[OPE-L:913] Closed Lists RFC

Alan Freeman (100042.617@compuserve.com)
Thu, 1 Feb 1996 04:04:59 -0800

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What is an RFC?

This post is designated an 'RFC' (Request For Comment) in the fine old
Internet tradition; it means it contains a proposal, which doesn't require
immediate response, but which over time should ideally be commented on
by all interested persons. Then, eventually, we should look at all the
responses and discuss a course of action. So I'm not looking for any
immediate change; I am suggesting that OPE members file this somewhere
they won't forget it, and sometime in the next month or two see if
they want to express an opinion on it.

Jerry raises [OPE 892 31 Jan] the issue of how (and whether) the discussion
on OPE may be made available to the general public:

"OPE-L is a closed list and the archives are only accessible to
list members. At some point, we need to discuss how we can
release information on list discussions to the public. An
electronic journal or discussion bulletin are possibilities. We
need to discuss our options further."

He also raises the reasonable question as to whether as a closed list
we can make anything available externally at all[OPE 902 31 Jan]

"Alan then goes on to suggest that these materials be made publicly
available as the first "product" of OPE-L. On this last point, no one has
commented and I have my doubts personally about the wisdom of the idea."

I think some delicate questions are involved. One benefit of a closed list
is that it is possible to try out tentative ideas which can later be
retracted in the light of debate, and it may not be legitimate procedure
to publish to a wider audience, material which the original author does
not wish published.

A second more dubious benefit is that it safeguards the list from casual

A third benefit is that it restricts the volume of contributions, though
I think we lost that particular benefit somewhere around October.

I'm sure there are other benefits I haven't thought of.

On the other hand, I feel increasingly uneasy about being a closed group
at all, and I'd like to re-raise this question. I notice also from Jerry's
forwarded posts to Marxism-L that aspects of the lists' form, such as
whether we advertised, were an interim while we worked out our goals.

No longer being on Marxism-L (Ahh, such pleasures foregone...) I didn't catch
the arguments to which these forwarded posts [OPE 797/798 of 17/01/96] referred,
but I have a vivid imagination.

Jerry himself, in these posts, mentions the difficult position which he
is in, and I must say that on balance I feel that, despite the disadvantages,
we should reconsider the options. I am not arguing for simply throwing open
the doors but I think there are a range of intermediates which should be
considered, at leisure.

In particular, I think the present procedure, best described as "invitation
based on consensus", is not the best way to proceed. I think if we are going
to have a closed list then it risks becoming a clique unless the criteria of
membership or invitation are very clearly defined.

I prefer that we do the following (this is the proposal bit)

1) At some point (not now) clarify the aims of OPE and specify them

2) over time (sooner rather than later), clarify a few minimal rules of procedure

2) Make the OPE list, without a big fanfare, available to all who agree
with these aims. This could possibly be preceded by making our
archives available to 'applicants' so they can see the sort of
thing we discuss.

3) Membership should be by application, but we should agree to sign up any
applicant who accepts our aims and procedures. That is, there is no 'vetting'
or 'voting' but we do ask that anyone joining, does so with the intention
of contributing to our collective work.

4) The formal procedure for applying should use the *mechanism* of a closed
list (Jerry signs them up) but the operational guidelines we give to
Jerry should be to admit anyone who agrees to respect our aims. The reason
for this slightly tortuous mechanism is that in this way, our archives
are not open to anyone who is just browsing, so we can control what
is released. Also it discourages the purely casual interloper, without
actually excluding any legitimate participant.

Let me just enumerate some pros and cons

On the con side:

Objection 1: There is a risk that this will open the list to spammers,
list-jocks, neer-do-wells and lowlifes.

Counter-argument 1: I think that if we have well-defined aims and
objectives it is reasonably easy to explain to the unwanted why they are
unwanted (because we're a group of people who have a agreed to do
a definite thing, and if you don't want to do that thing, it's
reasonable to ask you to do your own thing somewhere else)

Counter-argument 2: I think the number of people wanting to involve their
egos in a list on such an esoteric subject as political economy in the
tradition of Marx, is not likely to be enormous; even if we do get the odd
disruptive intervention, it's a safe bet they will soon get bored and go away.

Objection 2: An open list will curtail the freedom to express partially-
formed views

Counter-argument 1: Is anyone really worried about this? Personally, I'm not,
but I would defend 'to the death' the rights of anyone who is.

Counter-argument 2: My suggested procedure accomodates this partially. The
mechanism of a 'closed list to which all applicants are admitted' means
that general web-browsers cannot just 'happen' on our archives and make free
with them, but that anyone with a *genuine* interest can get to see them.
We have to make, I think, certain minimum assumptions of good faith.

Objection 3: If the numbers on OPE increase, the volume of messages will
become unmanageable

Counter-argument: We passed that threshhold way back. Throughout November
and December I found it unmanageable anyway; and I'm only able to participate
now by having consciously set aside time. I'm sure I am not alone. In a
separate post, I suggest the problem is not the number of people, but the
way we conduct ourselves, and suggest some mechanisms for reducing the

On the pro side

We remove the risk that people who have a perfect right to take
part in what we are doing and would likely improve it, are excluded
for arbitrary reasons

We don't appear as (and cease to be) an elite self-selected group.

We are quite likely, over time, to pick up some good people we didn't
meet, and some good ideas we didn't think of.


This isn't a big deal but I have never felt happy with the closed list
idea, and I wanted to make my own views clear as well as hearing others.

I agree with Jerry that that if we have a closed list, it's quite likely
to cause problems if we do publish stuff. The recipients will get quite
hot under the collar, because they will feel (and I for one don't know
how we could answer them) that there is this debate going on which they
were excluded from and maybe didn't even know about, and have a lot to
say about, and why the hell didn't they get the chance to put in
their sixpence worth. And the list members will get hot under the collar
if we are forced to go public on things we never intended to go public
on. But it would be a shame to exclude ever publishing anything; I tend
to think that to cut this particular Gordian knot, the answer is not to
be closed.

A third possibility might be to publish everything so far and *then*
open the list.

Anyone who reads through the quantity of stuff we've produced, and still
wants to join, *deserves* to be let in.


PS I have a programme which puts OPE onto a database with keys for subject,
date, sender, and OPE number. Unfortunately I haven't yet persuaded the
Microsoft so-called wizard to export the programme. Client PCs keep moaning
about OLE automation servers and stuff. But the database itself is a relatively
compact way to archive the list, and I find it much more accessible like
that because it is possible, eg. to read all contributions on a given topic.
You can read it with any database programme more or less. So if anyone wants
it, I can send it as a file attachment(about 500Kb zipped).