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Blogs vs. Listservs: Which is Better for Community Conversation?

I've belonged to the Training and Development (TRDEV) listserv since the mid 1990's when it was owned by David Passmore at Penn State. It's always been a great source of information and (sometimes) amusement for me. You haven't lived until you see the flame wars that ensue over things like "what is training?" and "behaviorism vs. experiential learning."

This morning a new thread has been started on blogging vs. listservs and one of the points made by a long-time member is that listservs "are for all members' interests" because they automatically push community interest in a conversation to the top. If someone posts to the list and people are interested in the topic, lively discussion will follow. If they aren't, then the topic will disappear into oblivion.

Compare this to blogs, says the writer, where the blog owner decides on the topics and while commenters can join in the conversation, it will generally be on the blog owner's terms based on what interests him/her.

To some extent I think this is true. If a blogger is blithely blind to questions and ideas of people who comment and writes with no regard for the conversation going on on the blog, then clearly the blog is a forum for something other than community conversation. And of course if people don't ever comment, it's difficult to get a "conversation" going--you're generally talking to yourself.

At the same time, listservs can create an environment that isn't always open to "conversation." Over the years we've had many times when lurkers and newbies came out of the woodwork to report that they weren't participating in the conversation because the list was dominated by a few very opinionated writers who had no qualms about starting flame wars. Even when moderators step in, there's still a bad taste left in people's mouths and many leave the list.

I personally think that there's room for and a NEED for both to keep conversations going. Blogs offer a place for individuals to process information and put ideas out into the world. I can't imagine posting some of my blog posts to a listserv--they'd be considered "off-topic" or inappropriate because I'm not asking a question or furthering a discussion. Yet my blog posts contribute tremendously to my ability to participate more effectively in listserv conversations because I've been able to process ideas and to play around with different things.

I also believe that many well-run blogs operate as listservs in the sense of the two-way conversations that occur. Any reader of Kathy Sierra's blog knows that she regularly uses reader comments as part of the ongoing discussion and readers not only react to Kathy, but also interact with each other. The comments become threaded discussion as much as comments.

That said, I also agree that listservs are important. They obviously are based on a premise of having a conversation--you're posting with the expectation that someone will respond and generally they do. And listservs can be more "democratic" in terms of the topics and conversation. The stuff people are interested in gets talked about and the stuff they aren't interested in doesn't.

Like a democracy, though, listserv conversations can sometimes descend to the lowest common denominator. On many lists I find that some of the most (to me anyway) inane topics will take up HUGE amounts of time, while other far more interesting and meaty conversations will quickly sink to the bottom or have to go off-list to continue. On a blog at least the blogger could keep things going on the topics that interested him or her.

But back to the original question--are listservs better at serving the interests of all members? Do they do a better job of furthering community conversation? Or can blogs serve the same purpose or do it even better? What do you think?

Comments

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Hi Michele,

I find it interesting that you limit this comparison of group communication tools to listservs vs. blogs! This is something that I've been investigating for a while in mind of aiding e-communication amongst our members.

At the moment we use listservs to distribute information and encourage discussion. I think the only folks using the listservs for discussion at the moment, however, are the ones from rural & regional areas (i.e. that rely on the technology to communicate efficiently).

A blog, as you said, is something else entirely! Sure, there's the communication of a feedback function, but I think the structure is quite different. Even thinking about highly developed community network blog sites like LiveJournal, the structure is still a pseudo-centralised one: the blogger's post forms the central hub for offshooting conversations that may occur in its comments.

Listservs, I suppose you could say, are more democratic in that 'hub' sense, but the drawback of them (that I feel fairly strongly about) is that the information on them is so transient and unmalleable for the user. In other words, the user doesn't get to negotiate the terms on which they come in contact with the information (be it distributed info or discussion); it's delivered to their email, not really organised in threads (aside from via the subject line, which, as a tangent, is one of the many reasons I love Gmail), and at whatever point they join the listserv - they have no access to previously shared information/discussions. This last one is a big issue in the philanthropy (and I suspect, broader nonprofit) sector, as a couple of the highest priorities floating around in the ether right now are documenting history and learning from mistakes.

We've gone the long way around into trying to save the info aired on our listservs; going back through email messages and digging out the most helpful stuff (or even just FAQ-type stuff) to post on our website.

But surely the technology exists already where we shouldn't have to do that, right? What about bulletin boards/message boards/forums?

The Omidyar Network has done the rounds this month, it seems a perfect example of how that kind of software can work to allow a more rhizome-like structure for discussion than a blog can (with its hub model), prioritising the most active discussions but otherwise not really weighting each post; and also allowing that thread-organisation of conversation. As well as – most importantly – archiving all discussion that occurs, and more often than not also making it searchable.

Of course, the O.net is a great example of how the forum model allows for dynamic discussion with community organisations/those seeking funds. We have a few more reservations as to whether that model will be able to sufficiently engage the other side of that coin (so to speak, in money metaphors!), the donors. It’s in the grantseeker’s best interest to engage in communications in any form possible, especially the free/dynamic ones; not that I’m saying donors don’t like communications! It just takes a lot more convincing, it seems; it’s somewhat more difficult to convey the benefits of these new forms of software.

One of the concerns with setting up a forum for donors is that the user will have to actively seek out the conversation/forum themself – as opposed to having it delivered straight into their inbox.

I will reluctantly admit that the closest model to something that would be most useful in this case is Yahoo!Groups. Listserv features – email discussion list, that allows you to receive each individual message posted, or a daily digest of all messages – with a central archiving location (which you can use instead of email delivery, if you prefer) on the Group’s webpage. It’s been a while since I’ve looking into what forums software is out there, and often the search for such software open source takes some digging around; I’m not sure if there’s software out there that has the forum interface with listserv-reminiscent features.

I think blogs are great if you think of them in terms of a panel or Q&A session; if you want roundtable discussion then you need something more like forums.

Emily

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