Over the past two months, I have subscribed to the listserv michlib-l and have spent (almost) my full quota of free time on America Online. Although the listserv provided far less information and averaged only about 5-10 messages per week, I thought it provided a far more effective forum for the exchange of information and served as a more useful community-building tool..
The listserv I susbscribed to, michlib-l, is a recently-formed group of Michigan librarians who use this as a forum for getting professional advice, advertising programs, and generating legislative support/activity. The traffic was light -- a few messages a day -- and the tone was, without exception, congenial and informative.
Topics ranged from encouraging lobbying of Congress to ensure full funding of libraries and a continuation of M-Link and providing notices of local conferences to discussions on overdue policies and what to call library customers/clients/patrons. This is obviously a community with many common interests and experiences. The fact that the list is limited to professionals helps to ensure that discussion remains focused on library issues. But this is not a stiff group, by any means. It appears that many of them know one another and the exchange was friendly.
America Online wants to bring you the world, or at least, America Online wants to look like itıs bringing you the world. Itıs mostly illusion. From the main menu, your choices seem to be endless: Computers, Travel, Entertainment, People, Reference, etc. But choices within those categories can be limited. Movie reviews, for example. For the most part, only bestsellers are reviewed, and many reviews are a meager one paragraph long. Rather deflating for the user who is expecting in-depth coverage. Cooking, for another. The only lcookbook online, that users can search, is a Celebrity Cookbook, whatever that is. It seems to be a vintage crew -- Marlon Brando is there, as is Cary Grant and Dinah Shore. But no Julia Roberts, Tim Robbins, Jessical Lange, Keanu Reeves. And the recipes leave much to be desired. The point to all of this is that America Online provides a lot of glitz with not much substance.
The one area where America Online excels is in providing current and past magazine issues. Scientific American, Atlantic Monthly, Omni, etc. And they had the current Scientific American before I got my subscription copy.
There are two areas of America Online which bear comparison to listservs. One is the ³bulletin board,² the other the ³chat room.² Bulletin boards are topical areas where individuals can post messages. They are archived, with some postings going back several years. Chat rooms are similar to IRC -- ongoing online conversations, some of which are archived. From my own experience, the chat rooms occasionally demonstrated some real information exchange and the participants sometimes knew one another, affording a friendly forum for discussion of a particular topic. However, more often, it was just mindless fun. When chat rooms are busy, conversation goes so quickly that itıs difficult to keep track of the discussion. There are often several discussions taking place at once, and itıs frustrating to attempt to participate. One really strange occurrence -- several times Iıve gone into a chat room with 15 or 20 particpants -- and there is no discussion. Theyıre all sitting at their computer screens waiting for someone else to begin, or for some divine inspiration. Itıs eerie -- people who want to connect but who canıt take the initiative to do it. And the impersonality of America Online doesnıt make it any easier.
The bulletin boards come closer to approximating the atmosphere of a listserv. Most are around hobbies or interests and most are extremely repetitious -- no FAQs to help one out. They do have a division of ³professions and organizations,² but these are extremely limited, listing only seven or eight categories (e.g., writers, real estate, emergency services, aviation). Most messages seem consist of people introducing themselves and stating what their interests are. There is a little back and forth in terms of advice given, but most requests seem to go unanswered. If there are any ³regulars,² they are lost in the masses.
Michlib is restricted in focus and membership. It is limited to librarians and is meant to focus on helping professional librarians with their professional problems and providing a statewide communication network; it does not attempt to provide a forum for discussion of personal problems. It does not provide support of a personal nature, nor would it be appropriate, no matter how well the members come to know one another, to discuss issues outside of the stated topic. However, itıs members are drawn together by several factors: they live in relative physical proximity (the state of Michigan); they are united by professional ties which, in my experience, are strong in this field in regard to general principles and goals, and recently they are experiencing a modicum of ³shared adversity²-- united efforts to reverse Congressional funding cuts. Itıs goals are modest, but it is effective in accomplishing them.
On the other hand, America Online provides a snazzy interface and a lot of choices, but its audience is so massive and unconnected (having nothing in common but an America Online account) and its information base so shallow, that itıs difficult to see how it provides anything but a few hours of mindless entertainment with strangers. There is not enough in common to serve as a basis for community.