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.
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.