The End of H-Net? (3)

In a comment on one of the subsequent posts I wrote in the on-going H-Net thread here on edwired, Matthew Gilmore, one of the H-Net Vice Presidents, suggested that I take a look at the discussion of my post that was taking place on H-Scholar. Herewith is a detailed look at what I found:

After one of the list editors pointed network members to my original blog posting, several responded. These responses are, I think, very interesting and instructive, largely because they go to the core of one of the most important critiques of academic blogs, namely, that because bloggers can post what they want when they want without the intermediary of an editor, they often stand accused of being somehow “unacademic” in tone or content. H-Net defenders, by contrast, point out that because H-Net lists are edited and moderated, they maintain that higher tone and quality control that we in the academy insist upon. Why we insist on speaking to one another in more rarefied tones and why we fear letting the hoi polloi is, I think, a topic for an entirely different discussion.

For now, however, let’s take a careful look at what the members of H-Scholar wrote in response to my original post.

List member bcbell (no name provided, so I guess it’s okay to be anonymous on an H-Net list, but not in a blog) wrote: “There’s a lively discussion going on at H-Editor right now about the “death of H-Net”, a term put forward by an apparently renegade blogger [italics added] who once edited H-Hapsburg. Although all of the posts could be read to apply to any of the lists individually, such as H-Scholar, one point in particular seemed relevant, which is that the public is leaning away from generalist media these days, and looking for niche media. Well, H-Scholar is a generalist publication with respect to the bulk of H-Net members (everyone’s a scholar), and a niche publication with respect to the people we suspect are our actual members (the small band of independents). I’m not sure where that leaves us, but I find it interesting to think about H-Scholar in those terms.”

The first thing to note, it seems to me, is the alteration of the original source. The title of my post is “The End of H-Net?” not “Death of H-Net” as bcbell changed it to read. Small potatoes you say? But don’t we, as scholars, have certain rules about how to cite sources? And isn’t giving the source a title that the author didn’t use a violation of one of those rules? Also, I’d be curious to know who is being more unacademic–the blogger (moi) who raised a reasonable point about an important means of scholarly communication, or the email list contributor who decided to characterize another scholar (moi again) as a “renegade”? Since when did H-Net list editors start allowing their members to characterize other scholars with such adjectives? Is it because I’m a blogger that it’s okay to start with the name-calling?

The next response to this thread, by Edward Smith of the University of Guelph, was: “Traffic on H-Net lists – and on many email lists – has dropped in recent years, but is still far more scholarly than blogs. Blogs are almost always the opinions of single individuals and only rarely have a scholarly tone. I scanned through some of the blogs I thought might be interesting recently and found quirky personal opinion, seemingly random downloads of Youtube sites, lists of events, but nothing to seriously engage a scholar.”

To which edlk (again no name, just an email address) of Mount Holyoke College begins his or her post with: “Ffft, say I…”

I suppose that’s what Professor Smith means by a “scholarly tone.”

By contrast to the incorrect citation, interesting adjective, and scholarly tone of the H-Scholar discussion of my post about H-Net, read the very detailed discussion between Katja Herring and Maarja Krusten that has been going on in the comments to a subsequent post. I’ll take their scholarly tone over the one I found on H-Scholar any day.

Does this mean that blogs are better than listserv communications? Of course not. Plenty of blogs are silly, inconsequential, and worse than a waste of time. But every week more serious blogs written by serious scholars grappling with serious issues appear on the web. As a form of academic communication, blogs have only been going for a couple of years now. Listservs have been functioning as venues for academic exchange for more than a decade. I for one am more than willing to wait a few more years to see what shakes out.

And that was the thrust of my original post–that email is increasingly a bothersome form of communication and is being used less and less by the young people on our campuses who will be our colleagues before much longer, while blogs, wikis, and other forms of social networking are slowly but surely coming into their own as viable alternatives to the listserv.

6 thoughts on “The End of H-Net? (3)

  1. David Russell

    It’s a little hard to believe you’re getting this much heat for stating the obvious (i.e., that listservs are on the way out). It got me thinking, though, and here’s what I came up with-

    People who are heavy listserv users have good reasons for their attachment to the medium, listservs offer quite a bit of interactivity, have no real learning curve beyond that necessary to learn to use email in the first place and don’t require adding additional routine tasks (e.g., checking your rss aggregator).

    Most of the venom, it’s true, appears to be directed at the unmoderated nature of blogs, but since this is just a misunderstanding as it’s perfectly feasible to have multiuser, moderated blogs, wikis, bulletin boards, etc., I think the issues outlined above are the things that really need to be addressed.

    The fact is, blogs and wikis are just inferior to listservs when judged by these criteria. For example, rss is pretty much a read-only medium, wikis have a pretty gentle learning curve, but it’s a learning curve nonetheless, both require performance of additional routine tasks. Blogs seem more interactive to people who blog themselves, obviously, and wikis seem easy to use to people who already know how.

    As to what the best way forward is, I have no real idea. It’s tempting to suggest making existing listservs multimodal (mail gateway, web forum, rss feed, facebook plugin, etc.) so that various user preferences and working styles could be accommodated. This honestly wouldn’t be that hard, but it’s my impression that the people who could do it have mostly drifted to newer modes of communication already.

  2. tkelly7 Post author

    Hi David:

    Thanks for the comment. As an example of the kind of high quality academic group blog that, at least in my view, is as good as or even superior to any email list community, I’d offer Frog in a Well–the East Asian history collaborative.

    Mills

  3. Maarja Krusten

    Many thanks for the kind words — and for permitting me to post here. You’ve opened the door to a very interesting debate and I thank you for that.

    You raise a good point about how young people look for and share information. On an email List which focuses on archival matters, I’ve seen some of the same points raised about RSS feeds, wikis, etc.
    People react differently to email, some complain about it cluttering up their mail boxes and blame the senders for writing too frequently. Others set up rules to send List mail directly to folders where they can read it all, selectively read or delete, or even mass delete it, as they wish. Still others subscribe to the digest, a form which works best if writers are considerate and remember to delete the previous entries in long-running threads (to avoid repetitive information) before hitting reply.

    We also have had some interesting discussions on the archives-related List about privacy, the online sharing of information, electronic footprints, how future employers may react to someone’s online presence, the extent to which people self-censor what they say as a result, and so forth. Many List subscribers use personal rather than official email accounts in subscribing to the List, although it is a professional forum. The List in question is administered by a professional organization but is unmoderated. We police ourselves and it works pretty well.

    Again, H-Net’s strength lies in the way it brings people together. But its discussion groups tend to be stovepiped. A discussion group such as H-Info could and should be drawing subscribers from many other discussion Lists on H-Net. Unfortunately, it doesn’t. Occasionally when there is breaking news involving the National Archives (the reclassification flap comes to mind), I’ll do a search of H-Net to see if there is any discussion of it on any of the Lists. Typically such a search yields hits to the weekly forward of the National Coalition for History newsletter. On nearly every List, the posting of the NCH newsletter is met with silence.

    The topics H-Info was set up to cover potentially affect nearly every other subscriber to H-Net Lists. Perhaps archives and information science are viewed more as standalone topics than they should be, given what I described in the posting here this morning.

    Being in public service can be very different from working in academe. A person such as I (former archivist, present historian, current employee of the federal government) probably is bound to find it more difficult to find a home on H-Net than those of you in the academy. I understand that.

    Again, thanks for being perceptive enough to recognize some of these issues and providing a platform for open discussion of them.

    Posted by Smartphone on personal time at 12:41 pm Eastern time

  4. David Russell

    Yes, that’s an excellent one. I don’t intend any criticism of web-based forums at all. I guess my interest is what can be done to keep older users, technophobic users, etc. in on the fun. Understanding their resistance and hostility is part of doing this.

    I think I might’ve given short shrift to the whole moderation issue in my comment above, actually. This is a serious issue and one that’s quite hard to address as the reality is, a lot of the interesting content is moving onto unmoderated forums. Users who lack adequate mechanisms for filtering what seems to them a giant, undifferentiated data stream are going to tend to cling to filtration systems they’re comfortable with (e.g. secretive cabal of editors) and resent the movement of useful information into places not subject to such filtration. Here, I think, a little user education would be really helpful, because the primary filtration mechanism used by users happy with the various newer media is one that the overwhelmed users already use in other contexts, that is, recommendations from informal trusted social networks. Here, I think, older scholars talking more with their younger colleagues in real life would be very helpful.

    Another issue, of course, is the presence of a lot of what seems to some worthless, personal dross intermixed with scholarly or other more ‘worthwhile’ content in many blogs. Here, I fully agree with what I take to be your viewpoint on this- that this is certainly no worse than the procedural dross clogging many listservs and that users would benefit from using an rss aggregator.

    We have a lot of very nice, shiny new communications technology, I think it’s important that we resist it contributing to breakdowns in communications, particularly intergenerational ones.

  5. Maarja Krusten

    Trying again, apologies if it is duplicative. Posting by Smartphone is not easy.

    Many thanks for the kind words — and for permitting me to post here. You’ve opened the door to a very interesting debate and I thank you for that.

    You raise a good point about how young people look for and share information. On an email List which focuses on archival matters, I’ve seen some of the same points raised about RSS feeds, wikis, etc.

    People react differently to email, some complain about it cluttering up their mail boxes and blame the senders for writing too frequently. Others set up rules to send List mail directly to folders where they can read it all, selectively read or delete, or even mass delete it, as they wish. Still others subscribe to the digest, a form which works best if writers are considerate and remember to delete the previous entries in long-running threads (to avoid repetitive information) before hitting reply.

    We also have had some interesting discussions on the archives-related List about privacy, the online sharing of information, electronic footprints, how future employers may react to someone’s online presence, the extent to which people self-censor what they say as a result, and so forth.

    Many List subscribers use personal rather than official email accounts in subscribing to the List, although it is a professional forum. The List in question is administered by a professional organization but is unmoderated. We police ourselves and it works pretty well.

    Again, H-Net’s strength lies in the way it brings people together. But its discussion groups tend to be stovepiped. A discussion group such as H-Info could and should be drawing subscribers from many other discussion Lists on H-Net. Unfortunately, it doesn’t. Occasionally when there is breaking news involving the National Archives (the reclassification flap comes to mind), I’ll do a search of H-Net to see if there is any discussion of it on any of the Lists. Typically such a search yields hits consisting solely of the weekly forward by the editor of the National Coalition for History newsletter. On nearly every H-Net List, the posting of the NCH newsletter is met with silence.

    The topics H-Info was set up to cover potentially affect nearly every other subscriber to H-Net Lists. Perhaps archives and information science are viewed more as standalone topics than they should be, given what I described in the posting here this morning.

    Being in public service can be very different from working in academe. A person such as I probably is bound to find it more difficult to find a home on H-Net than those of you in the academy. I understand that.

    Again, thanks for being perceptive enough to recognize some of these issues and providing a platform for open discussion of them.

    Submitted by Smartphone on personal time at 1:11 pm Eastern time

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