Chat Systems
  Non-Real Time

Case Study

Non-Real Time: Electronic Mail, Mailing Lists, and Newsgroups

Electronic mail, mailing lists, and newsgroups are examples of non-real-time electronic communication. People send off messages and receive responses a while later.

Electronic mail is analogous to paper mail, with much faster delivery times (seconds to minutes, rarely hours). The earliest form of electronic interpersonal communication, electronic mail was adapted to ARPANET by Ray Tomlinson of BBN in 1972. MIT researcher Lawrence Roberts wrote the first "modern" e-mail client, capable of listing, filing, forwarding, etc. shortly thereafter. [1] In less than a year e-mail composed 75% of ARPANET traffic.

Mailing lists, analogous to mailed newsletters, followed shortly after e-mail. The first mailing list, MSGGROUP, began in 1975 as a moderated list--messages were mailed to a moderator, who selectively remailed them to the list members--though it would later become automated. The most popular early list was SF-LOVERS, a science fiction list founded in 1979. [1] [2]

Newsgroups are most closely analogous to public bulletin boards or whiteboards in college dormitories. People "post" a message on the newsgroup and other people can respond at a later time. Newsgroups appeared in 1979 as USENET, a network established by Tom Truscott, Jim Ellis, and Steve Bellovin using the new UUCP protocol between UNC and Duke. [2]


E-mail messages originate from client programs on people's computers. When someone sends an e-mail, their client transmits the message to the local mail server. From there, the message is directed from machine to machine, eventually landing on the recipient's local mail server. The recipient will receive the message the next time he/she checks e-mail.

Currently there is no widespread "governance" applied to e-mail. Users can choose what they wish to read, and can even set up automatic filters to block unwanted messages based on any criteria.

Because electronic mail must pass through several computers on the way to its destination, it is possible for software to be installed on the mail server to monitor and filter messages passing through it. Indeed, some companies monitor employee e-mails. However, any individual unhappy with regulation on a given mail server can obtain an Internet connection and set up their own mail server.

Mailing Lists

A mailing list is a list of e-mail addresses. When someone "posts" a message to a mailing list, that message is sent to all of the "subscribed" e-mail addresses. There are two kinds of mailing lists: unmoderated lists, in which all messages are instantly and automatically sent to the list, and moderated lists, in which all messages must be approved by the moderator before being sent to the list.

BITNET is an entire network based on mailing lists. Automated programs called listservs provide both unmoderated and moderated mailing lists. It is governed by an Acceptable Use Policy put forth by the Corporation for Research and Educational Networking (CREN). Though the Internet and USENET have been growing explosively, BITNET's size has been relatively stable since 1990. [3]

Mailing list technology offers many more opportunities for governance than does electronic mail. List owners and moderators are especially powerful. Owners can change the list, block messages from certain individuals, and even disband the list. Moderators have sole right to post to moderated lists, and thus determine what messages get distributed.


Newsgroups are similar to mailing lists. Like mailing lists, newsgroups can be moderated or unmoderated. However, a newsgroup post is more like a sign on a bulletin board than a letter. Newsgroup posts don't land in people's e-mail inboxes; rather, people read what they want to read at any given moment. Uncluttered inboxes are considered a major advantage of newsgroups.

Which newsgroups are carried by a server is determined by the administrator of that server. In the early days a few servers with fast connections constituted the backbone of the USENET network: most messages passed through them because they had the biggest pipelines. The administrators of those servers became known as "the Backbone Cabal." They were the rulers of USENET at the time, for they controlled the main conduit for message transportation.

In more recent years USENET has shifted to a more anarchic system of government, largely because of changes in technology. The NNTP protocol allowed USENET traffic to travel over the Internet, thus bypassing the backbone servers completely. As NNTP became more popular and user unrest over the tyranny of the Cabal increased, the Backbone Cabal abdicated and relative anarchy took over. [4]

The current system of creating newsgroups involves proposing a group to an impartial body of voters. Once a group has been created, it essentially cannot be destroyed. People might stop posting to it, but the name will still be there. Unmoderated groups cannot be regulated; anyone with access to a server can read or post to any unmoderated group. "Flame wars" in which users exchange "flames," or heated posts/e-mails that eventually resort to personal attacks completely unrelated to the initial argument, abound. In a sense these flame wars are a form of vigilante justice; if a user does something terrible, they are mercilessly flamed, both over USENET and over e-mail.