A Look At Lists
About NetAction Notes
~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

A Look At Lists

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 .  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: .  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 Jason at , 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 the Institute for the Study of
Civic Values.