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Some Observations on how Fidonet Works
by Kay Shapero (1:102/524)
Ok, this isn't an article about how FIDOnet is supposed to work. It's not an article about how FIDOnet ought to work either. What it is, is an article about how FIDOnet appears to work as observed by yours truly over the last ten or so years.

FIDOnet is an anarchy. Whatever the rules, in practice it is maintained by consensus, and if enough people don't agree, it falls apart like the proverbial shack where the termites held hands. A slime mold makes a good analogy. The slime mold organism is an amoeba which lives in the leaf mold of a forest. Once a year, these amoebae are drawn together by pheromones and form a sheet from which grow in turn sporulating bodies which release spores which become more amoebae. Then they all split up and go their separate ways. Now all amoebae in the group are still independent organisms, so if you take a stick and scatter the slime mold sheet, all that happens is that the individuals split up, then go reform someplace else.

OK, what does this have to do with FIDOnet? For starters, every sysop in the net has or should have a copy of the nodelist of the entirety of FIDOnet. With the exception of a relatively few systems which don't have listed phone numbers, any sysop can theoretically call any other system limited only by the cost of making the phone call, and perhaps some technical problems between their equipment. This is still as true as it ever was, back before Policy 4 or its predecessors. All those nodes, capable of independent communications, held together only by agreement as to how to do so.

But what about Policy 4, you ask? Isn't that a set of laws? And doesn't the *C structure count as a "government"?

No, not quite. It's sort of like the old joke, "This is a non-profit company. We didn't intend it that way, but..." I don't care what the drafters of Policy 4 intended, the fact is it's a description of a structure, enforcement power flimsy at best. Witness the fact that much of it can be superceded these days (internet feeds, out of area feeds) without harm to the structure. Indeed the structure contains things like echo moderators who aren't even mentioned in P4, but who have recognized duties and actions all the same. (Yes "ECROC" forms a policy document of sorts, but note that it's completely voluntary and not universally heeded.) The various *C levels are routing positions. In such a position you can make yourself useful by ensuring the flow of traffic, or make a pain of yourself by blocking it, but other than that there's far less real power in such positions than many a would be holder has imagined. At ANY level - witness recently when the IC tried to pull a node number, and a lot of other sysops offered a replacement to the sysop in question, from another zone no less. Or events in region 10 a few years back. You don't exercise power by fiat in here, because everybody else has the power to ignore you, and if you annoy them enough, they'll do it. The slime mold splits up and reforms elsewhere without the irritant.

The way to exercise power in an anarchy (yes, there is one), is not to try and grab for a position that is not what you think it is. It's done by making people like you, by being helpful, by offering practical advice and all the other things that are what really keep FIDOnet going.