Monday, July 6, 2009

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.


Kelly in Kansas said...

Having found H-Net as useful as you have for your professional career and networks and now serving as its elected president, I applaud your thoughtful analysis of the Chronicle article.

By its very nature, H-Net is a
"bottom-up" organization speaking of and to the masses and not a "top-down" hierarchical approach to change. Behind the scenes, we've been actively exploring our move to Web 2.0 to not only keep our colleagues with limited online access included but also reach out to the larger masses that do not see listserv membership as relevant.

One of the issues you focus on is moderation and given that we are a large and diverse scholarly community, those are serious issues for us to discuss so that we are interpreted correctly as serious and moderated scholarship, among our many other features.

In recent months, the tales of our demise are premature - especially when the "data" cited is limited and does not focus on the whole scope of H-Net operations around the world. Yes, some lists have drifted to primarily become announcement lists but others are vibrant discussion and scholarly communities with numerous active discussions. We also recently did a major upgrade to H-Reviews to bring it into Web 2.0 both to the user interface and the behind-the-scenes operations involving many people, much work, and many books being shipped all over the world. We pride ourselves on our success in the reviews arena and were proceeding to apply the "lessons learned" from that migration to our larger Web 2.0 migration.

However, like in other historical venues, timing is everything. The H-Net Council made the decision to move forward into Web 2.0 just as the economy drastically dropped. Given that we use our Job Guide as our primary financial support, it's easy to see why we had to retrench a bit and focus on non-profit appropriate fundraising.

Besides our community members around the world, we exist because of our relationships with the Michigan State University Department of History and Matrix []. As personnel changes, those relationships have to be re-examined and re-formulated - all of which we are in the process of doing.

Finally, we appreciate your acknowledgment of H-Net's past successes and hope to add to those successes before the end of the year. And we most certainly agree with your call to donate to continue to support all the diverse work we do for so many distinct communities.

Katrina said...

Thanks for posting this, Larry. As you know, I'm all for a large collaborative blog in history. Perhaps another model is the Leiter report? Although Brian Leiter does much of the heavy lifting, it has developed a community. And at froginawell we have too. But of course, for the meta-blog to work we need not 8 or 10 but 50+ regular participants.
Perhaps people would feel more secure too if they had to register (as with many H-NET lists) with their academic affiliation so it's genuinely for academics not random spamtools.

Larry Cebula said...

Kelly: I am honored that the august president of H-Net should respond here! I had not noticed the 2.0 features at the reviews, but I see that there are now RSS feeds. Are there other features I should be aware of?

I do appreciate the reasons for wanting to moderate the lists, but I wonder if it is necessary anymore? Back when the web was young there was a lot more trolling (and fewer places to troll?) and it was a truism that all unmoderated spaces became cesspools of invective in short order. But the web seems to be growing up. And moderation can be after the fact--warning and banning troublesome users for instance. Because whatever the gains of moderating every post before it goes up, the cost of suppressing the conversational quality that people expect on a list, is huge.

And Kelly, what do you think of my idea of taking one H-Net list into the new world on an experimental basis?

Katrina: I like the way you think. Yes, we need 50+ academic posters for a really lively group blog, all registered and posting under their real names. And right now it is hard to see how we get there without H-Net as a participant and even a sponsor. They have already gathered together people interested in exchanging information online and organized them by subdiscipline. I keep imagining an H-Net blog just popping up one day with all of the members of a given list having the ability to initiate a post.

Of course this could happen without H-Net as well, and eventually it may do so.

Katrina said...

Hi Larry and Kelly -
it is also possible to run unmoderated lists where the fact that posts are restricted to only those currently registered as list members removes spam.
The wait for things to be posted by a moderator really slows down exchanges on the H-NET lists I use. Nonetheless, I have found some of the discussion incredibly helpful.
Of course H-NET if for humanities more generally, and it would be great to see a discussion forum branch off some of the H-NET lists - but look around at history discussions in general: the AHA has also recently started a blog. So far it's fun, an index of interesting things online, but HNN does that also. And the CHNM do some wonderful things. Perhaps one of these venues could turn themselves over to more interactive discussion too?

Kelly in Kansas said...

The idea of moderated goes back to scholarly editing and for being sure to maintain the focus of a particular list and point people to another list if what they are looking for isn't on the list you're editing. We are exploring new models but also trying to stay with the theme of at least some content being formally edited so that the scholarship element fits the same standards as elsewhere, most notably print and hard copy.

We are going to pilot on a few of the lists before we launch all of the lists at once. The great news about the structure of H-Net is that each discussion community can adapt the various features to fit their interests. Some still want a listserv feature.

We had major discussions about push versus pull and explorations of how RSS is indeed quite similar to email. So, some communities will probably chose to keep listserv.

We're also looking at what content needs to be moderated and what doesn't and/or can be checked later and taken down if it's inappropriate. Despite all the controls, it's still surprising how easy "non-related" parties can jump in and push inappropriate content to a site.

Another important component we've been discussing that the commercial marketplace (ie Google) cannot ultimately guarantee for the long-term is archiving. H-Net has an extensive and rich archive that we will also be using Web 2.0 tools to better mine.

I agree with Katrina's points about blogging. Even the HNN blogs still harken back to the "sage on the stage" approach even with full comments. Web 2.0 tools will allow users to stream their content to meet their needs. To further explain, we envision each H-Net community member's having a portal page where they can incorporate their various memberships/subscriptions to meet their needs. As always, the devil is in the details. And, despite the great tools, it does take work and support - both people and hardware - to make it all work. Not to mention the partnerships being more fully developed and extended with no real models to use to ensure longevity of mutual interests and financial support.

Regarding H-Reviews, most of the other immediate changes were behind the scenes - it was still very clunky and primarily email based (and you know how complicated it can be to send the same file between many people and everyone know what is going on just by email attachments) and now it's streamlined so that the writing, copyediting, and posting, as well as actually getting books to the right people and ensuring they write the review is much, much easier and demands fewer resources so that the people involved can concentrate on the scholarly end of the work.

We appreciate your interest and active participation in H-Net. We hired one of Katrina's colleagues from Frog in a Well last year. I felt like I already knew him through his blogging presence there and other places. Without Web 2.0, our paths would have never crossed given our distinct scholarly and teaching areas.

Eric said...


I think it is important to remember the each of the lists on H-Net have a different character. Some of that character is based on the ‘personality’ of the list and some of it is shaped by the scholarly field(s) a particular list deals with. Overall the H-Net lists might be losing subscribers for those choosing some other social networking venue, but we have not experienced that on H-World. In fact, over the last 5 years we have gained a number of international subscribers out of Western Europe (Germany and the Netherlands in particular) and China where interest is rising in the field of world history. Within the field, H-World is widely regarded as essential reading starting in graduate school. And it is not unusual for graduate students in a world/global historiography course to be required to utilize the list during the semester.

We work closely with the World History Association and other professional organizations within the field to develop a space for focused professional discussion. Most of that discussion is subscriber generated, but the Editors have organized several formal electronic discussion forums soliciting commentary on a book or issue in the field from 3-5 scholars, allowing them to respond to one another for a few days, then opening the discussion up to the entire list. One such discussion was done in conjunction with a guest editorship of the ejournal “World History Connected” (

Those discussions could certainly happen on another technological platform, but based on the unofficial feedback I get, most of our subscribers prefer an active scholarly editorship / discussion facilitator for several reasons, but primarily to keep the list focused on issues of concern to the field. The Editors are trained in the field and we edit conference announcements, book reviews, and postings accordingly.

I think the issue of to/not to moderate varies from list to list and is not necessarily always connected to the issue of trolling.


Eric Martin
H-World Coeditor