Offering Both the Nice and the Nasty, E-Mail Lists Surge in Usage

With his wife, Bill Adler manages the 5,100-member e-mail list in Cleveland Park. "If somebody is really disruptive, we just ban them." (By Melina Mara -- The Washington Post)
By Steve Hendrix
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, May 7, 2007

For increasing numbers of people and neighborhoods, I-saw-it-on-the-Listserv has become the new I-heard-it-on-the-grapevine.

The use of free group lists for mass e-mails, a mainstay of neighbor-to-neighbor communication for more than a decade, continues to climb steadily as more newcomers sign on and longtime users add additional groups to their routine.

"I think it was very unpredictable that Listservs would achieve the influence they have," said David Weinberger of Harvard University's Berkman Center for Internet and Society. "They are providing the same sort of social circling for adults as [instant messaging] does for young people."

From "seeking vacuum repairman" to "another mugging near metro" to "your charcoal smoke is making me sick," subject lines -- and the messages they contain -- have become rich, varied, sometimes maddening veins of neighborhood gossip.

"We discuss everything," said Philip Bregstone of Takoma Park, who is on six e-mail group lists: one for his daughter's elementary school, two for members of the Washington National Cathedral choir, two for professional window cleaners and one for his North Takoma neighborhood. "Someone has a rooster in our neighborhood, and we've just had a long debate about whether it's better to keep roosters as pets or to cook them. I guess I spend about an hour a day with Listservs."

Listservs were created on an IBM mainframe in 1981. Yahoo, which provides free hosting services in exchange for implanting small ads at the bottom of each message, says it handles more than 8 million groups with more than 100 million members.

According to the Pew Center's Internet and American Life Project, 55 percent of Internet users subscribed to e-mail group lists in 2006 as a way of maintaining ties with the community or hobby groups they belonged to, up from 32 percent in 2001.

The boom, according to Pew, has come as more people wire their homes with the kind of high-speed access that can accommodate a robust flow of lost-dog notices and barbecue invites.

Not to mention some truly nasty spats. Thanks in part to the faceless nature of e-mail communication, the scalding tone of the Internet regularly erupts, even when the topic is as innocuous as, say, parking or yardwork.

An exchange last year on the Glover Park e-mail list began with this: "It's obvious that somebody in the neighborhood is calling in trash violations, and I'd love to know who."

It quickly devolved to this: "Glover Park is full of insane people who think the world revolves around them."

Then this: "You obviously don't like your neighbors . . . and don't know how to probably [sic] thank people for taking the time to answer your inane, stoned questions about the legal ramifications of discarded pet excrement. Maybe you should pack up your Pink Floyd records and just head back to Wheaton. Whaddya say?"

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