Listservs vs. Twitter

I’ve subscribed to a number of e-mail listservs over the years, and have found that these are becoming less and less useful. Although I’ve hung on and still subscribe to a few choices, I find that I use them more for generic topical information, than I do for specific topic resources. What has changed?? I thought of a few things that are wrong with Listservs and how Twitter might be a better option:

1. Lazy Research:
Some of the law library listservs that I have subscribed to in the past have become what some call “lazy researcher” listservs. Those are the places where you ask for an Interlibrary loan to a list of 2500 people for an item that you probably could have requested from your local library.   Don’t get me wrong, these listservs are great resources for finding these types of things, but it seems that this type of activity breeds more of this type of activity.  Pretty soon, people forget that the listserv was set up to be an online community for idea sharing, question asking, and resource gathering.  The last item can tend to overwhelm the first two (which I find most important.)

2. Too Many People:
For anyone that has posted on a listserv on a Friday afternoon, or God forbid, during the week between Christmas and New Years, you will get a ton of “out of office” replies.  Now, this type of thing is easily ignorable, but sometimes you get the reply a few days after you sent the message — not sure how that happens, but it does.  Having too many people can also contribute to the “Interstate Effect.”  That’s the effect that makes the participant of a listserv thing that “someone else will surely come along and answer that question.”  Too many people can also contribute to a watering down of the list.  You want to ask a specific question for a few select people on the list, but you’re afraid that the other 99.8% will blast you for it.
3.  Too Diverse
I know… diversity can spring forth new creations and find patterns that can link separate ideas together, but sometimes, you can just have too many and you end up spoiling the list.  So, it is kind of like the fact that I like ketchup, and I like chocolate cake — but, I don’t necessarily like them mixed together.  Listservs aren’t set up to separate the different ingredients; you just get them all and you hope that it ends up not tasting too bad.
4.  Bad Apples Spoil the Listserv
Sticking with the food theme…  When I taught at a law school, I used to tell my students at the beginning of the semester this:
“There will always be one in every class.  If you do not know who that one is, it is probably you!”
The same goes for listservs.  There is always one (sometimes more) that feels that a listserv is a place where you can spout off with whatever it is that has ticked you off that day.  Or, talk about the latest political, or religious item that was posted on the Drudge Report, NPR, or CNN.  Then, the flame wars begin.  I have removed myself from lists specifically because the flame wars became too impossible to skip over, and frankly were clogging up my in-box.
5.  Email Is Sooo Last Century
Speaking of clogging up the email in-box…  I think we have come to a place in the Age of the Internet that we have to ask if listservs are dinosaurs?  Frankly, it is highly inefficient to have the same message going to hundreds or even thousands of in-boxes.  It is just not a good use of your e-mail — especially work e-mail.  For example, I subscribe to a few ILTA email lists, and since April, I have received nearly 4,000 e-mails from these lists alone.  Plus, I’m one of those people that the IT department will contact every so often to empty my email because I’ve reached my limit.  Although this last point is my laziness, you can immediately see that e-mail listservs may be one of the most inefficient ways of mass communications that we have at our disposal today.
Can Twitter Replace the Listserv?
Short answer – probably not.  Mostly because listservs are easy, convenient, and occasionally pretty useful, despite examples 1-5 above.  Listservs also stay (mostly) on topic.  With Twitter, the same person that posts a link to a great blog entry, will also send 15 tweets about the football game he is watching.
The biggest plus with Twitter right now is that you can start fresh and remember why it was that you wanted to connect with others in the first place.  You wanted to bounce those ideas off of others to see what they think about it.  You wanted to spur the conversation and find out if others out there have better ways of doing things.  You wanted to find a select group of people that you could eventually call your “peers” and create a lasting relationship with them so when you moved your way up the ladder of your profession, they would be moving right along with you.  Twitter can help you recapture that original concept by letting you start all over and selecting those that you think will truly be your peers.
Twitter also allows you to select peers that are outside your profession, without having to take everyone else with them.  In other words, you truly get to pick and choose your peers.  I have people I am following on Twitter that have nothing to do with law librarianship, but are some of the strongest “idea generators” out there.  Being in touch with these folks allows me to see things from a different perspective, but at the same time, not lose touch with what I’m doing in my day to day profession.  
Now, the bad news is that not everyone that is on your listservs are on Twitter.  The good news is that not everyone that is on your listservs are on Twitter!!  So now you get to select those that are, incourage those you would like to join, and ignore those you don’t want to follow.  
My suggestion is to use a tool like TweetDeck to help you organize your groups.  Here’s how:
1.  Follow your friends
2.  If your friends list gets too big, start splitting the group into subgroups and follow them that way.
3.  Use TweetDeck’s search feature to follow certain keywords that are of interest to you.
4.  Contribute, contribute, contribute.  See something that you like, mention it.  See a website you like, post it using  Read a tweet that you think others will like, then Retweet it.
5.  Remember, unlike e-mail, you’re limited to 140 characters, so is everyone else.  
If you haven’t begun to Twitter, or you need to better understand how to Twitter properly, then look at this blog by Darren Rowse about Twitter Tips for Beginners.  
  • Boy, Titter, Twitter everywhere. Twitter certainly seems to be the hottest legaltech topic of discussion right now. I agree Twitter has its uses and that listsevrs are outdated, but I don’t agree that Twitter is a good replacement. I think forums–although not as ‘sexy’ as Twitter is at the moment–are better suited as listserv replacements. Forums have the advantage of collecting all replies in one orderly, easily readable, and searchable thread.

  • Excellent point Chris –

    Forums are probably a good replacement for listservs, and is a good way of grabbing them in a nice readable format (without clogging up the in-box.) However, I also find forums to be a little stuffy and rigid. Most forums you need to subscribe to, and aren’t the easiest to monitor across different forums without actually subscribing to each one individually.

    So, Twitter may not be the best way to totally replace listservs, but I sure like the idea of making everyone stop at 140 characters; being able to isolate individuals across professions that may not be interested in the forums I’m subscribed to; and search multiple forums based on keywords that I’m interested in. It’s definitely a lot more work to use Twitter as a listserv. So, perhaps I should have framed my argument in a way that stressed that using Twitter properly, you can actually create your own listserv on the types of information that may only be of interest to you.

    To steal a phrase from Freddie Mercury — “I want it all, and I want it now!!”

  • I used Twitter yesterday to ask a question about customizing a Lexis cite list because the Lexis support number put my call in the phone queue. I was so pleased to get a reply, within 30 seconds, I’d wager, from a former Lexis rep. She answered my question spot on and I was good to go. This was not a question that I would have asked on a listserv. I meant to write something more intelligent-sounding but my point is Twitter works for quick discussions better than a liserv.

  • I’ve been wondering for the past few years if social media will eventually replace listservs. In fact, I posted this question to LinkedIn last summer, and the responses then generally tended to support the ongoing usefulness of lists. I still think that blogs and tools like LinkedIn and Ning will eventually supplant lists as the place for those philosophical discussions, but that a list is still a nice way to get that last-minute ILL.

  • Al of Cleveland pointed out to me that one of the reasons many folks don’t want to post to listservs is the 150+ “out of office” replies that immediately hit your in-box when you hit “send”. So, one more “+” for Twitter or Nings or other online social networks!

  • I’ve been using Twitter a lot more since my first comment, and I think I appreciate your point better now Greg. Twitter seems to be great for getting quick answers to questions, but it still seems difficult to carry on an orderly, ongoing, multi-party conversation via Twitter. But I’m still learning Twitter, so maybe I just haven’t harnessed it right yet. It sure is fun.

    Regardless, I want to clearly voice my aversion to listservs for all the reasons Greg mentioned. Whatever replaces them, it can’t be soon enough. They need to go away.

    The ABA has a great group of people on their SoloSez listserv, but I couldn’t take the hundreds of messages I had to process everyday. Good filtering helps, but it was still too much work. I’m hoping they switch formats at some point so I can rejoin them.

  • Chris,

    I guess the key to effective Twittering is that if need be, take the conversation offline and Direct Message your email or phone number to the person (or people) in the discussion. The best thing that I like about Twitter is that you really get to pick your colleagues, rather than jumping in a pool of people that happen to be in the same profession. Usually, the profession is diverse and trying to get a listserv that fits the needs of all, tends to create a listserv that is too watered down to fit your individual needs.

    But, to be perfectly honest, the listservs used to work just fine. It has probably suffered under the stress of its own weight, and the eventual reluctance for people to join in on the conversation. As that happens, people drop out, or just become lurkers on the list.

    The same may happen with social networking tools like Twitter, but again, I point out that the big difference is that you really do get to pick who it is that you communicate with in Twitter. This allows more pinpoint discussions, rather than the shotgun approach you get with listservs.

    I guess time will tell if Twitter becomes stagnant, but in the meantime, I’m taking advantage of a wealth of knowledge, that is willing to give feedback when asked.