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Roger Clarke's 'Virtual Chewing Gum'

Virtual Chewing Gum on Virtual Library Seats?
Human Behaviour in Electronic Communities

Roger Clarke

Principal, Xamax Consultancy Pty Ltd, Canberra

Visiting Fellow, Department of Computer Science, Australian National University

Version of 9 February 1996

© Xamax Consultancy Pty Ltd, 1996

This paper was Invited Keynote Address and the Conference of the Victorian Automated Library Association (VALA), Melbourne, 31 January 1996

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"It's not books you need, it's some of the things that were once in books ... The same infinite detail and awareness could be projected through the radios and televisors, but are not. No, no, it's not books at all you're looking for! Take it where you can find it, in old phonograph records, old motion pictures, and in old friends; look for it in nature and look for it in yourself.

Books were only one type of receptacle where we stored a lot of things we were afraid we might forget. There is nothing magical in them at all. The magic is only in what books say, how they stitched the patches of the universe together into one garment for us" (Bradbury, 1950, p.82-3)


The utopian vision of cyberspace is all very well; but people are people. The Internet has unleashed not only bursts of highly-motivated zeal and valuable creativity, but also behaviour that even the most tolerant among us can find obnoxious.

What implications does this have for the emergent electronic equivalent to the library? What will be the digital analogue to the chewing gum that unpleasant people stick on library seats? What will be the reactions of the people who sit on the virtual chewing gum? And what roles will 'electronic librarians' have in dealing with the problems?


This paper's purpose is to review human behaviour in electronic communities, highlighting aspects of particular relevance to electronic librarians. Freedoms beget abuses; and abuses demand controls. The paper therefore considers the extent to which community-based controls are emerging of their own accord, and the extent to which they are proving effective. Early attempts at external controls are assessed, and the role of librarians in enforcement examined.

Not all that long ago, the Henry Ford production-line mentality ruled the business of publishing books and serials. Functions were specialised, and each enterprise-type in the food-chain was secure. Authors wrote; editors edited; sub-editors garbled articles and wrote smarty-pants headlines; cover-designers failed to read books but designed covers anyway; indexers indexed; printers printed; binders bound; publishers published and controlled distribution channels; bookstores and newsagents sold; librarians catalogued, stored, lent out and protected; archivists archived; critics criticised; and historians waited.

What went wrong to spoil the Gutenberg legacy?? Today and tomorrow, authors write; authors optionally design, edit and index; authors publish; and authors' 'software agents' sell. Meanwhile, the venerable old institutions wander around trying to find themselves enough in the way of roles and monopoly niches to ensure survival of themselves and those who sail in them. Librarians included.

The Functions Of The Electronic Library

So some preliminary questions that this paper have to address are: will there be any virtual library seats which grotty customers may or may not stick virtual chewing gum onto? And will electronic librarianship be performed by people supported by machines, or will genuinely-electronic librarians perform such roles as remain?

Exhibit 1 provides one, entirely personal, analysis of the functions that the electronic library performs, and hence the roles that electronic librarians may play. Note that the term 'electronic library' is intentionally used in the singular; or, more precisely, in the generic, because the term does not admit of a plural: what were once relatively independent community, institution and corporate libraries are now just physical branches of one library.

Exhibit 1: Functions and Roles in the Electronic Library

Electronic Library Function		Electronic Librarian Role
Acquisition				Selector
Cataloguing and Classification	Organiser
Repository				Custodian
Access and Discovery			Helper
Protection				Censor
Facilities Provision			Community Resource
Value-Added Services			Services Provider

Libraries store books and other works. Cheap magnetic, optical and electronic storage and communications mean that storage of materials of all kinds is being undertaken by many institutions and many individuals; so, in the digital era, the librarian's acquisition and repository role will be of greatly decreased importance.

Access and discovery aspects include the environment for user-performed access and discovery (the analogue to open-access card-catalogues, and walking to the shelves yourself), and professionally-assisted access and discovery (the analogue to reader services, inter-library loan, and commissioned search-and-delivery). These roles are likely to become even more important in the future, but recent developments on the world-wide web have made clear that they are capable of considerable automation, provided there is a fallback 'reader services' function.

The protection function cuts across several of the others, because it involves selection for entry into collections, classification, and filtering of materials provided in response to requests. The recent spate of concerns about 'pornography in kiddies' bedrooms' has resulted in a number of protective schemes to provide safe electronic areas in which parents and teachers can let children loose.

The facilities necessary to access the electronic library include workstations, network connections, downstream bandwidth, printers and copiers. They extend beyond hardware to include messaging and mail-boxes, bulletin-boards, and chat and conferencing tools. The public will not accept the role of force-fed-consumer all of the time. This implies that the information infrastructure must have 'relative bandwidth symmetry', so that it does not degenerate into another one-way broadcast medium. To enable people to publish as well as be published at, the facilities available in the local physical branch of the electronic library must extend to upstream bandwidth, scanners and graphic design tools.

At the portal of the 21st century, libraries are community centres supporting tele-working and other forms of participation, not just information extraction and book-based entertainment. As adjuncts to these functions, opportunities exist for the provision of services such as data search, data analysis, report preparation, publishing, advice and support.

The Chewing Gum

This paper takes for granted that:

All of those propositions are worthy of discussion (see, for example, my own ruminations on some of them); but they are not the topic of this paper.

My concern in this paper is with some particular downsides of the net. I've dealt with dysfunctional aspects of human behaviour on the net in two earlier papers. The first was on 'Netethiquette', for the University of Southern Queensland in early 1995, and resulted in a set of mini-cases. I've revised the cases and the classification scheme used in that paper, and present it below in Table 1. The other paper was on 'Rights in Cyberspace', and was presented in late 1995 to the Victorian Council for Civil Liberties.

Exhibit 2: Dysfunctional Behaviour in Cyberspace

Accidental Dysfunctionality

Socially Aggressive Dysfunctionality

Economically Aggressive Dysfunctionality

Avoidance Dysfunctionality

Compound Cases

These various forms of dysfunctional behaviour are of varying relevance to the electronic library. The following sub-sections consider each of these kinds of behaviour, the risks that they present to the functioning of the library, and the kinds of control mechanisms that are likely to be of use. The primary focus is on database services, rather than on communication services.

Accidental Dysfunctionality

Among these risks, the primary ones that need to be addressed appear to be information overload, rumour and misinformation, and negligent defamation. Information overload can be addressed through the provision of pre-set 'filters' and 'views' of databases; of a range of search tools to suit the varying capacities of the services' users; of educational and training materials; of accessible reference documentation; and of personal support.

Rumour, misinformation and defamation have hitherto been kept under some degree of control through the imposition of standards as part of the publishing process. The impending disappearance of traditional publishing houses removes that control. There is an apparent commercial need for materials to be checked for defamatory statements, because of the possibility that US-style litigiousness may extend to other countries, e.g. through that country claiming jurisdiction over servers outside its territory but reaching into it via the Internet. Its incursions into Panamanian, Italian and Colombian territory are recent precedents.

Addressing these kinds of risks requires the filtering of materials going into databases, and hence overlaps with the protection and value-added service functions. Are librarians in the process of being forced into a greater degree of responsibility for content?

But perhaps the most significant form of accident arises from search engines, which spend their days and our nights trawling the publicly accessible areas of the net and building concordances. Every petty exchange in a semi-public/semi-closed archived emailing list will be capable of being re-surfaced, consolidated, reconciled and re-analysed. In future, aspiring politicians will find their collected adolescent inanities played back to them during their election campaigns. More problematically, everyone who takes a public position on any issue is in continual danger of information-based character assassination.

Aggressive Dysfunctionality

The party gets rougher. There is some degree of justice in using a person's own words against themselves; but what of invented quotations and falsely attributed defamatory statements? What of materials which seriously infringe the laws of a jurisdiction or the norms of a culture? What of incitements to violence against minorities, whether they are based on religion or ethnic origins; or targeted against a profession; or against people suffering from a particular medical condition, people holding a particular political or moral view, or just people with an education?

These bring the question for responsibility for content much more strongly into focus. In tha past, libraries and librarians have seldom been taken to task for carrying 'Mein Kampf', or (since the era of book censorship) 'The Kama Sutra', 'Lady Chatterley's Lover' or 'Capricorn'. Yet Senator Exon of the U.S. Senate intends precisely that, by seeking to deem automatically responsible for content those people and institutions which provide disk-space (the analogue of shelf-space), and fail to prevent that space being populated by, among many other things, offensive materials.

Of course, if the electronic library extends to the provision of communications services (e.g. email, newsgroups, chat and video-conferencing), it is open to the full gamut of dysfunctional behaviour identified in my collection of mini-cases.

Avoidance Dysfunctionality

Avoidance involves disguising one's tracks. Anonymous and pseudonymous documents are entirely acceptable to everyone if their authorship is lost in the mists of time; and genuine whistleblowers are widely regarded as deserving of protection. But difficulties arise with contemporary political and even cultural treatises (or even literary works, judging by the hysterical reactions by some people to the Demidenko/Darville matter).

In the new context, should authorship be authenticated? If so, should author-authentication apply to all works, ranging from books and articles down to newsgroup chatter and graffiti? And if so, who should bear that responsibility, and run the register of nom de plume? Could it be up to librarians to fulfil this role?

Intrinsic Controls

The preceding discussion about the kinds of chewing gum that can arise in the electronic community necessarily involved examples of control mechanisms. The purpose of this section is to summarise some general points about controls.

Broadly speaking, three levels of controls can be thought of as being intrinsic to the process of the electronic library.

Personal Self-Discipline on the Part of Library Users

This is conscience-driven, and depends on the extent to which people have been 'civilised', or educated in an appreciation of the benefits of mutuality and 'getting along with the virtual neighbours'.

User Community Self-Regulation

The atmosphere and ethos of electronic communities may not replicate precisely the same kinds of restraints that physical communities contain, but some convert reasonably well, and many new forms have emerged.

From the viewpoint of libraries, the community no longer comprises people who see one another, and hence the morality is likely to be attenuated. Indeed, electronic library users don't even see much of one another's data-trails, as they do in emailing lists and newsgroups, where 'episodes' and 'threads' give rise to a kind of cultural integrity.

This suggests that there is a case for embedding in the way people use electronic libraries some form of coherence, or longevity, or nucleus, such that they 'identify' with other users and the institution.

The Fear of Retribution

The carrot of community always needs to be balanced by the dark Old Testament hand. This implies the need for users to sense the risk of cancellation or suspension of privileges, or of fines, or of prosecution, or, worse still, of the opprobrium of one's peers.

There are real qualifications on the ability of existing libraries to apply such sanctions, and even greater doubts in the electronic context. On the other hand, the most significant element is the calling up of devils in the minds of the relatively honest majority of users; and hence the crux is the credibility of the implied threat, rather than the actual ability to apply the stick.

Lurkers on the net experience a great deal of community behaviour which is targeted at control over unreasonable behaviour. People write FAQs, send calming emails to friends who are upset, use ccs. and bccs. to convey signals, and include emoticons to ease the tension they sense their messages will generate. My tentative conclusion from this review of natural or intrinsic controls is that a great deal of what is needed in the electronic library can probably be achieved through the establishment of appropriate architectures and processes, and delicate but credible threats.

Extrinsic, Regulatory Measures

Beyond natural controls, intrinsic to the social system of which libraries form of a part, are extrinsic, imposed, regulatory mechanisms.

Law and order is difficult to achieve on the electronic frontier. The information infrastructures of today and tomorrow are global, and not confined to a single jurisdiction. Mainstream advertisements for personal services in urban California are pornography in Tennessee. Free speech in many western countries would be likely to result in the loss of freedom of movement in a substantial number of countries. Restrictive governments are associated with many different cultural, religious and political perspectives. Iran and Myanmar, Singapore and the PRC, and Libya and Israel are each very different, yet evidence similar suspicions, even paranoia, about the Internet.

Even when, in the near future, the non-viability of the nation-state becomes conventional wisdom, governments and servants of governments will have a vested interest in resisting the idea. So how will governments implement their programs of control over inappropriate behaviour?

The fundamental approach will be to target the funnel-point, the telecommunications carrier, resulting in a reversal of the current fashion of de-regulation of telecommunications services. To complement that, they will bring pressure to bear on intermediate-level services providers, as Germany did a few weeks ago on Compuserve, and Senator Exon in the United States has sought to do [and has succeeded in doing - the provisions were incorporated into the Telecommunications Bill 1995, signed into law by Clinton on 8 February]. Finally, they will try to encourage, cajole and embarrass the myriad value-added services providers into establishing and complying with standards of behaviour and performance, as the relevant agencies in Australia are doing right now. For a compendium of contemporary references, see my pages at

Many governments are responding to the challenges of regulating the unregulatable in remarkably non-comprehending and ham-fisted manner. Ray Bradbury may live long enough to issue a revised edition of his most important book. Unfortunately the diversity of contemporary storage-media is so great that finding an appropriate-sounding temperature at which magnetic tape, diskettes, hard disks, optical disks and solid-state devices will all burn could be a little challenging.

There has always been a risk that librarians could be drawn into the maelstrom of public surveillance and social control, at least through the database of users' borrowing records. (In the United States, the personal data records which are subject to the most direct, and perhaps the greatest degree, of privacy protection, are video hiring records). In the brave new world of electronic libraries, whatever roles human librarians may have, they will have a great deal to do with content. Hence librarians will be highly visible to law enforcement agencies and to those members of the public who are most concerned about community standards.


The model of librarianship that I presented at the beginning of this paper was not based on an observation of what contemporary librarians do; it was simply my interpretation of needs and opportunities in the electronic library.

Librarians did pretty well with books. But as Bradbury mused as early as 1950, the conventional notion of a book is in its declining years. Do librarians index structured data, sound, image and video as successfully as they index books? Do they provide content-based indexing of articles within serials? Have they established archival storage for fast-changing electronic documents? Have they been significant contributers to electronic indexing tools like Netsearch, Lycos, Alta Vista and Deja News? Have they constructed value-added community-service pages, as Yahoo and similar services have done? Have they provided filtering tools for their clients, and protected spaces for their young clients?

If the librarian's selection, custodianship and helper roles are in decline, what are they going to be replaced with? Umberto Eco provided us with a vision of librarian as defensive, jealous, even vicious, protector of information:

"[What are] the reasons for the silence and the darkness that surround the library? It is the preserve of learning, but can maintain this learning unsullied only if it prevents its reaching anyone at all ...

Is a library, then, an instrument not for distributing the truth but for delaying its appearance?" (Eco, 1980, pp.185, 286)

One conclusion of my argument is that Eco's vision was not just art, and nor was it just an historical perspective: Librarians will be policemen. You will devise, implement and enforce 'acceptable use' policies; you will put signs up alongside equipment abjuring against inappropriate use of the facilities; you will demand evidence of identity for an increasing proportion of the services you provide; and you will be approached by law enforcement agencies for access to personal data in your possession, and in particular your clients' interest profiles.

Singapore is attempting to ban virtual chewing gum in the same way it (fairly successfully) drew the line at its physical equivalent. The purple Labour-Liberal coalition of 2003 may well have similar policies. To avoid being a key vehicle for the implementation of such policies, you, the electronic librarian, will need to take maximum advantage of softer, more natural control mechanisms.

The VALA Conference Programme in 1996 contains a commendable range and quality of papers concerning the technicalities of digital libraries. But a serial crawl of the printed Proceedings located only two references to my topic: Galante et al. on p.205 relating to pornographic materials and acceptable use policies; and Coleman & Osborne on pp.271-4, relating to the Ipswich City Council library's experiences as a leading-edge provider of net facilities.

To avoid the Electronic Dream becoming the Virtual Nightmare, for us all, your Conferences need to spend a great deal more time examining the psyche of your users, and stimulating intrinsic control mechanisms rooted in electronic communities.


Bradbury R. 'Fahrenheit 451', Ballantine, 1950, 1979

Eco U. , 'The Name of the Rose', Picador, 1980, 1983

Jones B., 'Sleepers, Wake! Technology and the Future of Work' Oxford U.P., 1st Ed. 1982, 2nd Ed. 1995

See also:

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Created: 26 January 1996 - Last Amended: 9 February 1996 by Roger Clarke - Site Last Verified: 15 February 2009
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