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Medieval Mailing Lists

Academic List Netiquette

by Melissa Snell

In cyberspace, it can be easy to forget that there's a living, breathing person on the other end of your conversation. But a mailing list is a community of real live human beings. For whatever reason you may join that community, be it in search of temporary help or to indulge a long-term interest, you'll find the experience most rewarding if you "remember the human" in your correspondence.

The following suggestions may help you on any mailing list, but are particularly useful for academic lists.


Read the guidelines.

If the list you join sends you a message with FAQs or guidelines, or if such info is available on the web, read these guidelines before posting. Preferred methods and conventions for posting can vary from list to list. Furthermore, what is grist for the discussion mill on one list may be anathema on another. Prepare yourself before broaching a subject that can get you flamed.


Lurk a little.

"Lurking" (reading messages without posting) allows you to get a feel for the prevailing tone and attitude of the list. Some lists are extremely professional, others are lighthearted and fun, and the best way to find out which is which is to "drop in and listen." You can then be prepared to respond in kind. Lurking can also help you decide if the list suits your interests and whether the people are someone you like dropping into your mailbox every day.


Be professional.

In the case of academic lists, members are often professionals in their fields who will not appreciate obnoxious intrusions into their arena. What may be a perfectly acceptable comment on entertainment lists can be grating or even infuriating when dropped into the midst of an academic conversation. Ask yourself if you would interrupt a professor and his students with your remark, and think again.

On the other hand, because mailing lists are asynchronous conversations, it's easy to ask a question or make an observation without interrupting anyone's train of thought. As long as your message sticks to the overall list topic and is politely phrased, it will usually be welcome as a source of discussion. However, it is wise to consult any FAQ's or archives the list may offer to see if your new subject has already been addressed, and avoid wasting members' time.


Use an appropriate subject.

Subject lines should be concise and pertinent to the content of the message. If you're broaching a new subject, a brief descriptive phrase is all you need. If you're responding to a post, simply hit "reply."

This is a good idea in any email correspondence, but is particularly helpful on mailing lists, since email programs organize messages according to threads. Bland subjects like "question" or "a thought" should be avoided, as they tell the members nothing about the message itself and make maintaining archives problematic. Since each new message can be the starting point for extensive discussion, a helpful label for that discussion should be used from the start.

If you're on the digest version of your list and you'd like to reply to a message within the digest, consider changing your subject from "re: Digest #475" to the actual subject you're discussing (you can just copy and paste it from the digest email). This way other members interested in the thread will know to check your message for your contribution, and email programs can store your message where it belongs.


Quote with care.

When responding to a particular point made in another member's post, it is sometimes helpful to quote that point. You can do this before your response or after, or you can interpolate your comments with segments from the original post.

However, though mailing list members may be prepared to deal with large messages and plenty of them, there's no reason to fruitlessly increase the load. If it's not necessary to quote a prior message, don't. If it is necessary, quote only the pertinent parts.


Stay on topic -- mostly.

Whether or not off-topic posts are welcome on a list depends on the list and just how far off-topic the message is. Members of more informal lists may be excited to learn you've had a baby or landed a new job. Others may find such posts annoying and may even flame you. You can usually gauge possible responses by lurking for a while; or you can play it safe by keeping personal news off the list.

While reenactors are welcome on academic history lists, reenactment subjects are not always considered suitable. You can certainly ask a history professor about the details of daily life in the Middle Ages, but he most likely cannot help you with where to find reproduction swords. To find others who share your interest in garb, period recipes and armor construction, choose one of the reenactment lists that bring living history enthusiasts together.

With history lists, it can be very difficult to stay within the topic time frame, especially when a concept or event calls to mind similar circumstances in other time frames or even in the present. (The same is true with geographical restrictions.) Such off-topic posts are often welcome, as theories are explored, horizons are broadened, and the conversation may lead to a deeper understanding of the original topic of discussion.

Important news concerning email viruses or other computer-related incidents that would affect virtually everyone on the list are usually welcome, as well.


Avoid and ignore flames.

It should go without saying that flames are unwelcome on academic lists, but it bears repeating. This is not an arena for insults and name-calling. Discussions can and do get rather heated, and it can help to wait before sending an emotional response. But never, ever, include personal remarks when things get tense. And try not to start anything; just because you rigorously follow netiquette guidelines yourself is no reason to attack a newcomer or any individual who plays fast and loose with the rules.

It's important to remember that electronic correspondence can be imprecise, and what may at first appear to be a callous or rude remark might actually spring from a misunderstanding. You may wish to ask for a clarification with as much polite aplomb as you can muster. Similarly, if you are making a humorous or sarcastic remark that could be mistaken for a real opinion, try an emoticon to indicate you're not really serious ;-)

Members of some lists can get extremely annoyed if you bring up a topic they have hashed and rehashed to the point of disgust, and might even flame you for the most innocent query. If there are no archives or FAQs to consult, you may wish to mention you're new to the list when you broach your first subject so members will know you weren't around during the "Lord Knobbly Debacle" of March, '97. If you do this and someone still flames you, ignore it. This is the best way to handle flames under any circumstances.

If, however, you feel you must rebut an unkind remark made to you on the list, it is best to respond off the list. A rebuttal invariably leads to further flames, and members can turn hostile if you take the flame war into their academic arena, whether you started it or not. Send a private message to Dr. Dipstick's address--and be prepared for some scathing replies.


No spam!

The use of a mailing list to send advertisements is the depth of bad netiquette. Yet sometimes it's difficult to determine what is and is not an ad. Of course, if the sole reason you sign up with a list is to announce the publication of your new book or to send everyone the URL of your website, then it's a pretty good bet you're spamming. However, if you are a regular contributor to the list, a brief announcement concerning your new book is acceptable -- as long as the book concerns the list topic. The placement of your website URL in your signature gives interested members a chance to check it out any time you post something relevant. The key, however, is to be a truly active member of the list, and to make participation the objective of joining the list community.

Academic list members do appreciate announcements concerning calls for papers, job openings, and newly published material. The absolute best way to deal with such announcements is to keep to the bare essentials and provide additional resources, such as a snail mail address, phone number, or a URL, for those interested in learning more. Do not send a huge catalog of available publications to the list. Put your huge catalog up at a website and send the mailing list its URL.

For more information about defining spam, dealing with spam, and anti-spam legislation, see the spam series by About.com Guide to Email, Heinz Tschabitscher.


Enjoy yourself.

Yes, even academic mailing lists can be fun. Professors aren't the fuddy-duddies you might think, and humor is allowed. But if you don't enjoy the conversation in your mailbox, if you aren't getting the sense of community you seek, if the professional arena isn't a necessity for you, unsubscribe. Try another list (or two, or three; there's no law that says you can't subscribe to more than one), or try another topic. Being part of a mailing list can be a rewarding experience if you find the right one for you.


Return to the
introduction, or go to:

Technical Matters
Subscribing, unsubscribing, and hints for smooth listing.

Using a List to Aid in Research
How to get help from an online academic community.

Discussion List Directory
Sites and subscription addresses for dozens of email lists concerned with medieval and Renaissance studies.

 

Medieval Mailing Lists: Academic List Netiquette is copyright © 1999-2003 Melissa Snell. Permission is granted to reproduce this article for personal or classroom use only, provided that the URL below is included. For reprint permission, please contact Melissa Snell.


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