The Rise and Fall of Sysopdom

Published January 01, 1997

Authored by Jonathan Zittrain


Introduction:

"Sysop" has gone from a term of art known only to the bleeding-edge few to a dusty anachronism knownonly to the bleeding-gums few, without the usual years-long general linguistic acceptance and respect inbetween. In case the reader is not among the bleeders: sysops (from "system operators") run electronicareas accessible by typing furiously on one’s networked computer, through which one can meet, talk to(well, at least type at), and develop nuanced social relationships with other people similarly typing andreading. Few know what a sysop is because these electronic areas — aspirationally, and sometimesaccurately, known as "online communities" — have never quite flourished and today are in decline.Indeed, "online community" joins "sysop" in the oversize dustbin of trite or hopelessly esoteric, hencegenerally meaningless, cyberspace vernacular. Not that "online community" is obscure, like "sysop"; rather,the term’s emptiness results from its abuse. "Online community" is used by Internet companies the way amotivational speaker uses "excellence," an academic uses "new paradigm," or a lawyer uses "justice": itrepresents something once craved and still invoked (if only as a linguistic placeholder) even as it is believedby all but the most naïve to be laughably beyond reach. Since it’s applied to almost anything, it now meansvague warm fuzzies and nothing more.

The craft of sysoping and the phenomenon of online community (non-hollowly defined) have gone downtogether even as the Internet has burgeoned, and I want to explain what has happened to sysops as a wayof explaining what has happened to the truly great and transformative promise of online communities. Law has played a major role in two distinct ways. First, sysops and the members of the communities they leadhave struggled through lawlike reflection to arrive at just solutions to the disputes that inevitably arise in thecourse of their interactions. This struggle is a large part of what has made the communities so interesting.Second, fear of the formalistic application of the machinery of the real-world legal system is threatening todrive the amateur sysop to extinction and thereby to destroy what’s left of online community.

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Last updated February 21, 2008

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