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.