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Necessity is the Assassin of Invention
How Moderation in the Name of "Spam" is Stifling Innovation
by Andrew Burt | Comments

Update: Per requests to start an open forum focusing on the new: See the forums here.

MOOG: Ugg, I see body of Oog. Why he dead?

UGG: He make announcement some dumb thing he make called "wheel." Spam. I kill him.

Out, out, vile spam! Imagine if these announcements were deleted as spam and these people banned from posting:

I'll add more birth announcements as I find them (please send ones you find)


Sidebar: My Posting that got me banned

.HT Files - Tool To Make Templates Even Easier To Use, Sites More Maintainable

Hi, all, just an FYI about a new tool (Creative Commons licensed).

I've used HTML/CSS templates for sites for years, and love them, BUT have been frustrated at the redundant effort involved in setting up and maintaining the pages. Changing the navigation when it's embedded in every page, or adding an ad banner, so many little changes require editing every file. Not my cup of tea... so I wrote a tool to keep web site template themes apart from the content.

I've used this for years now and love it. Saved me hundreds if not thousands of hours. (Not to mention much easier on the whole than trying to merge custom code with Drupal/etc.)

What I do is use ".HT" files. .HT is a file type that combines the template at run time, like a CMS would do, but without any hooks inside the content pages. None. They're 100% unique page content. It 's sort of like how a .css file moves styles to one place -- but this does it for the template's HTML.

This link--


-- details what I did and how you can do it too. It's released under a Creative Commons license. Hope folks find it useful.

-- Dr. Andrew Burt


(I was banned for "Spam"; I appealed; and received this reply. Note the suggestion that promotion is okay if in reply to someone else, which is addressed in the article)

Hi Dr. Burt,

I'm one of the moderators and adminstrators on the Ars Technica OpenForum. Regarding your post and subsequent ban, the reason we reacted the way we did is because the post did violate our posting guidelines ( link, Cardinal rule #11). When a new user posts something that appears at a glance to be spam in nature, we usually take quick action. With the amount of spam we handle on a daily basis, it's something of a necessity.

I am familiar with you and your work. I have a signed copy of Noontide Night on my bookshelf from many years ago. I've been a member of critters and I submit to the black hole.

We're open to lifting the ban on your account. Posts to promote your work aren't generally accepted but you're free and welcome to participate in the community. There are instances where a post to promote your work are welcome, such as if it's response to another posters thread as a possible solution to something they're working on.



First the background. I like to create things. Back in the day, I founded the world's first free Internet service (Nyx.net; apparently it was the first public Internet service of any kind). I started one of the largest Internet writers workshops (Critters.org). I've written a ton of tools of various kinds. This story concerns one of those. I created a tool (called ".HT files") for web designers, to make their life easier. It's licensed under the Creative Commons (meaning it's essentially free; you can read the exact terms but the terms aren't -- and shouldn't be -- relevant to this tale).

I announced this tool on sites for web developers, just as in the past I'd announced Nyx, Critters, and other creations. I've found this specific tool immensely time-saving, and so might the readers on these sites.

On most of the sites my posting was deleted as "spam" and in many cases I was banned as a user.

I was at first inclined to blow this off, until I realized what a negative impact this behavior was having on innovation in general. My reply below is to an admin at Ars Technica, who, ironically for this story, it turned out knew me, had my novel on his shelf, and participated in some of the sites I'd created.

Here's my reply, which is really an essay on why sites should allow and, indeed, ENCOURAGE creators to post notes about their creations.

Hi, [name], thanks for the note. I'm sure you get a ton of spam, and I sympathize. I get about 5k email spams a day so I understand how volume is an enemy. (It does present "opportunities" to innovate, though, such as they are. :) I had to write myself a custom spam filter to cope.)

I am saddened to see that announcing one's new innovations has become equated to spam.

I remember when Larry Wall posted to Usenet that he'd created a new report generating program called PERL, and here it was in case anyone might want to use it. (He's subsequently gone on to make a fair bit of money off that, and good for him.) I remember the first announcement I saw from Phil Katz about his new .ZIP file compression software, PKZIP, which was, as I suspect you may remember, strictly shareware, where one was actually expected to pay for it if you used it (not just if one "likes" it as I go for myself, following the Nyx model). I can't find the original files but I just found a pkzip version 2.6 directory, and it was pretty firm about wanting $49 for a personal license. Clearly a revolutionary technology, in that people still sling .ZIP files around decades later. And it made him quite a bit of money, despite so many people using it for free. :) I remember when another Phil, Phil Zimmerman, first released PGP, and recounted some of his stories of government harassment at Nyx parties. He too made a fair boatload of money off his creation (for which he was willing to go to jail), and of course society reaped an even greater reward by its existence. I remember reading Bjarne Stroustrup write about some wacky project he was working on called "C with Classes", which was a buggy and crude bit of front-end preprocessing software for the C compiler, and we wrote to him so he could send us a 9-track tape so we could play around with it -- which eventually got renamed C++, and eventually of course begat Java, JavaScript, etc. I was teaching OS kernel design using MINIX and saw a guy named Linus's first post about his version of a hacked MINIX... later to be called "Linux". Check out his first post, {link}. It's quite a hoot, looking back at how it grew. ("Won't be big and professional", "it is NOT portable", "probably never will support anything other than AT-harddisks"...) I remember when some guys wrote about a thing called "Mosaic" that used "HTML", and I thought it was a butt-ugly syntax that would never catch on; and adding pictures to "gopher", big deal. Who was to know that would turn into the web and Google ads and iPhone apps? (As with all SF writers and futurists, we can be very wrong at predicting which things are the next big one. :) :) I think society benefited from guys posting "Hey, I got a thing..."

I leave it for others to judge the benefit to society, but I founded the world's first free ISP (Nyx.net), and I remember when I spread the word around BBSs about "Hey, here's free Internet service I set up." I founded what is (to my knowledge) the largest writers workshop for science fiction, fantasy and horror writers (Critters.org), and I remember when I posted to Usenet about the formation of Critters. Neither would have survived their embryonic state without being announced.

I'm saddened to think that people's initial postings of "Hey, here's this thing I created" back in the day would have been promptly killed as horrific evil spam and them banned as users from posting ever again. If nobody was allowed to hear birth notices from creators of their work, so many critical technologies wouldn't be known. Larry, Phil, Phil, Bjarne, and Linus didn't have to find someone else posting a problem to which PERL, PKZIP, PGP, "C with Classes", Linux, or Mosaic were the "possible solutions." I looked at the initial Usenet post I made about Critters in 1995, and it isn't that different conceptually to the post I made about .HT files. Nor is it that different from what Linus posted in 1991. I'm saddened to think a Critters or Linux announcement would today be obliterated as spam.

No, my .HT files won't revolutionize the world; that's not my point. My points are

  1. Who knows what other innovative technologies nobody is getting to hear about because creators aren't allowed to announce them in places where a lot of people will hear, and
  2. Who knows what other ideas aren't even getting born because two people aren't crossing paths who could meld two ideas together.
It's that cross-fertilization of ideas that made the net and the web what they are. (Not a bunch of VC guys or established 800lb gorillas like Google and Microsoft.) Linus's own posting about Linux-before-it-was-called-Linux said he thought it would never amount to anything. If that's not a prima facie case example I don't know what is. Beyond that, fertilization of old ideas into new is mostly happenstance, fortuitous collisions of ideas. (For profit or not.)

[As a side note, it's sad how much history is getting lost. I went to look for similar birth notices from the other examples I cited and it's harder than heck to find them. I know the history of Nyx is nearly lost, not even a Wikipedia article on it, and so much else from back then is fading. Ah, well. But that's a topic for another day.]

PERL, PHP, Linux, and others started similarly to .HT files, as a quick&dirty hack for personal uses that might be of no use to anyone else. I have no illusions about .HT files becoming wildly popular -- indeed, I think it quite likely nobody else will ever use them. But that would be assured if nobody heard of them... or PERL... or PHP... or Linux... Death-by-obscurity doesn't serve society well; death-by-deliberate-disinterest serves it far better. (That is, people seeing announcements and choosing to ignore them as not useful to themselves.) It's disheartening to see large forums acting as agents of "death by obscurity" rather than combatting it.

A place like Ars Technica is precisely the kind of vat where ideas need to ferment and mix, without limitations.

Spam shouldn't be allowed to stifle that for the sake of convenience. It's a sad day when we throttle progress in the name of spam. It's really a weird day when "necessity" is blamed as the reason for getting in the way of invention. (Used to be its mother and generator, not it's roadblock.) (Hmm... I'm thinking maybe I need to write an article here, with a title something like "Necessity is the assassin of invention"... :)

There's also a pretty obvious difference between announcing a tech project (even if for money) and real spam (offers from folks in Africa to help shrink your bank account or enlarge your -- ahem, don't want to get caught in a spam filter here :). Even a blatant moneygrubbing self-serving press release from Google/Microsoft/etc. could have value to Ars Technica readers where Nigerian 419 scams would not.

As for doing it backhandedly, as the reply to someone looking for a solution, as you mentioned, I'm afraid that's feels like a terribly poor substitute. Larry Wall didn't post his announcement of PERL as a reply to someone who asked, "Hmm, I'm looking for a practical extraction and report language, does anyone have one?" Indeed, few people really used PERL as a report language (which is what it was released as), even from the get-go. Instead they noticed it was the seed of a useful general purpose language. I used it for my AI research and owe my PhD to it. Indeed, I begged Larry to add local variables so I could do recursion. (He was resistant; I was persistent.) If I and others hadn't badgered him into improving it, PERL wouldn't be a real language today and probably a forgotten bag of bits on the side of the old information superhighway. CGIs in web browers would have suffered and thus slowed e-commerce, wikis, web forums, and all that, if people still had to write them in C instead of PERL, as was an early improvement. I know for SURE nobody was asking "Hey, is there a workshop for science fiction writers on this Internet thing?" I just hauled off and announced Critters. I didn't know if there was a demand for it or not. Bits were cheap, so I tossed it out there. I did the same with Nyx. Nobody was asking "Hey, is there free Internet access out there somewhere?" Likewise C++, Linux, etc. etc. etc. etc.

Could I be so bold as to suggest you consider revising those policies of yours, to allow and indeed ENCOURAGE people to post about the projects they're working on? I could see phrasing being nudged to suggest people minimize marketing hype and emphasize the facts of what does it do (but not as a requirement). At the very very least, could you offer a forum dedicated to announcements and discussion of new projects people are working on? I think it needs to be allowed in every forum, since you never know where someone is reading who'll run with something and create something even better. But if that's pushing the envelope, at least one forum would be better than none.

I went to post on Ars Technica precisely because it has a large audience of tech-minded readers who could benefit from a time-saving technology, and thus free them up to create something even better. I had in my mind a thought that Ars Technica readers and admins would be forward thinking, innovation-loving folks. .HT files are hardly "the shoulders of giants" for others to stand on, but it's that spirit of building on what's come before in science and innovation (and, for that matter, progress in civilization itself, starting with fire, wheels, money...) that has brought us where we humans are today.

MOOG: Ugg, I see body of Oog. Why he dead?

UGG: He make announcement some dumb thing he make called "wheel." Spam. I kill him.

:) :)

I can't imagine if Edison had tried to announce electric lighting (and thus electricity run to the household eventually leading to PCs and WiFi and microwave popcorn and...)... and been banned.

I know I did predict that the web would have a fracturing effect on communications compared to Usenet. Usenet was a "single place" (as it were), where everyone interested in a topic saw essentially all the posts about that topic. The web, as I predicted, caused a gazillion forums to spring up, none of them sharing posts. Cross-fertilization of ideas thus diminishes, because one person simply can't read all the different forums. There's thus an increase of redundant postings, more unanswered questions (because the guy with the answer is reading there and not here), and fewer happy collisions of ideas.

The large forums, like Ars Technica, are as close to the "single place" as we now have. Thus they/you almost have (in my mind, anyway) a sort of moral duty to help ideas collide. Moderation is needed to reduce the noise from Nigerian bank spam, I agree with that thoroughly. But I think it's harmful to society when moderation limits the exchange of meaningful ideas. (Even if there's an eeeevil profit motive behind it. Edison wasn't inventing light bulbs for fun, nor Bell the telephone, etc. I have no illusions of earning any money from .HT files, but innovations for profit has been good for society, at least if one likes electric sockets in the house, running water, flush toilets, big macs, ordering Harry Potter off Amazon...... :)

Readers seeing then choosing to ignore too-expensive or otherwise poor ideas is better than not seeing them. (Perhaps they may even create a better/cheaper version. But not if they don't get exposed to it.)

I was startled to get banned for posting about an effectively free tool. Ouch. I almost blew it off, but then I thought, y'know, this isn't good for the world. Maybe they'll rethink the policy. (I harbor no illusions that my commentary will do any good, but it can't hurt to try. Feel free to share this message if it helps.)

So, I apologize for the rant -- I hope you see it for the urging-to-improve-policy that it is, to spur innovation and help Ars Technica be an Agora for ideas, a midwife to future progress.

Thanks for listening.



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