Don't let your posters get off on tangents, warns a list owner.
I manage two scholarly discussion lists. SHARP-L, whose name comes from the Society for the History of Authorship, Reading, and Publishing, focuses on book history, and VICTORIA is devoted to the culture and society of nineteenth-century Britain. The early 1990s, when I began both lists, was an exciting time to explore the potential of the Internet for scholarly purposes. The Listserv software was comparatively primitive then, which meant that a list owner's chores could be absurdly laborintensive at times, but it was deeply satisfying to help build these vibrant scholarly communities.
One lesson I learned along the way is that the ecology of an active online community is surprisingly fragile. It can go wildly out of whack, and even self-destruct, in a very short time. I've seen any number of lists decline and die over the years. Some merely waste away through attrition and neglect until no one posts to them anymore; others become mere notice boards for calls for papers and the like, without any real interaction among subscribers. A few flame out spectacularly, bursting with so many nasty, off-topic messages that all the "lurkers" unsubscribe, leaving the disputants to fight among themselves until even they grow weary of it. Charting a middle course means achieving a high "signal-to-noise" ratio, in which the list's content is useful enough to make it worth people's time to stay involved.
Almost all members of both lists I manage have been thoughtful and courteous. Even so, I have put in a certain amount of time mediating disputes privately, trying to cool things down before they got out of hand. Each party to an argument wants to have the last word, of course, and on an email list, these tit-for-tat exchanges quickly get tedious. By now, we've almost grown accustomed to the sheer rhetorical violence of much disagreement on online bulletin boards and blogs, and something of the same can now and then find its way onto even the most mild-mannered scholarly list. It's a curious feature of the online world that people who would never descend to insults in a face-to-face argument, or even in a private exchange of e-mail, will sometimes get carried away in an online forum and commit the grossest incivilities if they're not checked. Fortunately, people now realize, in a way that many didn't ten years ago, how terribly destructive careless or ill-considered online behavior can be to their professional careers. This accumulation of experience with e-mail and Listservs has helped make the task of the list owner much easier than it used to be.
Ideally, subscribers will regard a scholarly list as a collegial discursive community rather than simply a distribution mechanism for professionally useful information. A few simple rules can help to achieve this goal. For content, the most important rule is topicality. As mundane as it sounds, keeping discussion within the list's stated topic area is the single most important job the list owner does; it's also the least well understood and generates the most conflict with individual subscribers. On VICTORIA, for example, our cardinal rule is that every message posted to the list must have some specific pertinence to the study of nineteenth-century Britain, counting that period as the "long" nineteenth century, from about 1780 to the end of the Great War, and, of course, including all parts of the empire.
One might think that those capacious bounds would leave plenty of room for discussion, and usually they do, but there's nevertheless a constant tendency for discussion threads to spin off into unrelated matters about which all academics everywhere are keen to express opinions. This centrifugal tendency isn't obvious to the individual subscriber, who doesn't see the harm in dashing off a tart opinion in a single e-mail, whether it's about politics, Google, the failings of students, tenure, or some event in the news. …