February 1997

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(How) Can Software Agents Become Good Net Citizens?

by Sabine Helmers, Ute Hoffmann, and Jillian Stamos-Kaschke

In virtual worlds, human-generated information transactions are not unique. Also residing in these worlds are actors known as "^software agents," such as "^bots," "^news agents," and "^spiders." These actors can communicate with both humans and machines even though they are not made of flesh and bone ^(1). These programs-turned-actors carry out certain jobs, such as searching the WWW arranging meetings or compiling music recommendations, more or less anonymously and act on behalf of a single user or an organization. Because of their communicative role, and because they reside on the Internet, they too can be considered "Netizens" for the following reasons:

  • A perfunctory aspect of "Netizenship" is that communication occurs online. Because online communication relies on the transaction of data, it is possible for non-human agents to send and receive messages just as humans do. Human and non-human users share the same habitat. As the famous New Yorker cartoon states, "On the Internet, no one knows you are a dog." Such anonymity is possible because transactions in virtual space are transactions of data that leave the physical, "real," bodies of people as they type on their keyboards. As the information transfers to the Internet, it enters a virtual space where physical appearance and corporeal facts such as age or skin color become irrelevant. Hence, you are what you type.

  • Software agents are both autonomous and social net agents just as human users. They are autonomous, in that they often make decisions without prompting from their creators. They are social net agents in that they can react to their environment and communicate with both human and non-humans.

  • Non-human agents can facilitate and enhance the growth of the online community or "electronic commons," which according to [] Hauben is what distinguishes a true Netizen from a non-Netizen. Consider those bots who serve the MUD community. They can help human users finding their way around the MUD ^(2), having the topology of the MUD universe--which can very easily grow to encompass over several hundred rooms--in their "heads".

Because of the actors' electronic nature, ^they face different issues in adhering to Netizen-like behavior in accordance with the traditional rules of Netiquette of the "Ye Olde Internet Inn." Nonetheless there are several basic rules that apply:

  1. Never disturb the flow of information!

  2. Help yourself--this is an expression of decentralized organization.

  3. Every user has the right to say anything and to ignore anything.

These principles provide a valuable framework for searching for ways of dealing with some of the more mundane issues and concerns about agent behavior. But even so, these behavioral rules must interface with technical issues that may hinder these actors ability to effectively perform their duties. Consider that the more tasks delegated to agents, --the greater the risk of useful helpers becoming unpleasant pests as they try to perform these tasks. The supposedly helpful servants can severely impair general network traffic when there is too much data exchanged, as is the case with programs that reproduce in a virus-like manner. Thus, these agents can inadvertently become a nuisance to other users.

The shared life and work of human and non-human actors in the world of networks has opened up a new policy domain in cyberspace. It remains to be seen whether or not the Internet community will be able to devise self-generated, sustainable solutions to the problems stemming from malbehaved agents, agent misuse and abuse.

Notes / Definitions

Sabine Helmers ( is a cultural anthropologist at the Social Science Research Center Berlin. Her current field of study is the Internet and Unix techno-culture.

Ute Hoffmann ( is a sociologist at the Social Science Research Center Berlin. She became involved in the social study of technology through her dissertation on gender and computing. She is currently researching the evolution of Usenet administration and technology.

Jillian Stamos-Kaschke ( is a student of modern languages at the Free University of Berlin and works as an academic assistant at the Social Science Research Center. She is planning an M.A. thesis on the subject of the correlation between software agents and human language.

Sabine, Ute and Jillian are members of the Projektgruppe Kulturraum Internet.

Copyright © 1997 by Sabine Helmers, Ute Hoffmann, and Jillian Stamos-Kaschke. All Rights Reserved.

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