Chances are you belong to a listserv. In fact, you probably belong to several. In recent weeks, I’ve been part of several discussions that basically boil down to questions around “Listserv Netiquette.” In one case, discussion surfaced over the volume of posts being sent to the list; in another case, subscribers complained about how the listserv was being used. I’ve told myself I’d post something about this for a while, so here go some observations and suggestions. My suggestions depart from a basic premise: though most listservs are voluntary, subscription is, in practice, a necessity. So for someone who complains about the volume of emails on the list, it’s not fair to simply respond: “Well, if you don’t like getting emails, then don’t get on listservs.” The point is: how do we make being part of online communities and networks manageable, while maintaining their openness?
For the managers of a listserv, three suggestions:
1. Set up the listserv so that all email posts come with their subject-line prefaced by an identifying marker in brackets. So, for instance, an email posted to the Association of American Geographers (AAG) listserv—if it had one—would arrive in your inbox with the subject: “[AAG] blah blah blah.”
Why? This immediately flags the email as a listserv post to the busy inbox sifter (me). It helps put the email and subject line in context, while also allowing for easier automated filtration.
2. The default “Reply To” function of the listserv should be directed to the sender, not to the listserv address.
Why? This avoids those embarrassing emails that are meant for the sender and not for the entire listserve (e.g. “Joey, you’ll be at AAGs!! Me too. Let’s get a drink! Remember last time in Seattle!?! Whoah. Hahaha”). This also helps preempt the sheepish follow-up apology email to the entire list.
3. If possible, allow batched daily digests. This depends on the nature of the listserv. You wouldn’t want this option for lists with a lot of time-sensitive announcements.
Why? This option allows a subscriber to manage the traffic of listserv emails is a nice option to have.
As for subscribers, I think there are a few very basic things worth keeping in mind.
1. Subject Headings are Really Important!
Detailed haiku versions of your email as subject lines are real timesavers for subscribers. A good descriptive subject line helps readers judge right away if they need to open your email or just delete it.
2. Advertising Local Events
International conferences or meetings aside, advertising a local event on a listserv that reaches a much wider geographic public seems questionable—some would argue, inappropriate. But I’m on the fence on this one. Since there are few geographically specific listservs, I can see why someone would want to advertise an important event they’ve put a lot of work into on a broad-based list so that people within travel distance are made aware. Still, making clear the event is in “New York” or “London” gives subscribers in Minneapolis a clue that they might delete it.
2. Asking the Listserv a Question
This one is tricky, because it seems to me that there are questions that are and are not appropriate for listservs. If you’re question is endlessly open-ended—“anyone know a good book on…”—then, as a courtesy, you might consider requesting that people reply “off list” while promising to send a compilation of responses to the listserv later on. But this need not always be the appropriate protocol. Drawback: Sometimes this type of query can generate a productive discussion on the list. For instance, a post asking for a good transcription service reference ended up generating a pretty interesting discussion about research methods and analysis. It could be that the compilation approach saps some of this spontaneity.
A listserv doubles as both an incredible resource and a readymade fora with a tremendous amount of knowledge, so I think it’s appropriate (with some restraint) to ask questions and stir debate. I think that appropriate flagging and visual cues make this manageable.
But there are times when a question goes out on a listserv that could be easily resolved by a Google search.
3. Don’t be a D-Bag!
I’m still amazed that this has to be said. I never stop being surprised at how academics can be so shamelessly mean and snarky to each other.
Just some thoughts…