Institute for Sociology,
University of Berne, Switzerland
Sooner or later, every community faces problems of maintaining its social structure. This is especially true for text based «online communites» on the Internet. The easy entry and exit options, the lack of formal membership and moderation, and the restriction of interaction to text makes it difficult to establish rules, to sanction unwanted behaviour, and to maintain continuity. As a consequence, a group may split up, or even disappear.
Our case study shows how in 1998, some members of Usenet newsgroups of the Swiss <ch.*>-hierarchy requested the introduction of a technical agent, a «bot», with the special task to ensure a certain «group order». The so-called 'CHancelbot' would be capable to cancel «faulty» messages, i.e. to delete them from the distributed newsgroup servers. Basically a short computer script, the 'CHancelbot' is a very simple agent, with only litte autonomy and no «personality». However, it was argued that it may be a useful tool helping to eliminate «duplicates» and «excessive crosspostings». Yet, as the bot would act for itself, it could make mistakes. After all, a cancelling agent is a «killerbot»! Given that the filtering software could be extended to delete messages containing certain keywords, censuring them thus by its *content*, the CHancelbot raises some important questions: Under what rules should anyone be allowed to *kill* messages of someone else? Should this task better be done by a machine or by human beings? What are the risks of delegating power to a machine?
The discussion about the introduction of the 'CHancelbot' reveals different views on the balance between technical on social means of maintaining social order. The study shows how the meaning and the task of the CHancelbot are negotiated between differentent users. Would the agent really help to solve the social problems of «misuse» of the newsgroups?
KEYWORDS: Internet, Agents, Sociology
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