Why History Blogs Are Better Than Listservs

Originally posted by Nonpartisan on 11/12/07

The anonymous author of Edwired is wondering whether H-Net is dying:

Between 2005 and 2007 three of the four lists [I examined] saw a decline in their average monthly traffic and one-H-South-was flat for the three month snapshots I looked at. The specifics are:

H-High-S – 77% drop in traffic
H-Africa – 19% drop in traffic
H-World – 10% drop in traffic
H-South – no change in traffic …

…The objective measure of traffic-at least in this small snapshot-seems to indicate that H-Net has ridden the email horse a little too long. Given the rapid growth in history blogs as a way for those in our discipline to communicate with one another, I suspect that more an more scholars and teachers are turning away from email and to the newer forms of scholarly communication.  (H/t Ralph Luker.)

Some of the commenters over there dissent from Edwired’s analysis, but I think he’s right on.  Besides, blogs are better than e-mail lists anyway.  Off the top of my head, here’s a list of six things that history blogs do better than H-Net lists:

  • They’re more aesthetically pleasing.  Let’s face it, after all these years, e-mail is still ugly.  Listservs tend to be even worse.
  • Posting doesn’t have to go through the bottleneck of moderation.  After a year in operation, ProgressiveHistorians remains the only history blog with truly open participation at the diary level (though it’s far from unmoderated).  Yet platforms like HNN cater to a wide variety of inputs, and anyone can start their own blog with free Blogspot, Typepad, or WordPress services.  That means that posts can go up whenever you want, not just when the list moderator finds time to put them up there.
  • Browsing at your own pace.  The main problem with listservs, as Edwired notes, is that they generate masses of e-mail that are fired at you with no warning and when you’re least likely to want to read them.  (I subscribe to a French-language one that sends me upwards of ten e-mails a day.)  On a blog, you can read what you want, when you want, without having your e-mail cluttered.
  • Thematically-organized content.  Blogs that use tags (we’re not one of them) make it possible for a poster to read posts on a single subject without having to sign up for a separate e-mail list.  The tendency of many bloggers to restrict themselves to a single type of content also accomplishes this.
  • Relative anonymity.  It sounds strange that a blog could be more anonymous than an e-mail list, but think about this: if you post something to a listserv, you know that all your colleagues are going to read it.  If you write a comment on someone else’s blog, even if that blog is Google-searchable, how many people are actually going to read it?  Not nearly as many, I think.  This makes blogging more conducive to academic discussions, because most bloggers feel less like their colleagues are looking over their shoulders on a blog than on a listserv.
  • Blogging just sounds cooler.  What would you rather put on your CV, “Moderator, H-Ideas e-mail list” or “Contributing Editor, History News Network?”  And seriously, who wants to tell people they’ve just written a book review for a listserv?  Blogs are much more conducive to scholarly or semi-scholarly work than are listservs.  Of course, anonymous bloggers can’t list blogging on their real-life CV’s, but outside of ProgressiveHistorians most history bloggers post under their own names anyway.

Manan Ahmed suggests two main functions of listservs that aren’t covered by blogs as yet:

1. Conference Announcements/CFP etc: In all those thousands of history blogs, there is no systematic place for CFPs or Announcements or Speaker lists etc.

2. Reference/Bibliography Questions: There is also no place wherein scholars can ask other scholars about a citation, a clarification, a reference etc. etc. Again, there is no such place that exists yet.

Although, I really want to move #2 out into the webspace.

I think both should be moved out into the webspace, and I think #1 would actually be easier to accomplish.  H-Net could accomplish this easily by simply publishing a “Call for Papers” page that anyone could examine when they had a conference-able paper (because who reads those CFPs anyway when they don’t have a paper or paper idea ready to go?), as well as a calendar of all known history conferences sorted by date.  In fact, H-Net is ideally situated to accomplish this since they are already the recognized go-to people for conference announcements.

All told, I don’t think there’s anything a listserv can accomplish that a blog couldn’t do as well or better.  What’s more, moving e-mail lists to blogs would have the added effect of making the historical community more open, since anyone who wanted to could sign up to read, comment, and even write at a blog, no academic credentials required — which would be an excellent thing in my book.

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