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TL v62n1: David Ratledge
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It's My Opinion!



David Ratledge


The Future of Electronic Mailing Lists 


Electronic mailing lists, or listservs as they are often called, have been a daily part of our professional and personal lives for many years.  Listserv -- by the way -- is actually the name of the first, and still very commonly used, software application that creates and manages electronic mailing lists.  Both the TLA-L and TLABOARD lists currently run on Listserv v. 15.5.

Electronic mailing lists are one of the technology workhorses we take for granted.  They are much like automobiles or other motorized transport. The technology just works, almost everyone experiences it to one degree or another at some point in time, and we rarely give it any thought. Technology rapidly changes, however, and electronic mailing list technology is not immune.  I believe electronic mailing list use saw its peak in the 1990s and has been in slow but steady decline ever since. I will not go so far as to predict that electronic mailing lists will cease to exist, but I will predict the decline will continue and may perhaps be starting to accelerate.

I attribute this decline to several factors. When I first began using electronic mail I thought it was one of the greatest inventions of modern times. Then I discovered electronic mailing lists and found that being able to exchange electronic mail instantly and simultaneously with thousands of people worldwide to discuss topics I was interested in was even better. What an incredibly rich and productive experience to be able to share information so easily and quickly with so many people I would have never met any other way!

Eventually the reality that one can have too much of a good thing set in. I found myself so immersed in multiple conversations and trying to follow and absorb a constant flow of new information that I began having problems being productive. Then the spam began. Not only did I have a huge amount of legitimate messages to sort through on a daily basis but now almost as many illegitimate ones, more and more of which were trying to trick me out of my personal information or install malicious software on my computer.

This served to bring me down from the information high I was on, enough so that I began thinking about how much time electronic mail in general and electronic mailing lists in particular were taking up of my day and how much it was helping or hurting my overall productivity. I reluctantly concluded that no, I did not need to be on the LIBJOBS list since I already had a job, was not looking for another one, and was not hiring others (at the time). I probably did not need to be on the LIBREF-L list as I am a Systems Librarian and while always very interesting (which is why I subscribed to it in the first place), it did not directly pertain to my work enough to justify the time it took to read through all the posts. I for SURE did not need to be on the usually high-volume list devoted to the British television show Red Dwarf, nor more recently, the insanely high-volume list devoted to the US television show Lost.

My strategy then changed from trying to be on every list I could be on to only being on those that helped me be productive. This new focus helped considerably, but it was still not enough. I found myself noticing that even on electronic mailing lists that were clearly on target for me and which routinely yielded postings of direct benefit, I still spent most of my time skimming and then deleting message after message. It still felt like the cost in time and effort to get at those few worthy gems was higher than I wanted and could continue to afford to pay.

My use of electronic mailing lists continues to decline. As my career has advanced I have more responsibilities than ever before and what seems like even less time. I no longer feel I have time for anything but getting right to the point of what I need, when I need it, and no more. Spam is much less of a problem than it used to be but it has not completely gone away and continues to be just as irksome. Social media is without question beginning to serve as a replacement. I do not believe electronic mailing lists will ever again be as popular as they once were. They will be fairly common for a while longer, in some venues more than others, but less and less so over time. 

David Ratledge is Associate Professor and Head of Systems at The University of Tennessee Libraries, Knoxville.

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