|Published by NetAction||Issue No. 25||August 19, 1997|
Of all the tools available to Internet activists, E-mail list software is probably the most versatile. List software like Majordomo makes it possible to organize an online discussion group, circulate the draft of a report or white paper to get feedback from colleagues, distribute an electronic newsletter or an action alert, or facilitate the exchange of information, announcements, and resources within a neighborhood, a community, or a geographically dispersed group of individuals who share a mutual interest or concern.
Setting up list software requires some technical expertise, so activists who are just getting started with E-mail might prefer to recruit a more experienced Internet user to set up and configure the software, or obtain the service from a university or an Internet service provider. Once the list has been configured, routine maintenance is easy and requires a minimal commitment of time.
Ensuring that the list is successful requires non-technical skills that activists are likely to be more familiar with -- outreach to interest subscribers, nurturing and encouragement to motivate participation, and the ability to step in and take charge when necessary. Since lists can be created to serve many different purposes, it's also important to be clear about what you hope to accomplish with your list, and to accurately communicate the purpose of the list to subscribers.
Last week, I spoke with Ed Schwartz and Craig Newmark, both of whom have managed lists for more than two years. Ed, who is the author of "NetActivism: How Citizens Use the Internet," operates civic-values, an unmoderated discussion list he established in 1994 for people who share a set of goals having to do with rebuilding community and establishing government accountability. Craig, a Java programmer, operates craigs-list, a lightly-moderated announcement list that he established nearly three years ago to share information about local events with his San Francisco Bay Area friends and acquaintances.
Civic-values reaches a geographically diverse community of approximately 400 individuals with a common interest. Information on civic-values and other projects of the Institute for the Study of Civic Values can be found on the Web at http://libertynet.org/~edcivic/iscvhome.html. Ed can be contacted directly at .
Craigs-list reaches approximately 4,000 individuals with diverse interests who have in common their residence within the San Francisco Bay Area. Subscription information is at: http://www.cnwemark.com. Craig can be contacted directly at .
Both civic-values and craigs-list are examples of successful lists that accomplish their purpose.
Craig's list, which has grown by word-of-mouth, wasn't intended to serve as a community network, but it's the closest thing to a community network that San Francisco has to offer. Initially a single list divided into subsections, it now operates as four stand-alone listings: events that are social, cultural, political or industry-related; jobs (mostly in technology); housing; and a community category that lists goods and services for sale and any miscellaneous items that don't fit in the other categories.
Craig is frequently asked if he knows of similar lists in other communities, and although there is a demand for similar lists, the only similar list he knows of is the recently created Silicon Alley mailing list for New York City. Jason Anthony Guy, who manages the Silicon Alley list, describes it as "pretty much a rip off of the most-excellent community list available to the San Fancisco Bay Area, Craig's List." For information about the New York list, write directly to , and include the words "SILICON-ALLEY: admin" in the subject line.
Because he has a technical background, Craig wrote his own list software, which he considers simpler to operate than Majordomo and easier to use with his Java relational database. Subscribers can receive all four lists, or just the topics they prefer, and the lists are available in digest form for subscribers who want to receive all the postings in a single E-mail message. In essence, this means that Craig operates eight lists. On average, he spends 45 minutes a day on list maintenance, which may include light editing of individual postings.
Craig's advice to others who would like to set up community-oriented lists is to start off simply with Majordomo list software. Although he does not consider himself a political activist, he believes strongly that people should be operating such lists, and would like to find a way to generate revenue from the list to support local charities.
Ed's civic-values list offers an altogether different model. His goal was to set up a list for "cronies who share a point of view." Although all subscribers must be approved, there is no "litmus test" for participation. And since the list is politically-oriented and unmoderated, it can generate some heated exchanges.
Whether or not they are moderated, discussion lists require more work than lists used only for announcements or newsletters. In most cases, the list operator will have to seed the discussion on a regular basis to keep it going. It's also important to keep track of the conversation to make sure the discussion is on topic and the participants are civil even when they disagree. At times, it may be necessary to terminate someone if their comments serve no purpose other than to bait those with whom they disagree.
This happened recently on civic-values when an individual promoting neo-Nazi views joined the discussion and began to post increasingly offensive messages. Ed's decision to remove the neo-Nazi from the list was welcomed by some subscribers, who felt his comments were off topic as well as offensive. But the decision was criticized by others, who viewed his removal as a form of censorship. In Ed's view, censorship wasn't an issue.
"This has nothing to do with free speech; this is a group of people meeting for common purposes" he explained. "If someone walked into a political meeting I was holding and started screaming, I would have no compunction about throwing him out."
Civic-values is one of several lists that Ed manages, and he is currently working on a new list, build-com, aimed at neighborhood-oriented activists. He is looking for participants from neighborhood groups throughout the U.S., who are interested in sharing information with other neighborhood activists about what works and what doesn't work. Subscription information for this list is also available on the web site for Institute for the Study of Civic Values.
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