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How to Write SF

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THE SIGIL TRILOGY: The universe is dying from within... "Great stuff... Really enjoyed it." — SFWA Grandmaster Michael Moorcock

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From aburt@tech-soft.com Tue Sep  2 17:23:18 MDT 1997
Newsgroups: sff.workshop.critters
Subject: Time to kill this newsgroup?

I think it's time we all discussed the future of this newsgroup.

Recent flame wars in here have led me to question whether a "Critters
newsgroup" is such a good idea.  I'm thinking of shutting it down.

Here's where I'm coming from:

- The primary function of Critters is as an e-mail based critique
group.  Not a social group.   A newsgroup is not a _necessity_.

- A secondary function of Critters, which _could_ be furthered by the
newsgroup, is Networking:  getting to know other writers/editors, especially
pros; making friends, getting to know them, and them to know you.

- Readers of a newsgroup called "sff.workshop.critters" naturally
associate our behavior in here with our behavior as a critique group.
Postings here, and their authors, are thus Ambassadors of Critters.

- Guests have always been welcomed.  However, a guest reading postings
in the newsgroup cannot tell if someone is an active member of critters,
a former member, or has never been a member.  (FYI, about half the
posters and postings, by my rough estimate, are from active critters;
the other half are from inactive/former members and never-beens.  Only a
small percent of active critters ever post, and I doubt that a majority
of critters even read the newsgroup.)  Thus even acerbic guests reflect
badly on "real" Critters.

- The people in this newsgroup (critter members and not) are super-nice folks.
Most of the time.  It's the other tiny fraction of the time that's at issue.

- I am aware of multiple pro authors who have judged Critters, the
workshop, by critters, the newsgroup.  Judged us poorly.  And decided
not to join as a direct result.  Another case occurred just yesterday.

- I am aware of other pro authors who say that the Critters newsgroup
is not a place they want to be (for reasons like the above).  The most
recent -- of many examples -- is Liz Holliday, a pro writer and editor.

- These incidents reflect poorly not only on Critters as a workshop, but
on each member of Critters, as both individuals and writers.

- In fact, some guests don't even realize there's an e-mail based
workshop that is what Critters is really about.

- I have witnessed numerous flames in the newsgroup where posters
(active critters and not) treat each other with such discourtesy and
contempt it makes me ashamed to have created the newsgroup.

- I've tried various things to remedy this problem, to no avail.  Such as:

	- Head in sand:  Hoped people would learn from past mistakes
	  and we'd sail smoothly.  Buzz.

	- Education: Posting and saying folks ought to behave decently
	  toward one another.  Loud sound of nobody listenting.

	- Explaining away:  Telling offended or unimpressed pros
	  not to judge the workshop by the newsgroup.  No results.

	- Selective rebuking:  Tried taking people to task privately,
	  selectively, tactfully, for being discourteous.  Ignored or
	  their empty shoes filled..

	- Shock treatment:  The y'all need to take a look at yourselves thread.
	  Just caused more of the same (not unexpectedly).

- Note that I'm not opposed to vigorous discussion.  I love it.
But debating _issues_ does not require being impolite.  (If anyone wants
to say "Yeah, it does, people are just prone to taking offense any time
someone utters an opposing viewpoint or corrects a factual error," then
I'd reply: We don't need that.  Plenty of places on the net to sling mud.
Visit talk.abortion, alt.flame, etc.)  People don't have to agree, but in
an Ambassadorial Newsgroup they need to remain courteous at all times
when disagreeing.  Given a choice between Yet Another Place To Debate
Issues and keeping the critters newsgroup civil, I'd choose civility.

- I see this as a problem on two grounds.  Primarily: it's a detriment
to the real purposes of Critters; I'm going to ensure the usefullness
of the e-mail based workshop, at the expense of the newsgroup, if need be.
Secondarily: because I personally feel strongly about the issue of people
being disrespectful to others and the resulting problems.  I can only
shout into the wind about the latter, but I am responsible, as your
Critter Captain, for the former.

- I'm not even entirely opposed to knock-down-drag-out newsgroups.
Sometimes folks just need to vent, and if everyone knows that they're
in a hot zone, so be it.  But "sff.workshop.critters" does not, by it's
name, clue in your average reader that they're entering a war zone
(and you must have it in the name else you risk pissing off folks you'd
rather not annoy).  It's not called sff.workshop.critters-n-flame-wars.
Note that I've enjoyed my share of flamefests in other newsgroups over
the years.  Alt.flame, talk.abortion, other hot-button topics -- fine, I
expect that sort of behavior there, and that's cool by me.  Even in your
average, random newsgroup, these things happen.  But flamewars are an
especially bad thing for the Critters newsgroup to harbor.  (Unless you
want Critters to be known as a bunch of flaming asses, which I do not,
thank you very much.)

- And just to be really clear about things, since I can imagine someone
bringing this up:  I am not doing this because I'm ticked off that
people flamed me back for my postings in the newsgroup.  I'm not ticked off
about that.  I hoped I might shock people into even a grudging courtesy;
but I expected it would fail and that I'd get flamed in return.  Hey,
I'm a veteran of the net, and have run a 10,000 user ISP for over ten
years; it's not inconceivable that I've been flamed more times than
everyone here has ever posted flames, total!  In just one instance,
in the span of about a month, I was publicly flamed over a thousand times
by a disgruntled Nyx user (in fact, years later, this guy is _STILL_ going
on about it, so I hear :-).  I've tangled with many of the most Infamous
Flamers on the net.  So, while I'm personally not a fan of flames, I'm
not doing this out of any petty retribution because nobody listened to
me or claptrap like that.  I'm doing this because it's hurting Critters.
Even the vast majority who're not posting here are being harmed.
This bad, Kimosabe.

So let's talk about solutions, because I'm not of a mind to let it continue
the way it has been.

Here are the solutions I see off the top of my head:

1)  Frequent educational postings.  I could post a weekly disclaimer sort
of message ("hey, readers of this newsgroup, bear in mind that obnoxious
postings (a) don't represent Critters as a whole or the workshop and (b)
may not even be written by an active member") plus reminders to play nice
with each other.  Yeah, right.  Next.

2)  Moderation -- having a moderator who screens and approves each posting.
Blech.   I sure as heck don't have time for it, and it's a thankless
job I wouldn't wish on anyone.  Slows down posting times to hours at best,
frequently days and weeks.  Moderators don't last long, make frequent
mistakes, have to deal with lots of crap.  A lousy solution.

3)  Enforce politeness via Retro-Moderation.  That is, state in the newsgroup
guidelines (which do exist, BTW; see faq.html on the Critters web page)
that discourtesy simply and absolutely won't be tolerated.  Give a few
people authority to cancel any postings that they feel violate the edict.
I'm sure folks will cry "censorship" and "freedom of speech" but I want
to remind everyone that (a) those words only apply to governments denying
speech; (b) we already tolerate moderated newsgroups and publications whose
content is chosen by editors; and (c) there are gazillions of other
places on the net to be as obnoxious as you want.  On the downside, this
only acts after the fact (though it has some preventive value, folks
knowing their posts may be nuked).  It requires people to do the
work (which they'll be flamed for).  It feels authoritarian; yech.
It quite possibly will lead to those same people getting big heads,
getting power hungry, abusing their power, etc.  Quite a hassle.

4)  Renaming the newsgroup.  (I.e., removing the word "critters" from the name
of the newsgroup, since that's what binds the two together.)  The problems
here are that if the newsgroup is not a critters newsgroup, then there's really
no reason for it; folks could just as easily use any of the other 500ish
sff.net newsgroups.  The point was to have a place to be social, meet
other critters.  You also lose any sort of group identity vis-a-vis
socializing.  It would seem inappropriate to post Critter-specific messages
to such a newsgroup.  Yet if Critters treated it like a Critters-only newsgroup,
others would get pretty ticked at the high and mighty attitude.  If guests
get the feeling that it's just a thinly veiled critters newsgroup, we'll
still suffer from their negative perceptions.  For it to work, there'd
have to be significant non-critter-associated activity.  Yog (Sff.net
news admin) might not want a "general chat newsgroup", prefering folks fan
out into the existing, more specific newsgroups.  So, this is really pretty
much the same as...

5)  Remove the newsgroup.  Sad, but gets the job done.

I'd like to hear what y'all prefer.  My personal preference is tied
between 3 and 4 right now (with 4 leading to something like
"sff.workshop.socializing" or "sff.workshop.bar-n-grill" if Yog is
willing to grant such a thing (the former encouraging better behavior by
it's more 'refined' name, the latter implying that fights are not unlikely);
of course, I wouldn't be opposed to sff.flaming-asses, either, since
it wouldn't have a Critters tie-in, except that the eponymous residents
might be members of Critters).  The reason I'm tied with 3 is that I
feel sort of sad losing a critters-specific newsgroup, because most of
you are really nice folks most of the time, and I secretly wish we could
all Just Get Along.

Alas, time has proven that the current scheme simply isn't working.  I'm going
to make a change.  I'm extremely interested in your feedback, and will
listen to it attentively, but this is one of those cases where I'll exert
my authority as benevolent dictator and make the final decision that's in
the best interests of Critters, the workshop.