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Clay Shirky on Mailing Lists

“The assumption that the computer is a box, used by an individual in isolation, is so pervasive that it is adhered to even when it leads to investment of programmer time in improving every aspect of mailing lists except the interaction that makes them worthwhile in the first place.”

As a long-time list co-moderator (for PUBLIB, a 5.000-member list), I lapped up Clay Shirky’s latest think-piece, “Flaming and the Design of Social Software,” which is about the group culture of mailing lists. Everything he says is on the money. Clay points out that mailing list software is not designed around group behavior. But he makes some assumptions that all groups behave similarly with mailing list software.

Drawing from my own experience (as Clay does for his analysis), I suggest only partly tongue-in-cheek that the most useful “flame retardant” for mailing lists would be to ensure that most of the subscribers and all of the list managers are women. Before you bridle, don’t ask yourself whether this is true, but what we can apply from the experience of PUBLIB–regardless of the predominant gender of its membership–to the design of mailing list software, and indeed to support Clay’s argument.

How is PUBLIB “a social structure that encourages or deflects certain behaviors?” First, PUBLIB subscribers overwhelmingly ignore the handful of trolls that pester the list, and collectively advise others to do the same. In this sense they function as a collective, group-oriented “kill file.” Second, they invariably share, off-list, that someone is a troll, and in some cases will research the troll and present their information, not to prevent the troll from posting but to inform users of the troll’s background. In that sense, they are acting as a rating system. Finally, PUBLIB subscribers support a policy in which the list managers can step in, deus ex machina, and terminate a thread. Rarely has the moderators’ ability to do this been challenged (and never by women, except once when a co-moderator killed a thread the other co-moderator was participating in; and at that, the challenge was again off-list). It is also true that moderators (usually with the on or off-list support of the membership) can vote subscribers off the island. In twelve years, this has never happened.

Finally, the very presence of a list policy, and the moderators’ unfettered ability to implement it, are likely both key to PUBLIB’s success as a reasonably well-trafficked but peaceable queendom.

Every once in a while, it is suggested that PUBLIB become an ALA list, which among other problems, would make PUBLIB subject to the medieval and ill-thought-out rules that make trolling and flaming so attractive to ALA list members, and is the reason most ALA lists are either shameful troll-bridges (e.g. ALAOIF) or largely silent (e.g. Council). Quite a bit of PUBLIB’s success comes from the authority of its list managers and the fact that no well-meaning organization “owns” it.

Kudos to Clay for acknowledging that mailing lists are important commons for all of us, and for such brilliant suggestions for improving these commons.

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