In a former incarnation of the BYTE newsgroups, I used another, less-elegant solution based on mhonarc, a mail-to-web converter whose output I instrumented with post-back links.

As I mentioned to Moshe, there are also news servers that have built in web gateways. I like NetWin's dnews a lot; at under $500 it's a reasonable purchase for a company, if not a family.

Pinpointing the Problem

But back to our question. I understand that people do have this adverse reaction to using a newsreader as a discussion tool, but I don't understand why.

The newsreader is very close, in both form and function, to the familiar mailreader. Why then does the newsreader seem strange?

Fred Pacquier:

People will gladly adopt the latest sofware gadget if it's push-button and of immediately-apparent use (winamp, chat...) but if a tangible amount of thinking is involved, that's clearly an obstacle.

Hmm. I still don't get it. It's true that most people won't ever get as far as Moshe did, because most people don't see deploying an NNTP server as an easy thing. Unless you're somebody like Moshe, with lots of Unix and system-administration experience, INN isn't. But if you're anybody at all, MS NNTP (in the NT 4 Option Pack) is.

In any case, let's assume somebody (by whatever means) materializes NNTP service in your environment. now the proposition boils down, for users of the very widely-adopted Netscape and Microsoft browser/mailer/newsreader suites:

Where's the thinking required here? To move the cursor 2 inches from this folder to that folder?

Peter Hess:

The thought required isn't in the reading. It's in the composing and sending of messages. There is a certain self-consciousness that needs to be overcome when posting to a public forum. For many people, the public nature of news, the persistence of posts (they stay around for a while) and the speed with which discussions develop and evolve are stumbling blocks. It's almost like going to court and taking the witness stand, where everything you say is recorded for posterity and where everything you say can be used against you and where the prosecutor is trying to get you to say something incriminating.

Well OK, I agree with that. It is certainly true that the greatest obstacle to successful use of groupware is people's (understandable) reluctance to go on the record, in a shared space, with an ongoing flow of communication.

But that's not a tools issue! This reluctance should be the same no matter how the conferencing is done, shouldn't it? Given a group that's committed to participating in online discussion, the question remains: why is the newsreader, so mailreader-like in form and function, such a hard sell?

Peter Hess:

I remember when I thought news readers were terribly complicated. The reason for me was that I was very self-conscious of doing something stupid in so public a forum. The newsreader settings and the operations involved in posting a followup, as well as the fear that no one would have any interest in what I had to say, weighed heavily on my mind, to the degree that it was extremely important that everything be set just so. That meant that I had to know what every option did and that meant learning all the features of the newsreader and being able to use them. With a half- decent newsreader, that approach results in a pretty steep learning curve.

Fred Pacquier:

I tend to believe that it is not the newsreader that feels strange to newscomers, but the reason for its existence and the complexity of its function. You are right that it visually resembles a mailreader, and implementations like Netscape's have encouraged this perception. So the natural question is, 'Why do I need this separate tool, this specific configuration'?

There is also the 'oh no, not again' factor. In recent years or months many users, who sometimes are longtime users of a given set of apps (wp, spreadsheets) have been force-fed a new set of tools and the minimal set of concepts needed for their use, just to stay current with their workplace/family/self-esteem/etc -- a browser of course, and a mail client, and maybe an ftp client for managing their home page. To be honest, that's a lot, and the mere suggestion that another tool exists to fulfill untold promises is often enough to glaze eyes.

I'm sure I'll ring a bell with you if I say that IMHO the netnews heritage is the most underestimated, underpublicized and misused tool on corporate intranets. This is also partly a collective blindness of IT staffs and system admins: users are reticent, but in my experience they're not being pushed very hard either by MIS personel who don't know the beast very well, are afraid of setting up INN even more than Sendmail, and are willing to reinvent the wheel time after time with half-baked Web lookalikes rather than going for the real (but NIH) McCoy.

The issue is further complicated by a general failure to disentangle the idea of NNTP conferencing, which can be implemented in many different ways, from its most familiar implementation, the USENET.

Peter Hess:

There is also a lot of hearsay out there that equates USENET with newsgroups in the wider sense, i.e. if it's NNTP-based it's USENET. USENET is almost universally perceived as an evil waste of time by those who don't participate in it, and this perception carries over to NNTP-based group messaging in general.

Doing the experiment

I still think that the root of the problem is unfamiliarity with the modes of communication that are enabled by NNTP (or by any comparable kind of network-based discussion software), rather than unfamiliarity with the tools used to do the communicating. Email, after all, models itself after a mode of communication that's thousands of years old. There is a deep cultural understanding of interpersonal messaging. Although USENET seems like an ancient technology in terms of Internet time, group messaging is still a quite new development in human culture.

The single most important message in my book is: do the experiment. Set up a local NNTP server for your workgroup or department or company, and explore how group messaging can help you and your team members work more effectively. It doesn't replace email, but it complements it in powerful ways. When we lack a true conferencing tool, as most organizations do, we try to make email serve that purpose, and it does that poorly. So there are two reasons to deploy conferencing: for the intrinsic benefits of group messaging, and to restore email to its proper domain which is interpersonal messaging.

Here's a report from Randy Switt, who's doing the experiment at his university:

I have just implemented a set of NNTP groups using MS-NNTP for a group of university classes. They have been operating since late August with no technical problems. As Jon has indicated, setup was brain-dead simple.

It would seem I have a perfect environment for implementing a nntp solution, a group of motivated users with roughly the same level of experience and trained experts to help them (myself and the faculty members who I've instructed). The problems I've seen include:

  • Setup problems. Most of these seem to relate to attempting to use older readers, but step by step instruction WERE provided. Roughly 1/3 the users experienced some problems. This may be typical for computer setups though.
  • N-to-n communication. The students seem to be basically posting messages to the professor, not amongst themselves. Some of the messages even seem somewhat personal. I've offered to set up newsgroups for the various student organizations associated with the department, but I've gotten no takers.
  • Newsgroup concept. I still get questions like "how do I delete old messages?". I explain to them that they cannot because then other students wouldn't be able to read them, but I get blank looks. I'm afraid to try to explain how to get the reader to hide old messages.
  • Threading. The concept just doesn't seem to be grasped. Students seem to post messages almost randomly, whether it is relevant to a thread or not. I know Netscape installs with threading on by default, so I'm at a loss as to why it seems to be so difficult.

To me, it looks like the real issue here is cultural, not technical. I've worked in conferencing environments for so long -- first Lotus Notes, then BIX, then NNTP -- that I tend to forget not everybody takes group messaging for granted. It is different than email; it does require a different mindset; it can dramatically improve communication. The first step, which Randy has taken, is to drop in a server that your already-deployed NNTP clients can talk to. As he discovered, that's not hard.

The next step is to manage the process. It's not enough just to deploy the server. You need to show people how group messaging works. Happily, the discussion environment is a wonderful place to demonstrate -- using words and even pictures (e.g. screenshots) -- what the process is like. And it's crucial to provide structure. In Randy's case, the professors might try seeding the newsgroups with messages that create an outline to which follow-on discussion can attach. It might also be worthwhile to scope the discussions, so that class A's newsgroup isn't visible to class B, and vice versa. Group spaces are public, but they can't be too public.

Computer-based conferencing seems like old hat, but it's a quite new development in the evolution of human culture. We've all got a lot to learn about this mode of communication. There are no shortcuts or magic-bullet solutions or perfect tools. We've just got to do the experiment.

Jon Udell (http://udell.roninhouse.com/) was BYTE Magazine's executive editor for new media, the architect of the original www.byte.com, and author of BYTE's Web Project column. He's now an independent Web/Internet consultant, and is the author of Practical Internet Groupware, forthcoming from O'Reilly and Associates.

Creative Commons License
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons License.