H-Net 2.0?

Several years ago now, Mills Kelly wrote a provocative post suggesting that the future of H-Net was bleak. After noting that the traffic on many of H-Net’s edited, subject-specific e-mail lists was declining, Kelly argued that e-mail lists had outlived their usefulness for scholars online. “If H-Net is going to survive into a second decade,” he said, “I would urge its leadership to give up on email and move on. Digital communities in the Web 2.0 world just aren’t created in email any more.”

As someone who participates in Web 2.0 “communities” like Twitter and the blogosphere, I see Kelly’s point, which may be even more appropriate now than it was in 2007. But even then, I wasn’t convinced that Web 2.0 posed an all-or-nothing, “change or die” choice for academics online: either e-mail, or something else. Today, as a book-review editor for H-SHEAR and a subscriber to several other H-Net lists, I still believe e-mail lists and newer digital communities can coexist and thrive together.

Earlier this month, for example, Adam Costanzo at UC-Davis posted to the H-SHEAR list proposing a Twitter hashtag for the annual meeting of the Society for Historians of the Early American Republic (SHEAR), which took place this last weekend in Philadelphia. Costanzo also offered some useful links to sites that talked about how to have a productive back-channel at a conference. Around the same time, two presenters at the SHEAR conference, Mark Cheathem and Daniel Kilbride, sent messages to the list with links to their papers. Finally, a slew of attendees at the meeting “live-tweeted” the sessions they attended for those who of us who couldn’t make it, using the hashtag Costanzo had proposed. Among those posting updates for the conference were Rachel Herrmann (@raherrmann), Jennie Goloboy (@JennieGoloboy), William Tatum (@wptiii), Kathryn Tomasek (@KathrynTomasek), Costanzo (@adam_costanzo), and Cheathem (@markcheathem), who also posted notes about sessions on his blog.

As far as I know, this is the first time that a sizable number of SHEAR-ites were tweeting from an annual meeting. But it is worth noting that this digital community sprung up around and (at least partly) with the help of H-SHEAR without having to “move on” from it. H-SHEAR and the live Twitter stream from Philadelphia were neither mutually exclusive nor co-dependent; the survival of one did not require that the other live or die.

At the same time, it’s also worth noting that in this particular case, the Twitter stream lacked some advantages that H-Net still possesses. For instance, even though I am on Twitter (@wcaleb), I had not known to look for Costanzo until he posted to H-SHEAR, which suggests how H-Net can still serve as one of numerous tools for discovering other digital communities. More importantly, as vibrant as last weekend’s discussion on Twitter was, a hashtag search for #SHEAR2011 will probably, at some indefinite point in the future, cease to work. Whereas I can still go back to discussion logs from years ago on H-Net, it is not immediately clear how to do that on Twitter. (This is likely to be a problem for the foreseeable future now that Twitter, which is not a non-profit like H-Net, is becoming more mysterious, proprietary and closed.) Finally, the excellent live-tweeting that was done from the conference was likely missed by the large number of active subscribers to the H-Net list.

Another recent episode on the H-SHEAR list illustrates similar points. Back in April, Daniel Feller of the University of Tennessee posted a message to the list about Internet citations and research standards that prompted a good deal of discussion among subscribers. Very quickly, however, the discussion also jumped off the list into other online communities. Blog posts by John Fee and Mark Cheathem noticed the debate, and a post on the blog of the Historical Society sparked a rich conversation of its own in the comments. Feller’s post was also tweeted on the same day it was sent to the list, which led to a stream of posts related to the debate on Twitter, a few of which (in no particular order) I saved:

Here again, a discussion started on H-SHEAR easily spilled over into other digital communities and enriched the conversation by drawing in new commenters who did not participate in the discussion on the list.

Of course, a defender of Kelly’s original position could also find support in these cases. After all, the discussion surrounding the Feller post did dwindle quickly on the email list while it continued on blogs and Twitter. Doesn’t this just show that traffic on the traditional lists is dying and that H-Net is expendable?

My answer would be no, partly because (as already mentioned) reconstructing and saving a debate on a Web 2.0 platform like Twitter is still much more difficult than on a threaded email list. If I had not saved links to the above tweets as they were appearing, it would be virtually impossible for me to find them again now.

More importantly, however, I question whether declining traffic is really a symptom of morbidity anymore. After all, one of the hallmarks of Web 2.0 is the realization that users seek out content when they want it and have a variety of ways of getting it. I, for one, already keep up with most H-Net lists using my RSS reader, as I suspect some others do. I know the H-Net lists are there when I need them, and I can keep them in the background of my information stream during times when I don’t. So sparse posts don’t necessarily call into question the worth of the medium, anymore than a blog post that gets only one or two comments means that blogs are dead. (This is not even to mention the larger point that H-Net does more than simply maintain group email lists; it also has a well-established platform for open-access, scholarly book reviews that are published online and pushed to list editors.)

Moreover, the rise of new digital communities doesn’t mean the older digital communities, often composed of different people, should simply be cut loose. H-SHEAR has a healthy number of subscribers, only a small percentage of whom currently tweet or blog (as far as I know; a survey would be interesting). That means that posting to the list reaches a number of scholars in the field who could not be reached otherwise. Yet from my point of view, neither these scholars nor the ones who are active on Web 2.0 sites need feel threatened or inconvenienced by the existence of the other communities.

I do think that H-Net can do things to help facilitate exchanges among these varied communities, like making easier permalinks for posts or incorporating “share” buttons within the archived discussion log pages online. Even better would be the incorporation of a DISQUS-style trackback system into the logs, so that viewers could see when a post or book review has been tweeted or mentioned on a blog. All of these changes could be made without diehard email subscribers even noticing them, while they would significantly aid those who wish to link to and continue list discussions elsewhere. At the same time, however, I think it’s important to note that the two episodes I’ve mentioned here occurred even without such features, which aren’t strictly necessary in order for H-Net to be plugged into the evolving online ecosystems like Twitter.

In fact, my own advice to H-Net leaders, looking back on what has happened since Kelly’s original post in 2007, would be to make small changes but not to change too much. H-Net has certain strengths that argue strongly for its continued vitality well into the future. But it would be a mistake, I think, to decide that H-Net needs to do all the things that Twitter and blogs do in order to stay relevant, and a still greater mistake to try to replicate such services with another hermetically sealed set of tools. H-Net doesn’t need to be Google-Plus to the Facebook of blogs and Twitter; with some slight tweaking, it can continue to coexist and play a role in a Web that includes those services. Indeed, it already does.


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8 thoughts on “H-Net 2.0?

  1. H-Net lists are partly what we make of them. Wouldn’t it be interesting if someone–possibly you–were to compile the #SHEAR2011 tweets and post them to H-SHEAR where they would then become part of the H-Net archive? This would also be a way to bring the content of the tweets, and a sense of dynamics of Twitter conference backchannels, to a broader group.

  2. Many interesting comments here. I’m an H-Net editor, and I confess that I’ve moved my subscriptions to a non-primary email account. There are just too many emails, and I cannot keep pulling my iphone out of my pocket just for H-Net posts. But I agree with the above comment that H-Net is what we make it. One under-utilized approach is to use H-Net as an open-access publishing forum. This is particularly useful for reviews and roundtables, which H-Diplo has been doing for years. We’ve recently begun to do it at H-Environment.

    Thanks for the thoughtful blog post!

  3. As editor of H-TURK, the H-Net/TSA list for Ottoman and Turkish studies, for most of the past decade, I haven’t noticed any recent decline in membership or list traffic. On the contrary — the list’s membership has more than doubled in the past year. With ca. 2000 active subscribers currently, H-TURK is probably smaller than SHEAR, but our international readership is engaged. List traffic — the usual mix of research queries and discussions announcements, calls for papers, people seeking or offering lodgings or roommates in Istanbul, tables of contents of journals, etc. — remains fairly vigorous, averaging around 75 postings/month during the academic year, less during the summer months. See here for a sample: http://tinyurl.com/3sxruzf

    Personally, I’m happy with email as a platform for the exchange of news, information and ideas. If there’s demand from list members, I’d be willing to consider new modalities, but the issue of Web 2.0 hasn’t come up thus far. It may yet, but in the meantime I’m content to do without academic Tweets. I’ve trouble enough keeping up with my email.

  4. As an editor at H-War I know that the forum is still quite vibrant and we continue to grow. Our presence at the SMH is felt, and the doings of the conference always end up on the forum. But when it comes to it, in providing scholarly discourse, there is never a question or a source request that goes unanswered – and generally speaking, I believe that people know the quality of the response they are going to get at H-War and have great respect for it.

    We also get good crossover to the other platforms – I noted one of our members had put an H-Net job posting on his facebook page, eg. I thought that was great.

    I think it is a mistake to conflate Tweets or Blog posts with the discussions on H-Net. The depth of content allowed – and encouraged – in our email lists cannot be replicated there. And I try to discourage Tweet-like messages on the list…it’s not what we are there for.

    Anyway, enjoyed the read, and was happy to see H-Net get the respect it deserves, especially as you demonstrate that it has endured, if not strengthened, in a period when the naysayers were slavishly following hot trends.

  5. Ms. Russell summarized my feelings quite nicely when she wrote:

    “I think it is a mistake to conflate Tweets or Blog posts with the discussions on H-Net. The depth of content allowed – and encouraged – in our email lists cannot be replicated there. And I try to discourage Tweet-like messages on the list…it’s not what we are there for. ”

    Exactly! Being a historian involves deep, critical, clear-minded thinking. How does punching in a sentence or two and sending it out to a few people who might read it while they brush their teeth support dialogue and growth?

    I do not believe it does. Sure, new technologies can be great for the field of history, but I just find it hard to believe that historians need to join the twitter revolution or die.

    I have found some of the lists I’m on the be quite useful & helpful. And the discussion that can happen via email is surely more substantial than that conducted via a mobile phone.

    As an aside, I have an advisor who plays with her phone during meetings, after her attention starts to waver. I guess I just think of historians as being above the dangerous pull of the phone obsession, so this idea of historians twittering alarmed me quite a bit.

  6. There comes a point – or certainly there should come a point – when we have to decide just how many places it is necessary to keep up with the conversations. I have been using computers for more than thirty years and worked for more than a few of those years as a programmer, so I am not afraid of technology. However, I do not use Twitter, barely touch my Facebook account, have looked at and choose not to use Second Life, and have avoided LinkedIn like the plague so far. I do check e-mail and subscribe to about a dozen of the H-Net lists. Why? In order to work, have some kind of family life, research and write, I can not spend my entire life plugged in to online communities. At some point, real life has to take precedence over virtual life, such as it is.

    As president of the National Coalition of Independent Scholars, I am happy to support our volunteers who are working to ensure our presence on Facebook and Twitter since they connect with others who use those services, but I am not one of them…and I am not alone. For those who would argue that H-Net 2.0 not include e-mail, their personal preferences for these alternate means of communicating (although I would not call the limitations on Twitter actually communicating), I would argue just as strongly that it is not universally preferred or accepted. It could be another way to participate, but should not hold the distinction of exclusivity.

  7. Wow, Dr. Perry, that was awesome! I couldn’t agree more.

    I like and use technology, but it is not my life. And, to have a life you need to put it down and step away.

    It seems funny that professional historians would willing embrace a texting “tool” that doesn’t really allow communication, as you point out, and which is an issue dividing many of us from our students. How many of us have problems with students texting during lectures?

    And now we’re going to have to look over at a conference and see a colleague sending out a live message?

    Awesome, Dr. Perry!