Monday, July 8, 2013

What email lists are not

The oldest (and for me the most useful) social media I participate in are simply discussion email lists with a genealogy focus. I moderate one (lightly and rarely) and I participate in another which is members-only. I find them both useful but not everyone does. They have remained informal, cooperative, and non-corporate. They have played a major part in my genealogical "upbringing" and I would be happier if they were better understood.

Two recent episodes, it doesn't much matter what list they occurred on:

(Episode #1) A vigorous discussion developed about a particular proposal to apply mathematical and programming techniques to genealogical research and proof. Some of it was too technical for me, some of it was philosophical (OK by me), some of it was basic genealogy: exactly what it is we do when we research and evaluate sources, information, and evidence. [If these terms are news to you, visit Evidence Explained or one of the ongoing groups tackling Thomas W. Jones's Mastering Genealogical Proof.]

Some folks objected to this discussion because they were relative newbies and didn't understand all of it. The point was made that all of us are newbies to some part of genealogy, and all of us have more to learn. A few people left the list because the discussion continued and was not banned.

(Episode #2) A vigorous discussion developed about a large genealogy corporation changing its search function. Some genealogists objected vigorously on the grounds that they were used to the old one; some on the grounds that the new one didn't work right. Others replied that the new one works fine once you learn it, and was in fact an improvement. They offered instructional links that had been available for a while. A few proposed specific problems they had encountered, and these were discussed. A few more defended the large corporation.

Another group, not visible on that list but visible to me since I also frequent Facebook, made oblique comments, not naming the list, about how pleased they were to have quit the list because they didn't like the ongoing discussion. The comparison was also made to a meeting, where the chair normally will end discussion that has run its course and (in the opinion of the chair) become repetitive -- apparently implying that the list could or should be run that way.


My takeaway from these two transitory episodes? Many of us have no concept of what a mailing list is and does.

In Episode #1, some people felt that the list should be like a class that was personalized to their needs of the moment, excluding all else. In Episode #2, an entirely different group had a similar feeling. They felt that it was like a meeting where discussion is devoted to reaching a decision by vote and action by the overlying organization. Both objecting groups seemed to be relying on the premise -- which I would not care to defend -- that a bright line can easily be drawn between beginners and more advanced genealogists, or between just enough discussion and too much.

But of course there is no organization; there is no class. A list is a bunch of people drawn together by an interest in advancing their knowledge of genealogy and fellow genealogists -- and who likely get very different things out of it, whether lurking or participating.

In some exchanges I act more like an instructor, in others more like a refractory and backward pupil, but neither analogy is quite right. Sometimes we share knowledge; sometimes we share ignorance. Some exchanges I delete without reading. Some of us pick up on new ideas faster than others; some of us like to argue and discuss more than others. Some of us are more interested in genealogy education than others; some of us are just fascinated by the ways different people approach this subject. Sometimes we get fascinated with trivia.

As long as the discussion doesn't become abusive -- and neither of these episodes came within a country mile of that -- it all comes with the territory. This territory has boundaries, but they are broader than usual, and often we define them for ourselves by selective departure -- using the delete key without anyone being the wiser.

Harold Henderson, "What is an email list?," Midwestern Microhistory: A Genealogy Blog, posted 8 July 2013 ( : accessed [access date]). [Please feel free to link to the specific post if you prefer.]


Drew Smith said...

As someone who has administered mailing lists since the mid-1990s, I can add another difference between mailing lists and a face-to-face meeting: You can use the filter feature of your email software to filter out messages based upon their subject lines, so that you don't have to see discussions that you don't want to see. Unfortunately, many list subscribers don't seem to want to learn how to use that feature of their email software.

Pat Richley-Erickson said...

Drew, you could set up a list for that, so we can debate it? LOL

Sheri Fenley said...

Harold - like you, I did alot of my genealogy "growing up" on those lists. I still find them essential to my never ending adventure in getting a genealogical education.

For those who left the lists for one reason or another - I hope they know that they can start up a list of their own more tailored to what they want or expect from a list.

Wendy Grant Walter said...

As a relative newbie to genealogy, I have found both lists very informative and I followed both discussions for awhile until I found the first getting a bit too technical (for me) and the second until I was a bit overloaded on the discussion. I then used my 'delete' key. I even learned something from the contentious 'what is a professional' discussions that have occurred in the past but there too, I eventually started deleting. I guess my point is - I would much rather have these discussions (and any others pertaining to genealogy) in the mailing list than not. And hitting my delete key in my inbox is not a huge problem.

Linda Schreiber said...

"In The Beginning Was...
The List/Forum!" It was what we had. And they were great. Still are. They have been far superceded in content, but not in personal contact and discussion. We learned a lot, we taught/suggested, and we found people who were researching the same lines. I still get emails from people who found something I posted well over a decade ago.
And for things that weren't of interest, or when the 'little discussion' grew like a bad weed,
then delete, next, delete, next, delete was fast and easy.

Margie said...

I ditto Wendy Grant Walter; I read the same lists and came away with the same experiences. I then chose to read the titles/topics in each list digest and clicked "delete" on the ones that no longer interested me. I learned a lot from the initial discussions, then moved on.
Thanks to email lists and forums! This is one way I find I can grow while living in a relatively small, non-genealogical community.