The Shakespeare Conference: SHK 20.0351 Thursday, 2 July 2009
From: Hardy M. Cook <
Date: Thursday, July 02, 2009
Subject: FYI -- The Future of listserv Technology
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_:
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.
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
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
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:
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
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
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
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.
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
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".
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
S H A K S P E R: The Global Shakespeare Discussion List
Hardy M. Cook,
The S H A K S P E R Web Site <http://www.shaksper.net>
DISCLAIMER: Although SHAKSPER is a moderated discussion list, the
opinions expressed on it are the sole property of the poster, and the
editor assumes no responsibility for them.