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.
Offprints by Caleb McDaniel is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.