Electronic Communications and Communities

Article excerpt

The barriers to communication between scholars and between scholars and the public have been falling as the Internet has grown. Although most of the publicity goes to the web, surveys show that the email is used by more people. Since it is based on characters rather than graphics, bandwidth and modem speed are less problematic than they are for web pages. In addition, while the web is the best way to disseminate information on the internet, electronic conferences and newsgroups are still the best way to interact on the internet. Electronic conferences for archaeologists began in 1986 when Sebastian Rahtz and Kris Lockyear created the 'Archaeological Information Exchange.' Four years later AIE begat ARCH-L and the number of archaeologists participating has grown steadily. Today ARCH-L has about 1800 subscribers in 44 different countries; most subscribers are in the US and the UK. ARCH-L now averages about 16 messages a day; just under 3000 messages were posted in the first 6 months of 1997. In addition to ARCH-L, there now are at least 40 other electronic conferences and newsgroups covering different aspects of archaeology.

The advantages to electronic discussion are significant, but the disadvantages are often irritating enough to discourage beginners from getting started. The primary advantage is the opportunity to discuss a topic with people all over the world. A question regarding an obscure subject has an amazingly good chance of getting an informative response on an active discussion group. Topics of passionate interest to you, that cause your local colleagues to roll their eyes, will often find others who are equally passionate on electronic conferences. Electronic conferences are good places to ask for assistance, to notify your colleagues of upcoming events and to try out new ideas (assuming you are prepared for devastating responses). They allow information to be disseminated rapidly around the world. They allow more people to participate in a discussion than would be possible at a professional meeting or conference.

The disadvantages flow from two major problems: too much information and too little common courtesy. The volume of messages on a busy discussion group can be very high, more than anyone would probably want to read in a single day. Furthermore, certain topics tend to come up repeatedly on a discussion group. People subscribe and unsubscribe so there is always someone who does not realize that the topic was discussed to death six months ago. We are all accustomed to filtering out extraneous information about us: ignoring notices on bulletin boards, advertisements on television or radio, discarding junk mail and scanning over newspapers and journals for items of interest. Most of us have not fully adapted our filters to electronic media yet. Increasingly the software programs provide a range of filtering and filing capabilities that make it easier to deal with the volume of information. The problem with common courtesy also relates to the novelty of electronic communication. It is very easy to reply and it is very easy to forget that the cues that we use to modify the exact meaning of our words in spoken communication do not transmit over the internet. Sarcasm usually fails in electronic communication since it depends not on what is said, but how it is said. Because you do not see the person to whom you are sending a message, it is easier to be rude and harder to avoid being misunderstood. In addition to inadvertent insults, there are also some who thrive on conflict and deliberate harassment or humiliation.

Internet discussion groups fall into two broad categories: newsgroups and electronic conferences. Each of these groups can be further subdivided into moderated and unmoderated groups. Moderated newsgroups and electronic conferences have editors ('moderators') who review each message before it is distributed. In 'the good old days' (before most people knew about the Internet) newsgroups were unmoderated and there continues to be controversy regarding moderated lists. …