[17/2/05: This document has been changed so that all references to "listserv" have been replaced with generic terms such as "electronic mailing list", "email lists" and "electronic discussion list." At the time that I wrote this post, I didn't know that LISTSERV(R) is a registered trademark owned by L-Soft]
I am the first to admit that electronic mailing lists can be very annoying sometimes. There are the inevitable out of office replies. There can be threads as well as people are who are just annoying, and the unsettling possibility that a flame war is waiting around the corner.
With these defects, as well as a few more which I’ll mention, why do I think that email lists still have a valuable place in today’s internet, dominated as it is by much cooler technologies, such as blogs, feeds and increasingly, tags [link to Salon article, viewable by subscribers or (free) day pass holders]?
Don’t even bother with the digested version – the magic of an email list is that approximates an actual conversation that is happening right now. Digests, although they might convey the information, don’t capture this magic. That’s why they are usually so boring and stale to read.
The purpose of digested email lists was to prevent the evil of your inbox being flooded when there's been a busy day (or technical problems), smothering all of your other more important emails. Fortunately, it is now a lot easier to train your email programs to put discussion list emails in a special folder, away from your regular inbox. Alternatively, if you use Google’s Gmail or something similar, the back and forth is automatically threaded under the parent email. This automatic threading cannot take into those instances when somebody decides to continue the conversation by starting a new thread, instead of just replying. But hopefully one of these methods will make it easier to manage being on a electronic discussion list so that it isn’t so annoying.
You may ask, why bother, doing all this work to reduce the annoyance – when it’s so easy to subscribe to blogs in an aggregator, a method which leaves totally in control of the people you’re reading.
And before I continue, I want to make it clear that it is not my purpose to denigrate blogs by saying a few tiny positive things about email lists. This isn’t a zero sum game and there is more than enough room for both types of discourse.
Electronic discussion lists can offer more of a sense of community. It is more of a shared experience. Although there are now ways that bloggers can share which feeds they read, it would be very rare, virtually impossible for any two people to read the exact same feeds. And this is a great thing and I wouldn’t have it any other way. That’s why it’s a good choice to pay attention to both blogs and the odd email list.
One of the most annoying as well as the most valuable things about electronic discussion lists is that it’s not very easy to unsubscribe from hearing a particular person’s views. It is less flexible, and sometimes involves listening to people or opinions that you find disagreeable. Within reason, this can be a good thing, because it can lead to a greater diversity of views.
There is a magic in spontaneous conversation and how it can shift in unforeseeable ways. In my opinion, this is more prevalent in email lists. Of course, such spontaneous conversation isn’t always a good thing. It is very easy for a electronic mailing list conversation to take a distinct turn for the worse. But sometimes these unexpected shifts can be amazing.
There’s no reason why blogs can’t be a totally spontaneous stream of consciousness, but even that isn’t the same as spontaneous dialogue. Dialogue can happen in the blogosphere – in comments (but that’s not quite the same, as it isn’t a neutral venue – the home blogger will always get the last word, if he or she chooses to) or between blogs, but this is usually a more considered matter, with less back and forth.
For me personally, I feel more comfortable expressing myself in my blog than electronic discussion lists where I am more shy and tend to lurk. This doesn’t really make sense, because I have a bigger audience in the blog and the search engines notice the words a lot more quickly than they would for a digested email list. In the blog, it is all about me and what I want to say and I have total control. In electronic mailing lists it is not all about me. It is about the group and the conversation at hand, and people are quicker to disagree or complain that a posting is off-topic. That said, if email lists take me out of my comfort zone, maybe that isn’t so bad sometimes.
Another thing is that if we proclaim that electronic discussion lists are dead and that everybody should use an aggregator and just start their own blog, is that really a better outcome for the world? Yes, it is very easy to start up a blog these days, but it’s still the same challenge to maintain one and keep it fresh and interesting while having fun. We are raising the bar too high if that’s the minimum qualification to participate in today’s electronic discourse. The person who occasionally adds a couple of gems in an email list shouldn't need to start her/his own blog to be able to continue to participate in these conversations.
I know there are blog comments, but that is currently an unequal and substandard way of participation, where the ability of the genuine commentor to be read is subject to the whim of the blogger, the producers of the blogging software and even the comment spammers.
I hope that electronic mailing lists in some form or another, will be able to persist because of this useful function that they have. There are precedents of older superseded technologies, such as radio, which survive because they have a niche where they can’t really be replaced.