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Are Mailing Lists Now Primarily A Broadcast Medium?

Posted by Brian Kelly on 4 Apr 2011

In a post entitled DCMI and JISCMail: Profiling Trends of Use of Mailing Lists I provided evidence of the decline in usage of mailing lists across a research community – those involved in development and use of Dublin Core metadata standard.

Nos. of message posted to web-support and websiyte-info-mgt JISCMail lists, 1999-2009This analysis followed a previous survey which was described in a post on The Decline in JISCMail Use Across the Web Management Community and is illustrated in the accompanying histogram.

Since it appears that  the various functions provided by mailing lists are being replaced by use of other channels (such as blogs, Twitter, etc.) over Christmas I decided to unsubscribe from quite a number of JISCMail lists.  Those that I remained on (primarily library-related lists) I receive via daily digests.

On Saturday I received four messages from JISCMail lists.  I noticed they contained following messages:

JISC-INNOVATION Digest – 24 Mar 2011 to 1 Apr 2011 (#2011-7)
CFP: Digital Classicist Seminars 2011: Announcement of a call for papers.

JISC-REPOSITORIES Digest – 31 Mar 2011 to 1 Apr 2011 (#2011-56)
Brief survey about initiatives to encourage deposit: Request to complete survey.
ISKO UK Biennial Conference 4th-5th July 2011 – Early Bird registration during April: Conference announcement.

LIS-WEB2 Digest – 29 Mar 2011 to 1 Apr 2011 (#2011-35)
Event: Registration now open for Usability and User-Centred Design Day: Event announcement.

LIS-LINK Digest – 31 Mar 2011 to 1 Apr 2011 (#2011-75)
Lis-Link: LCF 2011 Conference: Conference announcement.
Brief survey on work of the Coalition for LIS Research: Request to complete survey.
UKeiG Course – Don’t miss out: Mobile access to information resources: Event announcement.
Copyright Query: User query.
UKSG – win the new Kindle 3g Wifi – Credo Reference on Stand 55: Company advertisement.
Customer Services post at St George’s: Job announcement.
Fully funded PhD studentship: Loughborough University/ Amateur Swimming Association: Research vacancy announcement.
ALPSP Seminar: Making Sense of Social Media, 24 June – London UK: Event announcement.

Of these twelve message only one (the Copyright Query message) was looking to instigate a response on the mailing list: the other eleven were all looking for people to visit a Web resource.  It should also be noted that a number of the messages included “Apologies for cross-posting” comments indicating that the message were been published to multiple lists.

I can’t help but feel that although email is convenient to use with the information coming to the user, this isn’t necessarily the most efficient way of working in light of the many other tools which are now available. At a time in which there are accusations that there are efficiency savings to be made across the public  sector in general, with libraries in particular under close scrutiny, it does seem timely to revisit the question of whether continued usage of mailing lists as a default communications and alerting mechanism is the best way for the sector to proceed.  I also feel that the Library sector, with its expertise in information management, should be taking a leading role in exploring new working practices and ensuring that their user communities are made aware of the possibility of new approaches to working.

At the CILIP’s School Libraries Group Skills for the Future event held over the weekend I noticed from the tweets (archived on Twapper Keeper) that speakers at event addressed the need for school librarians to embrace such new technologies, with Phil Bradley arguing thatwe are ‘cybernomadic’ and need to be able to move all the time to where the conversation is“. I’d not heard the term “cybernomad” before; according to the Urban Dictionary it describes “someone who uses internet cafe’s a lot because they think going outside and using someone elses computer is better than using their own“. But I like Phil’s reinterpretation of the word.   I agree with Phil; there will be a need to move from the comfort of an existing online home and move to where others are – and this will be particularly true for a user-oriented service professions such as librarians, whether working on schools, pubic libraries or universities.

Revisiting the title of this post, “are mailing lists now primarily a broadcast medium?” it seems that for the one’s I’ve listed this may be the case.  But although this to be the case for my areas of interest, is it true more widely?  Indeed might Friday’s post have been an aberration,with the norm being discussions, debates and, possibly, arguments taking place on the lists?  To answer such questions – in order to inform personal decisions on use of mailing lists and polices on the establishment of new lists – it seems that there is a need to be able to easily monitor trends, including both personal usage patterns and wider developments. Unfortunately the Listserv software used on the JISCMail service does not seem to provide APIs to carry out such trend analysis. So perhaps the need is for list members to observe one’s personal uses and to be willing to question the effectiveness of continued use.  As for me, I would welcome the continuation of mailing lists as a discussion forum, and leave alerting to other tools.  Is that an unreasonable expectation?

10 Responses to “Are Mailing Lists Now Primarily A Broadcast Medium?”

  1. A timely post – except it’s a pity it’s too late for me to suggest this as a dissertation topic for this year’s students!
    In terms of broadcast medium – that is really how I use discussion lists now, mostly, to alert people to events etc., although as consumer I’m still gaining some other information (mostly by lurking). The only list where I really join in the conversation sometimes is on the (very active) Second Life Educators list.
    However, personally I find discussion lists rather useful channels for news, with a good balance between selectivity and serendipity. The noise to signal ratio on Twitter I just find too much for constant monitoring (and, on the other hand, if I started filtering it by keyword or something it would probably filter some of the best stuff out). Individual blogs don’t cover everything, and feeds from all the blogs I’m interested in, all the time, is again too much information for me.
    I still use my email as my default place for things I really need to pay attention to (rather than – things I want to dip into periodically) and find it useful to have key messages from Twitter, Flickr, my blogs and Second Life feed into that, and the discussion lists fit into that ok. It is plain and utilitarian, which is what I like for a “stuff to pay attention to” application. When I want to look at Flickr or Facebook I prefer going to the actual application, so I can use the interface and features fully – perhaps that is like deciding to go to the cafe, rather than having a feed beaming in the conversation from several different cafes at once ….

  2. Forgot I was logged in as Sheila Yoshikawa in WordPress (my Second Life name) so this is Sheila Webber (Sheffield University) outside Second Life. I suppose that raises the issue of having different identities in different cafes, as well, though they are all “me”.

  3. Hi Sheila – thanks for the comment.

    It does occur to me that there might be a number of interesting student projects in the LIS sector – with funding cuts perhaps leading to people having to rethink approaches to working practices.#

    In terms of use of mailing lists, as well as looking at changing profiles in the numbers of posts it occurs to me that it would be interesting to look at the nature of engagement on lists. For example, are there fewer replies to posts these days than there were in the past?

    BTW regarding filtering approaches in Twitter, have you looked at Smartr – I’m starting to find that a very useful tool for finding interesting content, especially when used in conjunction with Twitter lists. See this post for details.

  4. jacqui mulville said

    I have been monitoring traffic on my jiscmail list over 10 years and I think there are changes in the way the list are used. I am writing a paper on this and looking for general trends to compare with my own list. We have increasing membership but a plateau in messages, many of which are now requests for pdfs, or notices of conferences. I make an effort to spark off debates by asking questions or raising points when ever I feel the debates are becoming dull. I am trying to think of another way for folk to request/swap pdfs – however there are always copyright issues. In some respects our size (1000 members) is becoming a problem as more junior folk are less likely to post to the list anymore.

  5. Hi Jacqui
    Thanks for this and your other comment.

    Responding to both of your comments here, I hadn’t considered how different generations of researchers might be using different types of communication technologies – are mailing lists for older people whilst younger researchers use different approaches? I had considered that such other technologies would include blogs and Twitter (my preferred professional channels for engagement) but I was interested to hear you say that you “have a breakaway facebook style group for younger folk this is minorly sucessful” and also that “no one uses RSS to my knowledge“.

    Thanks for the offer to share the stats on usage of your list. I have used Google Spreadsheets to publish 12 years of usage statistics and accompanying histograms of three lists and further information on a series of Dublin Core lists. Might that approach be useful for you?

  6. Chris Rusbridge said

    Well, yes… but that doesn’t mean mailing lists aren’t useful as ever! I have recently posed two different questions on the JISC-REPOSITORIES list, and have had a fantastic response. The first was on “what makes a good repository?” and the second is (ongoing, with responses to me) on the level of IT support for repositories. I don’t think I could have got such great feedback by any other means.

    • Hi Chris. I’d suggest that there will be areas in which mailing lists are still valuable, but there will be other areas in which they aren’t. In the middle there will be lists whose value is still uncertain. As you point out the JISC-REPOSITORIES list has provided a forum for useful discussions recently – but as Jacqui has suggested, discusins may be fragmenting. Based on Javcqui’s comments I wonder, for example, if there may be age differences amongst active participants on various fora?

  7. […] Are Mailing Lists Now Primarily A Broadcast Medium? ( […]

  8. […] to JISCMail lists meant that I was not able to validate this speculation, in a post entitled Are Mailing Lists Now Primarily A Broadcast Medium? I did discover some small-scale evidence which backs up this assertion for a number of lists to […]

  9. Today I noticed several JISCMail Digest messages in my inbox. These were from the LIS-WEBPEOPLE, JISC-REPOSITORIES and JISCMRD lists. They contained:

    LIS-WEBPEOPLE: 3 messages on 1. How can e-Portfolios Support 21st Century Learning? – A workshop provided by JISC Netskills; 2. UKeiG courses: great training at great value! and 3. How to make Google behave: techniques for better results (i.e. all advertising courses)

    JISC-REPOSITORIES: 3 messages on 1. Vacancy – Research Data Management Developer at Bath, UK; 2. FW: Call for presentations and participation : Copenhagen conference & workshop June 11-13 2012 and 3. OR2012 Call for Proposals (i.e. all advertising vacancies and courses)

    JISCMRD: 1 message on FW: Call for presentations and participation : Copenhagen conference & workshop June 11-13 2012 (i.e. advertising an event).

    It does seem that many mailing lists are being used to broadcast information.

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