Thursday, January 17, 2008

Community by email

An interesting "social network" has evolved on my campus. I work at a small institution, located in a very small rural community. It is often said that "everyone here knows everyone else." While that might have been true 20 years ago, it's not true any more, because the number of people living and working here has probably doubled since then. However, we are still small, and there is a high degree of interconnectedness.

Perhaps because of this relatively small size, people have no qualms about blanketing the campus with emails about any number of things. In order to reduce this stream, about ten years ago the email system administrators created some "opt-in" email lists and put out the word that the large group mailing nicknames, like "facstaff" were for university business only.

The list that really took off was one called "Classifieds." This was originally for posting items for sale or wanted to buy. However, in the absence of any other list to use for announcements or non-sale messages, people began using it for all kinds of things.

So now, the "classifieds" list has become the place to go to stay "in the know." Not only do you get announcements of non-campus events, but people commonly post questions like "Who should I get to fix my roof?" "Does anyone know a good massage therapist?" "Has anyone seen the Fed-Ex guy?" Even: "Can someone tell me how to pronounce the name of this famous architect?" People ask for phone numbers, copies of articles that appeared in the newspaper, even books. It's been useful for finding lost pets. People get quick responses during the workday, and frequently post thank yous and comments like "classifieds rocks!"

One of the reference librarians has said that "classifieds" has taken the place of library reference for information. He does answer some questions as a librarian when it's appropriate.

Occasionally there are conversations or funny exchanges, but most of the time people prefer to answer questions directly to the asker, so unless the original person posts a summary of responses (like about experiences with roof repair) you don't get the answer! This bothers me-- I want to see the answers to the questions, but as in any list, there are varying approaches. Many people are afraid to post publicly, and others think it "clutters up the list."

Recently there was a notice about some shady people going door to door asking for money for some undefined reason and asking strange questions about the community. Several people had the same experience, and posted it. Several people recommended calling the police when it happens, not several days later (duh.) One person asked that this exchange be taken off-list so that everyone didn't have to get these messages. Another person responded that this was important to the people who live here, and that it was a fine way to use the list.

One person in the community took it upon herself to create a "community" email list, off the university network. She reposts selected items on this list for people who can't subscribe to the classifieds list-- not all the buying and selling, but the announcements and events and lost pets. The campus department has also begun to participate, posting alerts about weather and other safety issues. They can post to all the lists, of course, but they also post to classifieds, and this is repeated on the community list.

In my opinion, this is social networking. It's happening on email, which is not a new technology, certainly not "2.0." But it's the common denominator, and it is the way to reach the most people in this community. In my work with organizations, I've found that email is still new to a lot of people, and they often don't really know how to use it very well. Many people have no idea how to attach documents or forward things correctly. And yet, it's still a basic. Everyone on the net has some kind of email address. They might not join a group, or read a blog, and have the faintest clue what RSS is or how to use a wiki. But they can shop and send email.

And lastly, I have a pet peeve about the use of the word "classifieds." These postings are not classified at all. Our local weekly newspaper, which is packed full, well-edited, well-designed, well-respected and full of advertising, has been misusing this word for decades. They have a "classifieds" section with small ads, but the ads are not classified at all. They are all mixed up. Now granted, there is only one page, but it's a very packed full page, and you have to read all of the ads to find what you are looking for. At the times I've mentioned my irritation with this to others, they think I'm just being obsessive. I had the opportunity once to sit next to the editor of the paper at a charity event. She is a very smart and educated person who is active in the community. I told her how wonderful the paper is, and also mentioned this issue about the "classifieds" not being classified. She listened, and I don't think she took offense, but nothing changed, so I expect that nobody else at the paper felt that it was an issue.

One person said that the word "classifieds" has taken on a new meaning. People have no idea what classfication is, and so to them "classifieds" simply means small ads or postings. That could be true, but it's rather sad, in my opinion.


Colleen said...

Hmm, our "classifieds" list was just yanked by the University because they feared being sued if someone posted a negative review of a plumber or such. We have an ad-hoc solution, which was to create a yahoo! group for our staff and faculty to put out such 'classifieds,' but the onus of creating a Yahoo account and joining has prevented it from being as widely popular as the old easy-to-use university list.

it's nice to know that some academic institutions are still embracing the idea of community and free exchange fo information :)

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