I had great fun speaking at the Jacob Burns Film Center & Media Arts Lab the other night with a wonderful group of nonprofit executives. During the Q&A someone asked about the utility of listservs. I responded that they are an abomination, a source of email overload and epicenter for the awful habit of “Reply All.” There was nervous laughter but also resistance in the room. One woman replied that her listservs were still valuable to her, a source of information and advice, and her older colleagues were comfortable using them. Old habits die slowly.
Yes, of course, I was being a bit of a smarty pants, but this vestige of Web 1.0 of packing email boxes full of Great! and I Agree! and Our Servers Have Been Down What Did I Miss? is archaic in today’s Web 3.0 world (a social media world powered by social networks.) Cathy Nelson has an interesting take on this issue of listservs:
Recently in a blog reference I made a passing comment about listservs being archaic. Well apparently I struck a nerve. This post is not meant to be an apology, But I do want to take a stand here. I am still a member of a listserv. Why? There is a node of my network that just can’t seem to move beyond its listserv for communication purposes, despite a blog, a wiki, a ning, and even Twitter and Facebook presences. So I share information there, and attempt to expose this node to forward minded thinking. Not sure how successful I am, and sometimes I worry that I am considered an annoyance. But sadly, it is where this node in my network resides, and no amount of prodding, exposure to newer ways, or guilt-trips seem to move them to our other modes of networking.
I was recently asked to join a listserv for a new board chair position I’ve started and couldn’t bring myself to do it. As I said to the group at the Burns, even if I set my filters on email and look at the emails once in a while, I would still have to sift through all of that chafe to get to just a little bit of wheat.
The argument against sun setting listservs is that it is a model of social networking most comfortable for older users of email. Once they’re on the list then they are set, and are reluctant, loathe actually, to switch to any other platform for conversation.
But this isn’t a hard and fast rule. The American Evaluation Association moved their listserv to LinkedIn a few years ago and it has gone spectacularly well. Susan Kisler, the head of AEA, said that they initially lost some folks who were reluctant to move to LinkedIn, but the conversation has been richer, more substantive, on the new platform.
Of course, at the heart of this issue is the intractability of a lot of people. Once they have a system they don’t want to change it. And although we tend to think of this as an issue particular to older people, there are plenty of inflexible younger people. It’s an interesting question: what makes one person open to new ideas and ways of working and another person resistant to them? I’ll leave most of this to the shrinks of the world, however, I do think that it is important to consider what we’re teaching in management classes. In addition to listening and facilitation skills that are critical, we also need to add constant adult learning as key characteristic of effective leadership.