[NetBehaviour] What was the listserv?

Eryk Salvaggio eryk.salvaggio at gmail.com
Mon Jun 7 17:02:41 CEST 2021

I sent this a few days ago in response to netbehavior discussion on why some post and others don’t, and where responsibility for a  community rests. It seems to have been hooked in a spam filter of some sort, so I’m sending it through again. 

I suspect the “consumer vs producer” dichotomy is being a bit harsh. I don’t post, but because it feels interruptive of other conversations, including list-silence. I was raised on the epistolary flow of the mailing list, but now that knowledge feels elusive. I don’t know the “rules,” that is, the social protocols rather than any moderator’s restrictions or allowances. 

It may be “just me,” but posting — when *I* post — feels performed rather than generous. Again, this is my feeling about the act — it never crosses my mind that anyone else who posts is performing. I always see it as generous. 

Maybe it’s useful to frame this as an intellectual exercise: “what was the Listserv?” — though I hate to suggest that the Listserv is dead. To do some armchair anthropology: the Listserv (a registered trademark, though widely abused, nevertheless capitalized by autocorrect) actually dates to the 1970s, where it was manually assembled and distributed. With the Web came automation. One of the earliest of these was a mailing list dedicated to announcements of internet failures. (That list, LINKFAIL, occasionally produced so much traffic as to exacerbate any failures it attempted to report). Seems to resonate now as the biggest conversation I’ve seen here has been around the lack of conversation.

I’m typing this while visiting my parents on my first post-vaccination journey in the United States, so I’m in the same bedroom where I was writing to (haranguing?) quite a few Listservs as a teenager in the late 1990’s. I admittedly sharpened a disruptive and performance-based method of online interaction with mailing lists back then. 

That has me thinking about the organization of mailing lists and responses: “threads,” and how the use on mailing lists differs from Twitter. Listserv threading, emerging from the academic communities of USENET and the like, follows the structure of publication, or debates. Just like academia, the design seems to encourage responses ranging from encouragement and elucidation to abuse and dismissal. Debates get us to a particular form of ”reason,” and in other communities this form of discussion mirrors all kinds of toxic academic formalizations of communication, notably imposter syndrome: the sense that your contribution to a space has to be “earned.”

On the other hand, the thread is always collaborative: it’s created by response, a feedback loop of interaction. A post without response disappears. A post with a reply lives until it doesn’t. The “thread” runs through the content and form, tying it together until it “runs out of steam” or gets “derailed.” (Tellingly the metaphors for the conversation move from the relational yarn-weaving threads of Ada Lovelace to the brutal industrial-era metaphor of a train either crashing or losing energy: we never say that the thread has been sewn, that the fabric has been patched or the quilt completed, because conversation is always in a possible state of continuing, never finished unless it fails.)

On Twitter, the “thread” is a mechanism designed for the opposite of feedback. You thread a series of linked posts, forming an uninterrupted soliloquy. Nobody has to interact before you form and post the next thought. Less salon, more soapbox. (Though notably I write this bit seven paragraphs in). 

Being a “passive consumer” to these shared spaces has come to feel more generous to me than being an active contributor. But I suspect that is just Twitter poisoning. My relationship to the Twitter soliloquy, with its torrent of promotion and opinion and argument, has tainted the act of sharing my own art and ideas here with an association with likes, clicks and other affordances of today’s digital validation. It’s a system which tends to encourage imposter syndrome through design: participation demands the assertion of “a contribution,” but what is a contribution but the sharing of an idea — a train sent from the station to see if it can sew a quilt?

But a Listserv can also be a respite from the “follow”, a space to encounter and be encountered rather than an extension of our selves. I suspect it’s helpful for us all to confirm that for ourselves from time to time: the mailing list is created collaboratively, it requires response and feedback to survive, and it’s up to us to encourage overcoming the legacy of its design by balancing hard against the biases it inherits. 


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