Mitchell Sprague: MCN Discussion Lists To Be Shut Down

Business Manager
Mendocino Community Network

Following my presentation to the MUSD Board on November 18th and the subsequent announcement to the lists, I received a great deal of correspondence  both privately and on the lists regarding the MCN lists. I’d like to thank everyone for writing and I tried to respond back to as many people as possible.

In my presentation, I presented some statistical evidence regarding list consolidation. But I also presented the issue of “off-list” issues which were making management of the lists increasingly difficult, and stated that these issues would need to cease if we were to continue to host any type of discussion list. It is these off-list issues that I want to focus on as they will be driving the future direction of the lists. Unfortunately, these have increased rather than decreased since the meeting.

We have consistently said that we are not interested in moderating discussion lists, adjudicating conflicts and resolving issues created by an unmoderated discussion list. It is clear now that MCN, rather than list posters themselves, is being and will continue to be held responsible by at least growing number of list members for the contents of the posts on the lists, and there is an expectation that MCN will take on the investigation and resolution of problems caused by list posts. As an entity owned by a school district,  we believe that turning a deaf ear to such complaints is not consistent with the public’s expectation of how we should operate. At the same time, the issues we are being held responsible for are complex, deeply rooted, and are wrapped up in off-list behavior that has nothing to do with us. We do not have the resources to resolve them.

Under these conditions, we can no longer take responsibility for an open, un-moderated listserv system where anyone can sign on and post anything they please.

MCN will therefore be taking the following action in regards to the community  listservs.

1. On Wednesday, December 1st at 10 AM, the community lists and the Hot Topics list will be consolidated into a single list. All current subscribers will be added to this list but no new subscribers will be accepted. This list will be taken off line on Wednesday, December 15th, 2010. The list is intended to provide a transition place for discussion so that new locations can be  developed for community discussion, or individual posters can establish a place to publish and announce them to the list members prior to the December 15th end of this list. (see #5 below).

2. As an attempt to salvage the announcement function of the lists, MCN will start an announcement list with some fairly strict guidelines on December 1st as well.

3. Further information about the technical aspects of posting, subscribing and unsubscribing to the two new lists will be forthcoming shortly.

4. MCN will suspend the creation of any new non-profit/community lists for 90 days while we examine our policies regarding such lists.

5. While we will no longer provide a free community un-moderated discussion list, I am willing to work with and provide technical help to any individual, group, or organization interested in taking responsibility for a listserv or other platform for community discussion or presentation of their views. There are simple easy to use, inexpensive or free on line tools for individual posting or community discussion. Regardless of whether or not you agree with its viewpoint, I would point everyone to the Ukiah Blog ( as a starting point for development of a community run discussion system taking advantage of blog technology for posting, comments, e-mail notifications and other useful functions. I will post other ideas on this topic on the new discussion list when it comes on line.


The Joy of Listservs

One of the Internet’s earliest innovations is still one of its best.

During one frenzied weekend in 1986, Eric Thomas, an engineering student in Paris, invented what would become one of the most important things on the Internet: the listserv. Actually, what he created was LISTSERV, a network program to manage e-mail discussion groups. Those with access to the fledgling Internet had been using mailing lists since the 1970s, but the lists always had to be set up manually—only a list manager could keep the group’s participants up-to-date, and that took a lot of work. With LISTSERV came automation: a moderator would set a few simple rules—who could access the list, how often mail would go out, etc.—and then users could manage their own subscriptions.

After LISTSERV, e-mail lists took off. Thomas says that within a few years, there were hundreds of discussion groups, then thousands, most of them hosted at universities and devoted to scientific research or technology. (One of the biggest early lists was LINKFAIL, where people could report Internet outages; LINKFAIL eventually got so big that its own traffic began to generate network failures.) Soon other list-management programs popped up to compete with LISTSERV, and it wasn’t long before people began using listserv as a generic noun to denote an e-mail discussion group. Legally, that’s a no-no—LISTSERV is a registered trademark of L-Soft International, Thomas’ Swedish software company, which offers several examples of proper usage on its site. For instance, you shouldn’t say, “Let’s post a message to the listserv.” Instead, say, “Let’s post a message to the LISTSERV® e-mail list.”

It’s impossible, of course, for L-Soft to police those rules: Listservs—whether or not they’re LISTSERV® e-mail lists—long ago became a basic feature of the Internet. They’re so entrenched that you rarely notice them anymore. We all use e-mail lists all the time, yet in our frenzy over Twitter, Facebook, and other novel communication tools, we forget how valuable well-managed e-mail groups can be. I admit I only got to thinking about listservs after JournoList—blogger Ezra Klein’s now-defunct, off-the-record discussion group of liberal reporters and academics—popped into the news. Klein has written that he started the group (using Google Groups, not LISTSERV) to give journalists a private space to discuss the news in a way they couldn’t in public.

I was never on JournoList, and it has always sounded like an unworkable idea to me—how can you expect a bunch of reporters to keep all those discussions secret? (Blogger David Weigel, whose leaked JournoList e-mails led to his resignation at the Washington Post, was recently hired by Slate; I’ve never met Weigel or even e-mailed with him.) At the same time, I understood Klein’s impulse. That impulse being: Listservs are wonderful! For a lot of topics, e-mail lists—especially off-the-record lists—are better than Twitter, Facebook, and Tumblr at fostering a sense of community and generating deep, thoughtful conversations.

Unfortunately, e-mail groups don’t have the same buzz as the latest wave of Webby communication tools. “I remember 10 years ago, you’d have people saying things like, ‘Hey, I’m starting the Let’s Fix the DMCA mailing list,’ ” says Declan McCullagh, a CNET reporter who started Politech, a pioneering mailing list covering tech and politics, in 1994. (It went on hiatus on 2008, but McCullagh plans to relaunch it later this year.) “You just don’t hear that as much anymore. Today people would be more inclined to start a Twitter hashtag or a Facebook fan page or something like that.”

That’s a shame—in a world dominated by blurbs, tweets, and sound bites, we need more mailing lists, not fewer. Reader, I’m asking you to join me in a new mission—let’s save listservs! If you’ve got a favorite mailing list, e-mail me the name and topic or post a comment below—I’d like to learn about it even if it isn’t widely accessible or if it’s on a subject that I probably won’t care about (like sports). I don’t want to out these lists in order to destroy them, a la Tucker Carlson; I’d like to promote them to the world, because we should all be participating in more listservs.

Why am I so into mailing lists? In part, it’s from personal experience. Over the last decade, I’ve worked at three online magazines—, Salon, and now Slate. I was a big fan of all of these publications before I started at each, but what surprised me the most about each of these publications was how much more interesting they were on the inside. Many of the stories you read on Slate—it could even be the majority—are inspired or informed by e-mail discussions. I open my inbox every morning and find it filled with links to news, plus long threads of hilarious, profound, and sometimes completely infuriating discussions about those links. The forum is a prized source of information and a wonderful sounding board: When I have an idea I want feedback on, I post it to Slate‘s e-mail group; it’s a much more reliable way of getting good, meaningful responses than, say, putting out a call on Twitter.

The quality of the discussions at my various workplaces stems in part from the caliber of the people there, but that’s not the whole story. In the past few years Slate, like all publications, has tried to open its internal discussions to the public through Twitter and Facebook, but those platforms can never mimic what’s going on in our e-mail groups. That’s because the e-mail lists are closed: When people believe their thoughts are being shared only with a small group, they’re more comfortable to express what they really feel and can thus say more interesting things.

There are advantages to listservs even when they’re not private. E-mail is available everywhere, for starters. “In a world where devices proliferate, e-mail is king, equal on all of them,” says Jim Griffin, the co-creator of Pho, a huge and storied e-mail list devoted to discussions about digital entertainment. You can’t say the same about Twitter and Facebook, which might not work correctly—or as quickly, or at all—on all mobile devices or across other platforms. E-mail is also more accommodating of long messages. There’s no character limit, as on Twitter, and there are many handy tools that allow for functions not available on Facebook (you can save a draft, check spelling, add inline links, and organize a torrent of messages using automated filters).

McCullagh points out that different social norms apply to e-mail, too. For example, comments on Facebook tend to be relentlessly positive. Because posts there are tied to your real-life identity, it’s difficult to criticize someone sharply on his Facebook page; if you do, it’s considered rude, like swearing at someone in his own house. Mailing lists, meanwhile, are very accepting of flame wars. As James Fallows notes, these can sometimes be annoying—especially if you’re not a party to them—but the best flame wars can be thoroughly absorbing and informative, and I’ve even seen flame wars change people’s minds.

This leads to perhaps the best thing about e-mail lists: They are just about the only medium online devoted exclusively to discussing things. You start a Facebook group to popularize an idea (1 million people against hipsters!), you start a Tumblr to make fun of the idea (Look at This Fucking Hipster), and you start a Twitter account to get a lot of people interested in your pithy observations about the idea. E-mail lists, by contrast, are devoted to getting people to talk about an idea. What’s more important than that?



I like this quote: “E-mail lists . . . are devoted to getting people to talk about an idea.” We NEED forums to discuss ideas and if Ukiahblog is willing to take over that function from the listservs that would help. Would people enter into agreements with Ukiahblog whereby they would agree to certain principles?

Is this the forum for discussing how such a function would operate?

    I think that the first priority is to try to save the current list/lists on MCN by the community taking on the responsibility for maintaining and monitoring the list, and requiring responsibility of participants with authentication of identities. How can we let a few spoilers and losers having hissy-fits take away the power of community conversations?

I agree. Maybe the spoilers have gotten the message and will refrain from posting anonymously (for starters). If we see no suspect posts I think we could point that out to Mitchell Sprague, who might then get the board to relent.

    The decision to kill the MCN discussion list did not come from the school board. Mitch Sprague says he decided unilaterally as MCN manager to shut down the discussion list in two weeks because he doesn’t want to be bothered with mediating disputes. The Mendocino School Board president said at the last meeting in reply to a question from the audience that the board does not micromanage MCN. It hired a manager and it lets him manage.

    I think the problem is that any totally unmoderated listserv that is open to all comers and allows anonymous posting will eventually be destroyed by a handful of abusers.

    The answer is not to destroy the listserv, a valuable service to nearly 1000 subscribers. The answer is to require agreement to a policy or “Terms of Use” that prohibits abusive behavior, with violators subject to suspension and repeat violators subject to banning.

    It’s a fantasy to expect a no holds barred email list that allows anonymous trolls not to cause problems. That’s why virtually every online forum and discussion platform, including this one, includes some form of moderation to keep out the trolls and spammers.