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When Good Listservs Go Bad

So here’s what happened:

At the beginning of the semester we were bringing in job candidates left and right, and, as usual, there were minor schedule changes that needed to be announced. How do we here in the academy make such department-wide announcements? Tiny slips of paper.

That’s right.

Tiny slips of paper placed in our cubby/mailboxes. No one reads them, and everyone complains about them.

So while talking with Dr. M____, I suggested that we should set up a department-wide listserv for the distribution of announcements, notices, updates, and general departmental business. It took five minutes to set it up, and a half an hour to add all of the members of the department (150 people) as a batch process. No big deal, and a nice service, too.

A couple of announcements went around the list early on, including one introducing the list, its purpose, and some instructions for how to post. No one complained. Everyone I spoke with thought it was a nice idea and that it was high time we had something like this.

And so everything was fine until last night, when, at about 2:18 pm, the following message gets posted to the list:


That was it. Just one simple word from someone who misunderstood and thought he needed to subscribe. Keep in mind, as you read, that everything here is being distributed to 150 faculty, graduate students, and staff. Everyone.

And so…at 3:09, one of our award winning, hard-left leaning, rabble-rousing, luddite poets (in an apparent drunken stupor) posted the following:

oh, no, what is this?

No name. No nothing. Very few people knew who he was just from his email address.

At 3:34, one of our instructors (an older man working on a doctorate in education), who knows almost no one outside his (and also my) office, posted this in response:

dunno…might help if we knew what “this” is and who [that previous poster] is… Sorry for the terse post…in the midst of grading essays…

Then it got bad. First this rolled around:

Who are you people, and why are you coversing in my mail box?

To which someone responded


Around this same time, some kind of computer virus reared its ugly head. And so we get this:

This isn’t funny at all. I am getting covered up in junk mail here. How did this happen? Some of this is pornographic, and I am not at all happy about it.

But it didn’t stop there. There was this:

Probably “conversing.” I have unruly fingers myself when it comes to typing. In answer to the post, if we’re not supposed to converse here, then someone made a mistake. If that is true, then I’ll stop posting until someone requests something of me. I’m usually a better lurker than talker anyway.

And then this:

I don’t know what the hell is going on here. Everything all you people are writing is coming into my mailbox and it keeps pushing my research stuff down so I have to look for it. I don’t have time for it. I did not sign up for this, so who ever did, undo what ever and get me the hell out of it. As for the typo, forgive me for not spell checking my bitching, but I don’t have time for this crap.

I sent out an email explaining (for the second or third time since everyone had been subscribed to this list) what was going on, only to receive this in response–to the entire list:

Just take me off, I am not interested in all this junk mail. I don’t know how this works, but I am afraid when my box gets full it will start deleting important docs I have sent myself from the library. If that happens, shit will hit the fan I tell you.

That’s how it began. This exchange went on for some six hours. I kid you not. Six hours.

Did it end there? Oh no.

At 10:13 pm, I began receiving email containing one simple word:


I quickly received several pieces of email with this word as people began to think that it sounded like a reasonable word to include in an email to 150 of their colleagues and students.

This was all in the wee hours of the morning. And so I went to bed.

The first email I saw, at 7:45 am, said this:

I’ve seen ridiculous SPAM before, but it usually doesn’t whine about research–someone in [that person’s department tell him/her] about the delete button! [He/She/It]’s making me cry. No time to receive crap, only to put it out.

Remember, this is going out to the entire department, and all of the people speaking at this point are graduate students.

Shortly afterwards, I received an email from my boss asking me send out an explanation in hopes of “end[ing] this cacophony,” which I had just finished typing when I received a nice message from one of my colleagues explaining what the list was all about and containing this bit of caution:

In other words, DO NOT hit reply to the listserve again even if you wish to subscribe, unsubscribe, or vent how much you hate listserves. Every member of the department will receive your kind words, and you might place yourself in a light somewhat unfavorable.

This email was, of course, immediately followed by a personal email to the sender–sent to the entire list. Precisely what the poster had warned against.

At long last (10:48 am), the department head sent around an email telling everyone to be quiet, and only to post if their message concerned departmental business.

We think it has all ended for now. At the very least, there’s a silence.

It is an interesting narrative frame, I think, that my day began with the word “subscribe” and ended with a constant barrage of email containing its antithesis. It should offer a sense of closure, of narrative completion, of denoument.

But for some reason I feel empty. And vaguely as if I did something wrong, like not going around to each of the 150 people I’d subscribed and making them read the bloody introductory email that was sent out. Turns out most of them deleted it. Even though it was from their boss, a respected and well-liked colleague.

Post Script
As I finished typing this, I have received an email from one of our old guard professors (who is remarkably computer-literate) with this subject line:

Need a Moderated List….Cannot rely on the wisdom or inner-check of our folks

Indeed. But there is no way in hell I’m going to moderate it. And besides, this defeats the point of being able to immediately distribute information to the entire department.

One cranky graduate student isn’t worth it.

I hope.


Written by srogers

July 2, 2011 at 2:02 am

Posted in Uncategorized

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