The Problem with E-mail Discussion Lists

Interesting piece in the Chronicle of Higher Education on scholarly e-mail lists and the changes they have undergone as academics become more comfortable with technology and as new technologies emerge that enhance collaboration. I used to be an avid e-mail discussion list follower but have trimmed back my own subscriptions to the point where I heavily filter (straight into trash) most of the lists I am on because the content value is so low.

The article at the Chronicle discusses “listservs”, which is actually an Lsoft trademark for which they used to send out little nasty grams when someone used it like “Kleenex” instead of “tissue”.

The article mentions that academic librarians could not be able to function without discussion lists but even the librarian-oriented lists I am on comprise a very small amount of discussion and a very high degree of:

  • interlibrary loan or document delivery requests;
  • updates on popular Web sites when new contents are available;
  • cross posts, always stupidly apologized for, that I see on three or four lists;
  • “did you see” messages with links to recent news or information.

Most of the interesting discussion topics are posted with suggestions that responses be made “off list” or that they will be summarized for the group later, as if having the responses on the list is a problem.  Some interesting queries go unanswered, which is surprising when many of the lists to which I belong have thousands of members.

After reading the Chronicle article, I thought back over recent list activity and realized that it’s a different resource, but it has become to serve the same purpose as my RSS readers.  I don’t access the list any longer for information that requires two-way communication.  I monitor it, like an RSS feed, to ensure I don’t miss an interesting nugget and I use technology tools – Yahoo! Pipes for RSS and Google Mail filters for the discussion lists – to eliminate the dreck, idiot contributors, etc.  The more the list owners adopt Web 2.0 resources – like piping the e-mail discussion into an RSS feed – the harder it will be for the list to maintain a discussion role.  I’d disagree with the article that the discussions are necessarily happening elsewhere.  The difficulty with RSS and blogs is that it can be (a) more difficult to contribute to a non-e-mail-based conversation and (b) focusing on blogs to follow the subsequent comments (which can be done using the comments RSS on most blogs) adds a new low value content resource to monitor.

One list I am on is slightly different and has both the highest number of e-mails each day but also the most interesting topics and discussions.  But I think that has more to do with the environment that these lawyers operate in as much as anything else.  An oft repeated discussion is whether the group (well over 3,000 solo lawyers) should shift to a more Web-based discussion board / bulletin board environment.  The answer is always no, because e-mail is a minimal entry requirement to participate, and the discussions work well in the e-mail environment.

David Whelan

I improve information access and lead information teams. My books on finding information and managing it and practicing law using cloud computing reflect my interest in information management, technology, law practice, and legal research. I've been a library director in Canada and the US, as well as directing the American Bar Association's Legal Technology Resource Center. I speak and write frequently on information, technology, law library, and law practice issues.