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Home :: Archive :: 2009 :: July ::
FYI -- The Future of listserv Technology
The Shakespeare Conference: SHK 20.0351  Thursday, 2 July 2009

From:       Hardy M. Cook <
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Date:       Thursday, July 02, 2009
Subject:    FYI -- The Future of listserv Technology

Dear SHAKSPEReans,

I received an e-mail from Eric Luhrs yesterday about an issue that has 
been kicking around cyberspace for a couple of years, an issue I thought 
SHAKSPER subscriber might want to know about -- the fate of listserv 
technology. And I have reported on several occasions of my tribulations 
dealing with the deluge of SPAM sent to SHAKSPER. I have reported about 
my frustrations with having SHAKSPER "blacklisted" by overzealous 
anti-spamming software programs and how blacklisting interrupts the 
delivering of SHAKSPER digests to members. All these matters are related.

Eric forwarded me a posting (Vol. 23, No. 119) from HUMANIST, the 
grandfather of all academic e-mail distribution lists, that included a 
link to an article "Change or Die: Scholarly E-Mail Lists, Once Vibrant, 
Fight for Relevance," which appeared in the online edition of _The 
Chronicle of Higher Education_: 
<http://chronicle.com/temp/email2.php?id=8gr3yGB8PdhvJ28ZhbrFfpJwvKHbjDWg>.

Since the article is only available to non-subscribers for a limited 
time, I will excerpt the article so that I can comment upon and respond 
to several points it raises.

COLLEGE 2.0
Change or Die: Scholarly E-Mail Lists, Once Vibrant, Fight for Relevance
By JEFFREY R. YOUNG

Once they were hosts to lively discussions about academic style and 
substance, but the time of scholarly e-mail lists has passed, meaningful 
posts slowing to a trickle as professors migrate to blogs, wikis, 
Twitter, and social networks like Facebook.

That's the argument made by T. Mills Kelly, an associate professor of 
history and associate director of the Center for History and New Media 
at George Mason University. Naturally, he first made the argument on his 
blog, and he has mentioned it on the technology podcast he hosts with 
two colleagues.

A close look at some of the largest academic e-mail lists, however, 
shows signs of enduring life and adaptation to the modern world. [ . . . ]

I pitched the story to my editors, who loved the headline "Death of the 
E-Mail List." But then a surprising thing happened. I started to hear 
passionate defenses of e-mail lists from other people in my digital 
network, even those who are just as plugged in to the latest trends. 
"I'd venture that academic librarians would not be able to function 
without e-mail mailing lists!" wrote Lorena O'English, a social-sciences 
librarian at Washington State University, when I posted a question about 
the issue to my Facebook profile.

Researchers and administrators from a range of disciplines joined that 
chorus. Eran Toch, a postdoctoral fellow in computer science at Carnegie 
Mellon University, said that all of his colleagues use them, too. "Not 
everybody has Twitter/Facebook accounts, and social networks are too 
public for most of the content flowing through mailing lists," he wrote. 
[ . . . ]

Listserv, a trademarked software for running e-mail lists whose name is 
often used to refer to the lists themselves, was once a "killer app" 
that tempted many professors to try the Internet in the first place, 
back when many established scholars were skeptical of computers. A 
Chronicle article nearly 15 years ago proclaimed the exciting new world 
of academic e-mail lists, calling them "the first truly worldwide 
seminar room." [. . . ]

[Peter Knupfer, executive director of H-Net and an associate professor 
of history at Michigan State University] says the numbers of subscribers 
to the lists rise each year. "Rumors of our impending demise," Mr. 
Knupfer said, "are therefore a bit premature."

But the total number of messages on the system has declined steadily 
each year since 2000, he admitted. Which means that Mr. Kelly is 
probably right that the lists are less vibrant than they once were.

In many cases, the way the lists are used has changed, explaining the 
dip in message traffic.  Some lists now have less discussion and instead 
focus on notices of upcoming conferences, job ads, or other 
announcements. Perhaps that is because so many of the lists are now so 
large that discussions become unwieldy. When a few dozen or even a 
hundred colleagues dash a few notes back and forth through e-mail 
messages clearly marked by topic, it's usually easy enough to follow. 
But get a thousand or more subscribers on a list, and the volume and 
noise can become excessive, even with moderators on duty. [ . . . ]

And don't forget the elegant simplicity of e-mail. E-mail lists are easy 
to use and can be accessed from even the slowest Internet connections, 
said Mr. Knupfer.

One sign of the audience's dedication to the e-mail format is that when 
H-Net asks subscribers to make a small donation to keep the free service 
running, people open their e-wallets.

"This year we brought in about $45,000 or so," said Mr. Knupfer, noting 
that typical donations are about $45 each. [ . . . ]

Like H-Net, the tenor of the Linguist List has evolved. "It used to be a 
discussion list, but it's not that so much anymore," said Ms. 
Aristar-Dry. "Now it's mainly job announcements, conference 
announcements, and book reviews."

"I think that community discussion has been largely replaced by the 
blogs," she said.  Perhaps e-mail lists will occupy a space like radios 
did in the television age, sticking around but fading to the background. 
Although people are fond of declaring the death of e-mail in general, it 
remains a key tool that just about everyone opens every day. As long as 
that's true, the trusty e-mail list will be valuable to scholars of all 
stripes.

I encourage anyone who is interested to read the entire article to do so 
quickly since it will probably disappear within a day or two: 
<http://chronicle.com/temp/email2.php?id=8gr3yGB8PdhvJ28ZhbrFfpJwvKHbjDWg>

For obvious reasons, I have been concerned with the fate of e-mail 
lists. I have traced the history of academic uses of the Internet in an 
essay published in the collection _Sh@kespeare and the Media_ (Eds. 
Stefani Brusberg-Kiermeier and Jorg Helbig. Berlin: Peter Lang, 2004. 
213-241). I completed an extenive revision of this essay for a second 
edition of the collection but have not heard whether the second edition 
is still forthcoming or if it has been scraped. However, I am revisiting 
the history of academic uses of the Internet as part of the essay I am 
writing for the special issue of _Style_, the issue that came about as a 
result of the collaboration between _Style_ and SHAKSPER for the 
Roundtable on Intentions.

Here I would like to address two issues the _Chronicle_ article raises 
as they relate to SHAKSPER.

1. Reduction in number of members:

SHAKSPER never had a membership that extended much above 1,200 members 
and currently hovers just above 1,000. During the past two years, I have 
lost approximately 200 members; I attribute this loss to overzealous 
anti-spamming software and to ISP e-mail policies. In particular, I have 
had problems with one of the two leading anti-spamming software 
companies, Symantec and its Bright Mail software; I have had to contact 
Symantec dozens and dozens of time for its having mistakenly 
"blacklisted" SHAKSPER. A second reason I have lost members has to do 
with some Internet Service Providers (HOTMAIL, MSN, ATT) seemingly 
having a policy of not accepting any e-mail sent from listserv software, 
mistakenly assuming that sites distributing large amounts of e-mail must 
be spammers. (I, for example on a typical day, distribute 8 to 10 
digests to 1,000 members for totals of 8,000 to 10,000 individual pieces 
of e-mail.)

2. Reduction if quality of postings on list:

I was asked to write an essay about SHAKSPER for a special issue of 
_College Literature_ dedicated to Shakespeare and technology. This essay 
appeared in the Winter 2009 volume (36.1: 105-120). During the time I 
was preparing this essay, I was asked by Christy Desmet to participate 
in a SAA seminar "Shakespeare Readings, Societies, and Forums" for the 
2006 annual meeting. As I was preparing my essay for the SAA, which at 
the time I conceived as including the portion that was later published 
in _College Literature_, the SHAKSPER server crashed and I had 
additional time to think about the essay. As I looked over the 
membership figures and the e-mail addresses of those members, I had a 
startling revelation. Around 1995, the list membership reached its 
height; AND at that time approximately half of the members were 
academics and theatre professionals while the other half were 
non-academic enthusiasts; AND 1995 was the year the proliferation of the 
meta-discussion topic "What is this list for" began to appear. In other 
words, I seemed to be able to attribute complaints about the declining 
quality of the discussions on the list directly to an increase in the 
number of members of the list who were not, as it were, Shakespearean 
professionals.

SHAKSPER began in 1990 with a membership that was exclusively drawn from 
academia BECAUSE at the time academics were, except for the military, 
virtually the only people who had access to e-mail. Here's what happened.

A Brief History Lesson

In the early 1960s, Leonard Kleinrock developed his queuing theory that 
enabled packet switching, a method for breaking down information into 
discrete units or packets, transmitting those packets electronically, 
and then reassembling the packets back into the original communication.

In the early 1970s, the Department of Defense, using this theory, 
established the world's first network, connecting its Advanced Research 
Projects Agency Network (ARPANET) supercomputers to other supercomputers 
at University College in London and at the Royal Radar Establishment in 
Norway.

For all practical purposes, e-mail was the first Internet application 
adopted by academics. E-mail was archived and organized on electronic 
bulletin boards with Usenet being embraced generally for mundane 
purposes while listserv software become the preferred method for 
distributing e-mails among members of more scholarly organizations.

At the December 1989 MLA convention in Washington, DC, I attended a 
panel and heard Willard McCarty from the University of Toronto deliver 
the paper "Humanist: Lessons from a Global Electronic Seminar," which 
prompted me immediately to join the Humanist listserv. A few months 
later in April 1990 at the SAA annual meeting in Philadelphia, I met 
Kenneth Steele, a graduate student at the University of Toronto. In July 
1990, Ken launch SHAKSPER, modeled on Humanist.

Hypertext, a protocol for information distribution developed by the 
European Laboratory for Particle Physics (CERN), became the basis for 
Mosaic, a graphical interface for the Internet that the National Center 
for Supercomputing Applications (NCSA) at University of Illinois at 
Urbana-Champaign released in early 1993.

Although not in fact the *first* graphical Internet browser (it was 
preceded by Erwise and ViolaWWW),  Mosaic made the Internet (World Wide 
Web) accessible to the general public, creating an environment that 
enabled the non-technically inclined to use such protocols as FTP, 
Usenet, and Gopher without needing to know the often obscure commands 
previously required to use them. Instead of the user's having to type 
commands from computer languages all with their own language and syntax 
at a prompt like this one C:\>__ with the graphical users interface 
(gui) one used a mouse to point to a pictorial image and then to click 
and execute the command.

The ease of using Mosaic (later Netscape) led to the proliferation of 
Internet Service Providers like AOL (America OnLine) and CompuServe. The 
proliferation of AOL and CompuServe led to increasing numbers of 
non-academics having access to and using the Internet.

Concluding Remarks

The article quotes a computer scientist who maintains that Twitter and 
Facebook "are too public for most of the content flowing through mailing 
lists." The only Twits I have read have been quoted in the Washington 
Post and I only joined Facebook a two weeks ago and still have not done 
anything with it since I joined. I have never particularly been 
interested in Internet exhibitionism and still have yet to explore the 
world of social networking.

In my revised essay for the second edition of _Sh@kespeare and the 
Media_, I write the following:

The initial version of this essay was published in 2004 in the first 
edition of this collection; much of the work for the essay, though, was 
completed by late 2002.  In the five to six years since the inception of 
the project, the Internet has flourished, growing beyond the 
expectations of the most adept prognosticators, gurus, experts, mavens, 
authorities, and industry insiders.  As the Internet sites, in general, 
have increased, so have Shakespeare-related Internet sites, in 
particular, increased.  True, some of these sites are devoted to rather 
far-out pet theories and to subjects that the more skeptical among us 
have difficulty accepting.  Nevertheless, many excellent 
Shakespeare-related web sites have also appeared in the past five years, 
so much so that it is simply impossible for me to do justice to the 
abundant resources currently available.  I, therefore, will be limiting 
myself to sites with which I am most familiar and sites that, for the 
most part, have been around the longest and have established themselves 
for their utility.

I also note that "in the previous version of this essay, I did not 
mention what is now a remarkably fashionable activity -- blogging. 
According to the Wikipedia's "History of blogging timeline", modern 
blogging can be said to have begun in 1994, an evolution derived from 
the online diary.  Today, blogs have become mainstream, being dedicated 
to virtually any subject someone wishes to comment upon. 
Shakespeare-themed blogs have proliferated, presenting me with a 
dilemma.  I see my task in this essay as striving to comment upon 
Shakespeare-related Internet resources of interest to academics 
(scholars, professors, instructors, students, and serious enthusiasts); 
however, blogs have originated from online diaries, from people 
providing running commentary on their lives, some of whom who have been 
identified by the neologism escribitionists.  More serious bloggers have 
shunned this label and prefer to call themselves journalists, or 
journalers, but the fact remains that blogs, most often, are highly 
personal, while I am striving here to identify objective and 
informational resources, rather than expressions of the writer's 
"personal feelings" [sic].  Consequently, my list of Shakespeare-related 
blogs is short.

Where do these two observations about what some are calling Internet 2.0 
leave us?

Well, the Internet has continued to evolve -- blogs, Twits, and social 
networking are a significant part of this new world. However, just 
because the Internet has evolved does not mean that what was useful in 
the past has to give way to the new.

In a February 5, 2008, Terry Gray, in a blog at the Mr. William 
Shakespeare and the Internet blog site,
identifies "the SHAKSPER listserv" as "one of the great Shakespeare 
resources on the Internet.":
"SHAKSPER is a moderated discussion among those interested in 
Shakespeare -- I mean seriously interested in Shakespeare, not those 
interested in such silly, dilettantish "issues" like the "authorship 
problem". It is a place to learn of conferences, events, important 
publications, to make observations, ask questions, and carry on 
discussions with like-minded Shakespeareans. It all goes on via email. I 
know that blogs have supplanted much of the need for email discussion 
lists, but they are still useful, and the most convenient way to conduct 
this sort of multi-threaded discussion". 
<http://mrshakespeare.typepad.com/mrshakespeare/2008/02/shaksper.html>

For years, I taught my students that they should NEVER end a paragraph 
or a paper with a quotation, but I am going to give the last word here 
to Terry Gray, "I know that blogs have supplanted much of the need for 
email discussion lists, but they are still useful, and the most 
convenient way to conduct this sort of multi-threaded discussion."

Hardy M. Cook
Editor of SHAKSPER: The Global Electronic Shakespeare Conference
www.shaksper.net

_______________________________________________________________
S H A K S P E R: The Global Shakespeare Discussion List
Hardy M. Cook, 
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