The End of H-Net?

Do you get too much email?

Obviously, this is a facetious question, because all of us get too much email. More and more people have become so overwhelmed by the amount of email in their inboxes that they are declaring “email bankruptcy.” And, as I’ve written previously, for a younger generation of students (who before very long will be our colleagues), email is just a convenient way to get in touch with old people.

So what does this mean for H-Net, that now venerable consortium of email lists run by the folks at MATRIX?

Back in the late 1990s H-Net was the coolest way for academics, teachers, and others with an interest in the humanities and social sciences to connect, discuss, and even engage in some serious scholarship online. Of course, in the late 1990s, email was still the killer app of the Internet and we still hadn’t experienced non-stop spamming, nor could we imagine the rapid growth of blogs as a means of communication and community building. And we certainly didn’t know how social networking would take off.

Back in the day I was an editor for one of the ur-lists (HABSBURG) that actually predated the creation of H-Net–hence the lack of the H- prefix in the community’s name. For those of us working in Austrian, Habsburg, or East European studies, HABSBURG was the cutting edge for several years. Discussions of major issues in our research, of new books, and especially of the connections between our scholarship and current events were staples of the email that came across the list into our inboxes. Some of the most important scholars in the field regularly contributed to these discussions, so HABSBURG also provided younger scholars with an easy way to engage their senior peers.

In the past several years, however, the various lists I’ve been a member of have become quieter and quieter–and one, H-MMedia, died a quiet death on January 12, 2005. Not only has the volume of email I’ve been receiving gone down, but the quality of the material in those messages has declined to the point where I almost never request a posting from the H-Net servers any more (I have all my lists set to “digest” so that I only get a summary of the list’s traffic each week). The vast majority of the postings seem to be conference announcements, requests for papers, or cross-postings from other lists. Definitely not the cutting edge of scholarship these lists used to offer.

So I wondered–what was happening with the traffic on the various H-Net lists? These data are not available on their website, or if they are they are so deeply buried that I couldn’t find them. Without published statistics, I had to resort to gathering some data the old fashioned way–I counted the messages myself. Of course I couldn’t possibly count all the messages on the 100 or so H-Net networks, so I chose four networks that in years past have been known for being excellent networks and for having high, or at least reasonably high, traffic: H-World, H-High-S, H-Africa, and H-South. I compared the traffic on these four lists for the months of March, April, and May in 2005, 2006, and 2007. I picked these months because I wanted fairly recent data, but did not want to include the summer months when traffic would certainly be much lower.

The picture isn’t pretty.

Between 2005 and 2007 three of the four lists saw a decline in their average monthly traffic and one–H-South–was flat for the three month snapshots I looked at. The specifics are:

  • H-High-S — 77% drop in traffic
  • H-Africa — 19% drop in traffic
  • H-World — 10% drop in traffic
  • H-South — no change in traffic

These are just raw numbers and don’t reflect any analysis of the quality of that traffic, i.e., the ratio of informational postings (conference announcements, etc.) versus substantive postings (book reviews, discussions of issues in the field). To be sure, all four lists I examined had a number of substantive discussions during the three month periods I looked at and all four posted a number of reviews of new scholarship, digital resources, films, etc. I’ll leave it to the members of these lists to say whether the substantive content of their lists has improved or declined over time.

But the objective measure of traffic–at least in this small snapshot–seems to indicate that H-Net has ridden the email horse a little too long. Given the rapid growth in history blogs as a way for those in our discipline to communicate with one another, I suspect that more an more scholars and teachers are turning away from email and to the newer forms of scholarly communication.

If H-Net is going to survive into a second decade, I would urge its leadership to give up on email and move on. Digital communities in the Web 2.0 world just aren’t created in email any more.

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25 Responses to The End of H-Net?

  1. Paula Petrik says:

    Actually, H-MMedia was euthanazed way before 2005. It was not getting traffic, and any new media discussion was taking place on ED-TECH. The ED-TECH discussions were, moreover, on the order of tech support and not what the moderators at H-MMedia had envisioned. So, it seemed that H-MMedia had outlived its usefulness, and its board and moderators pulled the plug.

    That said, I’m not sure that email lists have gone the way of the dinosaur. Design and CSS lists remain heavily used, so I’m thinking that there might be some other explanation for the decrease on H-NET–other than history blogs. I’m constantly amazed that more historians are not tuned into blogs and must keep reminding myself that not everyone is as dialed in as some universities are.

  2. Just to add a bit to your observations about H-Net, the H-Atlantic and H-Slavery lists both have very high traffic. I’ve been part of H-Slavery for two years, and H-Atlantic for one year, and both have seemed to remain steady. I certainly agree though, that the web 2.0 phenomenon will eventually mean the end to H-Net. I’m wondering, though, what you think will replace H-Net; perhaps wikis?

  3. Erik Hetzner says:

    Mailing lists (henceforth m.l.s – I’m feeling a bit lazy) are still the primary way in which, for example, free software developers communicate & make decisions. If m.l.s is dying as a medium for announcements & news, that is probably inevitable. If m.l.s are truly dying as a method of communication, that would be extremely unfortunate. Here are some of the advantages which m.l.s have over weblogs:

    * m.l.s have a very low barrier of entry which allows even those of us who are so behind the times that we don’t have a weblog to participate. Anybody with an email account (almost everybody I know, for instance) can participate.

    * m.l.s are very easy to archive, so discussions are not lost. weblogs are much more difficult to archive, esp. as threads of communication that pass back & forth.

    * m.l.s maintain all threads of a conversation in one place, instead of hosted on multiple weblogs, with comments spread all among them.

    * m.l.s can be read & written to in a wide variety of software which is open to users across the world, on many devices, with different levels of access. (m.l.s can be read more easily on my phone, for instance)

    * conversations on mailing lists can move at a much faster pace than
    ones on weblogs.

    It is true that longer & more thoughtful essays tend to get lost in the noise on a mailing list, so perhaps these longer messages belong elsewhere. And for those who wish to keep their writings all in one place, and who might want others to notice their writings for various reasons, a weblog is no doubt helpful. But as a means for relatively informal discussions among geographically disparate groups, I don’t think m.l.s have a peer.

    As for the H-* lists, I know that some I subscribe to (I’m thinking of H-LABOR) are moderated by presumably quite busy people, and the messages arrive in little bursts once or twice a week, which is not very conducive to having a conversation (nor is digest mode, by the way).

    In short, yes, people are trying out other methods of communication, but I suspect that m.l.s are here for the very long term.

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  5. I don’t think blogs — single or group — replace large-community listservs at all. The open forum nature of the listserv (and, by the way, I subscribe to four H-net lists, and two other lists, and get all of them in digest form, which greatly reduces the email congestion issue) makes it more accessible. As I mentioned over at Cliopatria, some of the questions and discussions which happen on the listservs would be much more muted and tentative in a more fully public forum.

  6. Let’s break this down into two parts. First, there is the issue of delivery to the collection point, such as a list server or a blogsite. Second, there is the issue of distribution from the collection point.

    On the delivery side, it is straightforward enough to wire up a blog so that it accepts comments in the form of e-mails. You just create a unique e-mail address for each comment point, eg.

    comment.thread_number.comment_number at comments.blogname….

    and insert “mailto” tags at appropriate places. The “comments” hostname routes the e-mail to a server which does not necessarily operate on the same rules as the regular e-mail server. You can generate e-mails back to the senders for validation purposes, or route the e-mails to a moderator, etc., before converting them into blog comments. Contrariwise, a listserv can perfectly well accept comments from a blog-style comment page, whose URL is contained in e-mails. Whatever you like.

    On the distribution side, a website can perfectly well have passwords and log-ons in order to read content, if those are considered desirable. You can use “cookies,” or you can use “salts” the way Amazon does. You can use RSS. You can make distribution as public or private as you want, and you can even prepare two or more different levels, based on whether or not particular posts have been cleared. The basic and fundamental difference between a website and a listserv is that, when viewing contents, contact with a website is initiated from the client side, whereas contact with a listserv is initiated from the server side. This means that a firewall can easily tell the difference between a website and spam, whereas a firewall cannot always tell the difference between a listserv and spam.

    (Parenthetically, if you have your own website, with your own domain name, at one of the commercial hosting companies, they usually allow you to have an indefinite number of e-mail addresses (say, 1000) at your domain. You can set up a dedicated address for each mailing list or whatever, and set up your mail client to collect all messages sent to that address into a separate folder or group of folders).

    If you are looking at HNN as a standard of reference for blogs, bear in mind that Rick Shenkman made a _policy decision_, to let the trolls talk themselves to a standstill. This happened to be a wise decision for the time and place and context, but it is not necessarily universally applicable. Don’t confuse his particular policy choices with the inherent properties of the technology. I might add that Kevin Drum (CalPundit and more recently, Washington Monthly) runs an even looser ship, allowing the “Chinese spam-bot” to make regular appearances.

  7. Greg Downey says:

    As a longtime user of H-Net, former “web editor” of H-Sci-Med-Tech, and current temporary member of the H-Net Council, I want to assure your readers that the “Web 2.0 question” is a frequent topic of discussion and debate at all levels of H-Net. My sense is that so far, different list editors and even individual list members have taken different steps to extend their mailing lists into web sites, blogs, wikis, and the like. Speaking for myself, I’d like H-Net to be able to better encourage, support and promote such experiments without throwing out many years of listserv investment, experience, and trust. For now, I’m excited that your post has spawned renewed discussion of this both internally at H-Net and also around the web (such as at HNN). I invite you and your readers to check in with this year’s Social Science History Association (SSHA) annual meeting, where it looks like H-Net will be organizing at least one panel on just this topic of discussion. (The meeting will be in Chicago during the week of November 12; look up the SSHA web site for specific program details.)

  8. Your colleague Paula brought your post to my attention and it reflects many of the internal conversations we’ve been having at H-Net for the last several years. Additional factors as you are probably aware are money, time, and labor to enact these types of changes.

    Your post supports the idea that we need to discuss new technologies and which ones best fit our needs in the humanities versus letting the technology determine the comment.

    Thanks for taking the time to make this observation – we want more discussion on what H-Net can do for everyone interested in the digital humanities and social sciences.

  9. mechthild says:

    Information about “conference announcements, requests for papers, or cross-postings from other lists” are precisely WHY I subscribe to listserv/mailinglists — saves me from having to hunt the data down by going to a plethora of websites.

  10. JH in Northern Virginia says:

    I subscribe to about half a dozen H-Net lists (the curse of being an interdisciplinary scholar).

    Yes, there is way too much mail. But I can always ignore and delete messages once I’ve decided the topic isn’t worth my time.

    Meanwhile, I probably read the comments of a couple of score of historians every week, and on topics that I know (from the subject lines) are likely to interest me, and from a single source: my email in-box.

    What’s not to love? And why on Earth would I exchange that for trying to keep up with all the Web sites of all the Web-fluent historians whose commentary might interest me, instead?

    I just don’t see the logic here.

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  14. Larry Cebula says:

    This topic is also being discussed at the AHA blog–among other places.

    I am a huge fan of H-Net, it has kept me in the game after I took a 4/4 teaching job at a school with no support for research. But I think we all have to admit that H-Net has never been what we hoped, a sort of senior seminar and coffee shop where great scholars exchange big thoughts. Instead it is an electronic bulletin board and bibliography exchange.

    Part of the problem is not just that they are mailing lists but the fact that the H-Net software is pretty awful. I got about halfway through the H-Net editor training before I gave up (sorry Kelly!). It is 1980s software dependent on memorizing various commands and following odd protocols. It is primitive from the user side as well. Want to add a file or picture to your message? A sound clip? You lose sucker!

    Blogs are only a partial replacement for H-Net, blogs do something different. Could we combine the two? A few H-Net lists could, as an trial run, establish group blogs with blanket permission for any list member to post on them. Weekly roundups of the action on the blogs could be posted to the list. I could see some of these blogs developing lively conversations and expanding the H-Net audience. I would certainly post to the H-West or H-Indian blogs.

  15. I have been involved with H-Net since 1993 (or was it 1992? I’ve lost track) and I’m the current president. As others involved with H-Net’s governance and editing have already noted, we are talking about these issues. Like everyone, I am buried in email. For me, it is still a useful tool for quickly getting things done (I am also department chair and hold other responsibilities on my campus), but I must agree that it is no longer the best means for community building. As H-Net president, I am happy to see a public discussion of these issues and hope that they will stimulate further change at H-Net. I don’t think these questions are a problem limited to H-Net. Very few historians use blogs. That may not be true in another generation, but we need to find a way to answer the needs of current scholars who are digitally savvy, but haven’t fully bought into the new communication tools. Maybe the answer is to test the waters through a few smaller discussion networks.

  16. tkelly7 says:

    Hi Kriste:

    Thanks for chiming in on this. Let me know if any of the networks decides to dip their toe in. H-German has had some of the more interesting discussions of this issue of late.

    Mills

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