Rethinking H-NET

H-NET is in decline. What should be done about it?

The Chronicle of Higher Education has an interesting article up right now. Change or Die: Scholarly E-Mail Lists, Once Vibrant, Fight for Relevance: "Once they were hosts to lively discussions about academic style and substance, but the time of scholarly e-mail lists has passed, meaningful posts slowing to a trickle as professors migrate to blogs, wikis, Twitter, and social networks like Facebook."

H-NET in in financial trouble as well. In an "open letter to our readers" the H-NET leadership cites declining revenue, aging servers, and other factors to encourage donations from H-NET users. I gave and so should you. At the same time I completely agree with Frank E. Reed's point that the last thing H-NET should be doing is replacing old servers to host their clunky legacy software. And finances are not the only problem at H-NET. As the Chronicle article points out H-NET suffers as well from declining relevance. The email lists have less and less traffic and have gone from being places of scholarly discussion to electronic bulletin boards--a worthwhile function, but a lesser one.

My career has tracked the rise of H-NET pretty closely, and H-NET has been a tremendous boon to me. Right out of grad school I took a 4/4 teaching job at an open-admissions state college in the rural Midwest. With few campus or travel resources, a heavy teaching load, no network of scholars in my field, and no expectation to publish, it was your classic black hole of a job--a place you go and no one ever hears of you again.

But I managed to stay in the game, and it was in part because of the H-NET listservs. I used the H-NET lists in my subfields to find people for conference panel proposals, test research ideas, make professional contacts for grants and such, and to keep my own name out there. I didn't become famous (and it isn't looking likely!) but to me H-NET was an absolute lifeline.

That said, H-NET never fulfilled its early (and perhaps unrealistic?) promise. A lot of us hoped that the H-NET lists would be places for scholarly conversations, the sort of exchange of ideas that happens across the lunch banquet table at the best academic conferences. This did sometimes occur, especially in the early days of H-NET. But by five years ago the lists had quieted down to become less discussion oriented and more like campus bulletin boards carrying academic announcements and the occasional bibliographic inquiry. Many lists seem to have faded away entirely as the traffic has moved to blogs, twitter, and other social networking sites with greater functionality.

Part of this might be a natural process, but at least part is due to the klunkiness of the H-NET software, which is a very 1980s legacy system with some patches. When you subscribe to a H-NET list you get a flurry of emails--1) a "Summary of resource utilization" ("CPU time: 0.004 sec Device I/O: 8," etc.), 2) a nine-item "Subscription Request Form" that you need to fill out and which includes such fields as "PLEASE WRITE A BRIEF PARAGRAPH ABOUT YOURSELF BY WAY OF INTRODUCTION: (Describing your research, teaching interests, or what you expect from the list, etc.)." and 3) a list of listserv commands ("2.) To unsubscribe, logon to the computer account from which you subscribed to the list, and send this message to SIGNOFF H-[listname]"). Though to be fair you can also go to the H-NET web portal to manage your subscriptions. It can make you crazy. (All I wanted was a Pepsi!)

As bad as the user interface is, the administrative interface for the list moderators is light years worse. I once trained to a moderator (then I irresponsibly flaked out on actually doing it--sorry, H-NET!) and was flabbergasted by the byzantine procedures of lopping off people's signature lines, knowing the right listserv commands, etc.

So what is to be done? My proposal is to take one H-NET list and its members and try to bring them into the 21st century. Begin by dumping the proprietary software and transferring the list to Google Groups (or something similar). Eliminate moderator's approval to post, which impedes the flow of ideas, but allow moderators to discipline and ban spammers and trolls.

At the same time, create a weblog for the list where every single subscriber has the ability to create a post. Such a multi-authored blog is quite unusual in academia but I have no idea why. Sites such as Metafilter, a "community weblog" with something like 80,000 members who can create posts, show that this model can create a vibrant online community.

And why stop there? Give the new H-NET list a Facebook page and a Twitter feed and a Delicious account.

This is a very different model for H-NET, and like most Web 2.0-ey innovations it relies on giving up control over what H-NET is. But is there really a choice here? To return to the Chronicle headline, the choice is to innovate or die. And H-NET is too important to let die.