From "Segmented economies: harvesting and fence-building in the cooking-pot market" :
Discussion groups attract people interested in a common topic. At any given time, the people participating in a discussion group are there by coincidence - there is rarely any planning or remotely formal organisation of any sort. And each forum is treated as a single resource - for which no single contributor is responsible, it is a disorganised collective. Indeed, mailing-lists and, more often, newsgroups are so firmly ingrained in the minds of Net users as integrated resources that itís a commonplace to say something like "why donít you ask rec.pets.cats?"
This is odd. Although treating groups as if they were collective authors, or collective guides, or collective traders - an open marketplace - does seem to happen all the time, and even makes sense - with consistency of subject matter and diversity in opinions and number these groups are doubly valuable resources - how could they possibly sustain themselves as economic units? Discussion groups must be economic units, as much so as their individuals participants, and the resources such individuals generate outside these forums. But with no formal organisation, how do these loose collectives acquire the benefits - the "payment" - that individuals may receive in the Netís informal economy? How, indeed, do the individual participants share in the "payment" received by the collective? In other words, how does rec.pets.cats benefit from your post on your tom, and how do you get a share of the glory of the newsgroup - its reputation as the source for cat stuff?
Whenever I have a question I want to put to a discussion group, I usually make it a point to first make a few useful posts to it. Then, hopefully after a discussion has started around my contribution, I ask for the information I want - which may be quite unrelated to my post. So, for example, before I asked for information on Paganiniís violin composition on rec.music.classical, I spent a while responding, I hope usefully, to other peopleís comments on musical notation in different parts of the world. I also started a thread of discussion with a mildly controversial note on Bachís violin sonatas. The result of this groundwork was that when I actually asked for information - in a post that had nothing to provide to the participants of the newsgroup - I got several immediate responses. I had become, however briefly, part of the community of the newsgroup - so people were more inclined to read and respond to my posts than if I were a complete stranger.
It is not always that questions from strangers are ignored. The behaviour and degree of openness differ from one newsgroup to another, as they would with communities of people in brickspace. But as a general rule of thumb I find that Internet newsgroups and mailing-lists are more tolerant towards people who are seen to be contributing to community life, as it were. So flippant or irrelevant posts from established participants are often forgiven, and all questions answered. Strangers, however, had better be careful to post articles that are relevant and interesting.
If as a stranger you ask a question of a discussion group, it would help if you made the question unusual, starting a thread of discussion and making your question a contribution after all. Indeed, Net terminology includes a word for the category of people following discussions without participating - lurkers. You are always encouraged to lurk awhile before posting, so that your eventual post adds value to the discussion.
I saw in this behaviour - or unofficial protocol - of the discussion groups on the Net an attempt at harvesting value, and at preventing the dilution or dissipation of value by the on-line equivalent of fence-building. The harvesting - of generating value where at first glance there appears to be none - was in the system of a common, or collective barter marketplace where goods are traded without exchanges, just dumped into the cooking-pot. The fence-building was the other face of the cooking-pot market - an attempt to see that in the marketplace of commons, not too many people consumed without producing. In the half-closed doors and still-low walls of Internet discussion groups I found the beginnings of a new form of the trade guilds of the Renaissance.