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Apr 15, 2003: The Death of IA Discourse?

It was posted by Stig Anderson, but it's a sentiment surely common among many SIGIA-L subscribers:

Some time ago this was a great forum for relevant IA discussions and knowledge sharing. However - the amount of posts, disputatious and argumentative to the point of the meaningless (for the majority of list members), have become way too high. Sadly, as I don't know where else to turn.

Amen, brother. SIGIA-L does have a growing problem with nastiness and noise, not to mention occasional trolls. I've almost unsubscribed on three or four occasions in the past few months. And while I'm angry that the list has gone down the toilet, I don't see moderation as the answer. So what do we do?

SIGIA-L is following a lifecycle common to many new communities. A few pioneers, some excitement as it takes off, an emerging sense of community... Then the downward spiral begins.

It seems that in similar situations, salvation comes from splintering. (Sorry, unintentional alliteration!) I'm wondering if we need to consider that with IA. There already is an IA and content management list. Should there be an IA and ethnography list? IA and testing? IA and strategy?

Or we could have lists that live at the intersections of IA and industries (e.g., IA and financial services), or genres (e.g. IA and e-commerce sites). Obviously there are local IA groups that should be mentioned, as well as a members only list maintained by AIfIA.

I wonder if someone (AIfIA?) needs to just go out and create a bunch of these lists and a directory so they're easy to find. Or do new lists need to emerge organically, one by one?

Oh, there is a great list of IA discussion lists in the IAwiki.

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Comment: Celia Romaniuk (Apr 15, 2003)

Sounds like it's time to mention the life cycle of mailing lists (again):

Comment: Lou (Apr 15, 2003)

Yep, I've seen this one before; I just think SIGIA-L folks are looking for an option "6C" which involves going somewhere else. There may no longer be a one-to-one relationship between SIGIA-L and the IA community (if there ever was), but that doesn't mean the community stops existing.

Comment: Mike Jaixen (Apr 15, 2003)

The problem with the subset lists is that there are large gaps in coverage between the lists, and in the memberships of the lists. For example, the IA-CMS list only sees a few posts a month; it's not a thriving community.

One option I like is the "Digest" mode; rather than get individual messages, I get one or two large e-mails each day with the topics. If a flame-war breaks out, I just quickly scan it, and delete. If someone says something that pushes my hot button, it may take a half-day or so before I see it, thus forcing some space between the offending post and the response. Plus, responding is a little more difficult, meaning that I have to think and work a little harder before I post - giving my emotions a little more time to clear out before responding.

I think moderation can also be a good thing, especially if it can be enabled or disabled for certain members who seem to be primarily interested in provoking confrontations.

Comment: Beth (Apr 15, 2003)

I'm with Celia. This is a lifecycle issue, and my apologies in advance, but I think some of this "my list isn't warm and friendly and professional" is rose-colored glasses thinking. Guess what? When you put hundreds or thousands of people in a group, some are going to be on the "wrong" side of the bell curve. Letting them disrupt the group (and send you into stage 6A) is just as much a commentary on the other participants who aren't disruptive as those who are.

All this said, the ID lists solution of having two lists, one moderated and one home to "freewheeling discussions," now seems like an interesting compromise. The former has *4* times the members of the latter. Most folks don't want to deal with the noise. But for those who can, I think you can settle in to a nice 5-6B rotation.

And Lou, I think it is also rose-colored glasses thinking to assume that you can go somewhere else or that splitting will solve the problem. Splitting just moves you earlier into the lifecyle...the pain comes later. As does going somewhere else. My real fear for you folks is that one of these days, one of these "disruptive" elements is going to join aifia and then you'll really be bummed.

Sigh. The metaphor of the double-edged sword strikes again. Freedom and disruption? Or control and boring? Maybe choosing both (a la the ID lists) is the better compromise?

Comment: Cindy Hoffa (Apr 15, 2003)

IA discourse is dead, long live IA discourse...

Comment: Beth (Apr 15, 2003)

Go Cindy :). But the other thought I had is that it is also curious that the complaints about the list often seem to occur at the same time that there are relatively productive discussions on SIGIA, like those right now on visio and mocking wireframes.

I wish I didn't get any spam in my mailbox. Lord knows what I'm missing because of the ways my email filters are set up--or because I just won't click on an email whose subject is "Grow your PENIS 2 inches in 2 days!" :). But I haven't decided to give up on email just because there are scum who are scraping every web page on the Internet for email addresses.

Comment: Livia Labate (Apr 16, 2003)

No matter how well conversations start or begin to evolve on SIGIA-L, it only takes one smarta** comment to get everyone discouraged. The disruptions in the list are bad for all of us and pretty enervating when they become regular, but what can you do?

Here is what *I* do: I ignore the attitude types and read the rest. I have actually implemented a filter on Outlook to automagically delete posts from certain people. Yes, drastic, but imagine how effective it would be if everyone adopted it? Sounds naive to ignore things so they go away, but it works with my 12-year-old brother when he is desperate for attention and bugging me, so why shouldn't it work with folks who act childishly, eh?

We have to face something: some people simply ARE annoying. Some people just CAN'T be constructive. Some people just DON'T understand community spirit. You deal with them at work, in the supermarket, at the bank, on Disneyworld waiting lines. But you do these things nonetheless. That's how I see SIGIA-L. If everyone made an effort NOT to get enervated by the types that do not contribute constructively, the list would naturally evolve into the community we are all wishing for. Ignore them, don't respond, move on.

Let's call it... Survival of the Fittest.

Comment: Stig AndersEn (Apr 16, 2003)

In my post, which was written quickly, in frustration and with the limits I face with English not being my primary language, I had another point too. Maybe it wasn't very clear. Can I use a little of Lou's space to elaborate?

What I regret and are frustrated about, is not the amount of irrelevant *threats* but the response posts. And most of all, the tone-of-voice in the community and these argumentative posts. As we all know, initiated by a few people (or is it the same person with multiple IDs?), and followed up by well-meaning colleagues who's just had enough. (Admitted - I've been there too).

So what to do, to save what once was *the* community? What e.g. in plenum in Baltimore and Portland was referred to as "the list", assuming everybody was on it.

I think it's a good idea with multiple lists for specific IA topics. But - it will not help SIGIA-L. I believe the IA community will benefit from a list that is intended to cover IA on a general level. There will probably be a need and demand for such a general list too. From IAs but also because we sometimes see posts from students and other "outsiders" that just want help to gain insight. So it would be wrong to just run away from the problem with SIGIA-L.

The best suggestion I have heard so far is to shut down the list for a couple of months. It would - hopefully - clear the air. Like cutting back a tree. When opened again, the steam will be off, the mind cleared and maybe the community will have remebered how to maintain and charish the valuable asset.

I'm not a big fan of any form of moderation in such a big forum.

I hope I'm being more clear this time.

Stig AndersEn

Comment: Gunnar Langemark (Apr 16, 2003)

I've been known to be a pain in the a.. sometimes.

When You're in a room with thousands of people some of them are going to be a pain in the a.. to somebody.

I don't really see the discussions right now on the list to be that bad. We've seen far worse.
If you ajust your expectations of the list, you'll be able to deal with it on your end of the line.

That said, I do think there's an awfull lot of noise on the list right now. So I don't read it all.

Also: Maybe these nitti-gritty, argumentative, going nowhere discussions on the list can be seen as a sign?
Maybe they are a sign that IAs hope for unification of IA where no unification is to be found.

IA is not that easily fenced in. :)

Maybe the very academic and very analytical nature of the "definition" preoccupied part of the IA community, works as "powerbait" to trolls and flamers.

Also there seems to be a lot of personal relationship stuff going on. Some people simply act as the "in crowd", and come off in the eyes of others as selfproclaimed "owners" of IA, which is sure to spark some anger.

I don't have the solution to this, but I think we will have to live with disagreement, with trolls, with discussions we personally do not like, and with people taking responsibility, and thus putting themselves in a position where they'll be percieved as annoyingly active and as pushing others out of the circuit.


Just my 2 cents


Comment: Lou (Apr 16, 2003)

Beth, I actually kind of like being on lists when they're early in the cycle; that's when the best stuff is being posted anyway. But I really like the ID model that you suggested; that seems to make the most sense.

Stig, I agree; when a single person is responsible for something like a third of the postings of a 2000+ member list, it does tend to get frustrating. Along those lines, Donna Fritzsche posted some interesting ideas to SIGIA-L on list management if you're interested:

http://www.info-arch.org/lists/sigia-l/0304/0301.html and http://www.info-arch.org/lists/sigia-l/0304/0302.html

Comment: Dey Alexander (Apr 16, 2003)

From my perspective, list participants can say what they want, when they want, but I hope they use a descriptive subject line so that I can choose to ignore certain issues if I wish.

I may have missed a lot of content: I admit to having skipped over the vast majority of messages on the sigia-l in recent weeks. However, I've been grateful for the few threads that have had content of interest.

Comment: Mark Thristan (Apr 16, 2003)

I sometimes get the impression that, as a group, IAs think themselves immune from the less desirable effects of information exchange, that is to say, humans and the variety of opinions they hold. Perhaps this is because as an occupation we are - more or less - used to telling and pontificating even if we do try to be as focused on the needs of others as possible. In *any* social network you will have more useful people and less useful people - this of course affects communication, but it's just the signal/noise way of things.

Of course, we can always *improve* matters, but we will never *solve* the problem of "unwanted" postings, as they are inherent in the nature of things. Whose call is it anyway to decide when someone is becoming a nuisance - an easy question on Lou's bloug, but elsewhere...?

I realise this isn't the most helpful posting ever, but I reckon it's sometimes worth taking a step back from details...apologies for rattling on

Comment: Lou (Apr 16, 2003)

Mark, I think you're right to step back; it is helpful. It's good for us to step back as a community from time to time and ask ourselves if we're really that different and if so, how.

Still, it's a frustrating situation partly because we, as a community, have so much to offer each other. Instead, more and more we take shots at each other. Yes, the economy sucks and we have larger, more global reasons to be unhappy. But instead of circling the wagons and supporting each other, we're regressing into cannibals.

This is clearly not so much an issue of mailing list lifecycles and management rather than how we treat each other as professionals and colleagues.

And I'll admit, while SIGIA-L disgusts me, the tone and vibe at the IA Summit in Portland last month were incredibly heartening. I guess FTF might have something to do with it...

Comment: Gene (Apr 17, 2003)

While the signal:noise ratio on SIGIA-l might suck, the raw signal over the past couple of months has been rather impressive. Here are a few memorable threads:

Less spatiality, more semantics?

Findability is dead, Long live ummm... Meaning?

Prominence in short lists

"Study: Content Management Tools Fail"
http://www.info-arch.org/lists/sigia-l/0302/0419.html (started by Ziya, no less)

Maybe it's just a post-Summit honeymoon, but I thought that SIGIA-l had turned a corner. The problem seems to be one or two people (well, one in particular) and their garbage posts.

Comment: Donna (Apr 17, 2003)

Hi Gene,
Thanks for mentioning this. I actually had seriously considered sorting through the messages from March and April and trying to pick out the highlights (in my opinion) and summarizing them for the list - and myself. I knew that I was missing a lot of valuable information by not reading them all. Sometimes I postponed reading them because they were just too intellectually loaded to digest while drinking my morning coffee or taking a quick break during my day. Other times, there was just way too much noise and I didn't think it was a good use of my time to sort through it all.

A note to Livia, Beth, Mark, and Gunnar - Most of us know that a list will never be "perfect" . We know that not every post will be relevant, constructive, etc. We know that sometimes people will be blowing off steam, etc. In fact, in doses, some of this keeps the list interesting and brings in diverse opinions. I personally donít mind some of the noise -but when its a couple of people creating most of the noise due to the combined volume and content of their posts - then I think its worth addressing.

Some have suggested filtering out the offenders. This only works if everyone does it - which I think on a list that keeps growing is impractical; even if I filter out one person, if someone else chooses to reply to their post, I'll still end up reading the words of the person I tried to filter out.

The sad part is, that some of the people who post frequently actually have some pretty good things to say every now and then - its just that the ratio of good to bad varies unpredictably and its to the point where I find it a waste of time to sort through.

In response to Livia's analogy, if the people in the store lines or at the bank really bugged you (for whatever reason) - you might turn to an online service for your groceries and banking. I still do mine errands in person -because I like human contact! I think the main reason people turn to online services in these areas is to manage their time wisely. I think this is the main motivating factor for those of us who want to "improve" the list. We value our time. And actually, I think Lou has a point- we value quality in our interactions with our professional peers.

One final thought, I remember reading somewhere (maybe a paper by Bates),that a metadata approach needs to be revised when the content it addresses has grown by a certain order of magnitude. I see managing a list in the same way. Sigia-l has grown significantly, its not unreasonable to think that we might want to reconsider how it operates at this point. The process that works for 300 participants doesnít necessarily work for 2000 participants..

Thanks for listening! :)


Comment: donna (Apr 17, 2003)

Correction - It has been awhile since I have discussed things in a large group format. One of my sentences might have read like it was directed to Livia specifically, it wasn't. :) It might have read better if I worded it like this:

In response to Livia's analogy, if the people in the store lines or at the bank really bugged *someone* (for whatever reason) - that person might turn to an online service for your groceries and banking. I still do mine errands in person -because I like human contact! I think the main reason people turn to online services in these areas is to manage their time wisely....



Comment: Lyle, Lyle - Croc O' Lyle (Apr 21, 2003)

Personally, I think SIGIA-L is way overdue for some flavor of moderation. I'd quickly jump at the chance to ditch the unmoderated list for a moderated one. I think the two-list option sounds great - it gives people both options and I would hope archives would be publicly available to anyone. The frequency of my reading and posting to the list has slowed immensely in the last 6 months or more - the signal to noise is horrible. Now I have filters that file all posts into a folder, and every now and then I poke through the subject lines and may even occasionally post something. But the days of reading even the start of every thread are long gone.

The list is still very valuable - but much more costly than it should be in terms of time, irritation, and effort used to extract that value.

** Sigh. **

Is there a leader in the house? How does a community decide whether or not to moderate? Can we call for a vote? How about a survey just to gauge the members' attitudes on the topic?

Comment: Adam Polansky (Apr 24, 2003)

My 2 cents, I'm a believer in evolution. Yes, I've been discouraged by people who've used the list as a place to pick a fight over a tangent. More than once I've made posted something only to get flamed by someone that seems to be looking for something at which to take offense and the offense is usually over something that has nothing to do with the point. I used to respond with an apology and a request to keep our eyes on the ball.

My use of the list has changed over time. (I was one of the core group that seeded the list after the first IA Summit and one of SIGIA's first officers) I was, at one time, very active on the list. Over the years, economic down-turns and employment problems that saw me slide pretty sharply down Maslow's hierarchy of needs had me concentrating on other things. In spite of that, I continued to recieve the posts, peep in every few days just to see what sort of collective high-lights or smudges were being added to the IA geschtalt.

Fortunately, my situation has improved I'm back in the practice again with a long-term contract and I've begun to scrutinize the list for things that are relevant to what I'm doing for ideas, suggestions, practical approaches and resources. The value (for me) is still there. Yes the signal/noise ratio is higher, and yes, some people have run off the reservation in terms of what they feel like they need to argue about. However, the thing that made the list useful (to me) when it was created is still there.

Back to the point of evolution: If sub-lists need to be created, they will and the people who need them will do it. I feel that IAs intrisically, are doers.

It's good to be back and I'm glad the list is there.

Comment: Lou (Apr 24, 2003)

...and it's very good to have you back Adam!

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