Email Listserves: help or hindrance?

Okay, so maybe it sounds weird to be taking a class about how new technologies impact our lives when I donšt even own a computer, but that is what Išve done. Because I am computer-less, it was impossible for me to observe the workings of a commercial on-line provider. Instead, I have been monitoring several email list-serves. I will include in my focus how I felt about these lists in comparison to other email which I receive, as well as what improvements I feel could be made.

While I felt that some of the information I was able to access using these listserves, the medium for transmission seemed flawed. At first I was a member of a popular listserve, and received each message and response separately. This was really annoying, because I only check my email a couple of times each week, and every time I looked, I would have literally hundreds of messages. I couldnšt keep up with the flow of the documents and would just delete many without ever reading them. I even had trouble using my university storage space because my email was taking up so much of my memory.

I later learned that I could receive some of my listserves in a "digest" form. This enabled me to receive an entire day or weeks messages in a block, sent as one message. This was convenient in that my inbox was not overflowing, constantly, but it also had its problems. Some times the messages themselves are very large. One particular digest I received was over 125K of memory! Also, it is not possible to delete individual messages or responses. One must scroll or page through the entire digest, even the unwanted messages. At the top of each digest I received was a sort of content page, which tells how many messages are on each topic, but it is not possible to follow these as threads without looking through all of the other messages as well. There is no direct way to save only the parts of each digest which were important or relevant to me, without saving the entire thing, or cutting and pasting from the message into another document.

Finally, while several of the listserves which I am on are "monitored" lists, junk mail is still circulated on the lists. People use the lists for other than the intended purposes: to spout off about problems they are having (the recent sils.students & I.P. Freely scenario), personal news (one list I am on routinely has pregnancy and engagement announcements and then the required plethora of congratulations--all cc'd to the entire group of course), and to publicize services and events (sils.students is again a prime example). But worse yet, after these infractions there always seem to follow a flurry of messages from other members of the lists and the monitors, reminding not only the person in the wrong, but everyone of the rules and purposes of the list.

I think there are several ways to make this information more usable and more easily searched. First, instead of using email as a sending, storing, and retrieving method, a newsgroup might be a better method for housing this information. If more newsgroups were used as opposed to email lists, more people could access the information. When I joined my listserves, there were many messages telling me how to join, what the rules were, how to disengage, etc. If the information were in a newsgroup, all I would need to know is the name of the newsgroup and where it was housed, rather than being a member myself.

Sometimes, though, a newsgroup might not be practical. When the information in question was directed at a particular group of people and was not meant to be public, such as the sils list, or when storage space for the information in total could not be found. In these cases, what is needed most might be some type of mail reader. If a person receives a large list everyday, let's say, they may not want to read all of the information in the digest, but only those messages which are pertinent for them. The reader could arrange all of the messages in terms of topic, and provide some mechanism for searching or skimming through groups of topics.

I also think that listserve monitors need to take a more active role in assuring that lists are being used responsibly. They need to enforce punishments for persons who repeatedly break the rules of the list. But, more than just being the responsibility of the monitor, it is the responsibility of the members to keep the list operating smoothly. Members should be mindful of the rules and purposes of the lists. They should take topics not related to the list to other lists, newsgroups, and conference lines. Also, in order to protect against huge amounts of mail for everyone on the list, they should respond more often to individuals rather than to the group as a whole. Most of the time, the entire list will not be interested in these one-on-one discussions for more than gossip-value. IMVHO.