One List To Rule Them All

There are many reasons contemporary American anthropology feels fragmented and lost, without direction: the discipline has grown in size, there is no clear theoretical paradigm, etc. But beyond these reasons there is one force, more powerful than all of them put together, that accounts for our current malaise:

We don’t have an email list.

This was brought home to me recently when a European colleague emailed me and said they had an announcement they wanted widely circulated. Could I tell them the address of the American anthropology listserv so that they could post it there? I was like: uh…..

We lack a single unified way of communicating with each other. I mean, we have one of course. The AAA could easily create numerous forums for us to communicate with one another about our discipline. But in fact the blog is mostly focused on posting the fact that the staff can win industry awards or throwing up pictures of adorable subaltern children. There is no general AAA list, no system in place to quickly create section lists, etc.

It’s not that there aren’t lots of good scholarly debates on the net. We’ve formed patchwork communities with varying degrees of academic seriousness, and these have done a great job of keeping the conversation going. But there is no centralized or all inclusive place for us all — and especially not one which has all the nice affordances of a listserv: polyvocal, pushed to our inbox, long-format, familiar technologically to anyone who uses email. It’s a bit shocking really.

Or maybe it’s not. It is one thing to have every anthropologist in the UK on AnthropologyMatters or every Oceanist on ASAO — quite another thing to try to cram 20,000 people onto a single mailing list.

Here at SM we’ve often thought about starting a list of this sort, but we’ve never felt comfortable making such a hegemonic gesture. And also, no one has the time to manage it. It’s exactly the sort of thing the AAA should have tried to run with about fifteen years ago, but (to the best of my knowledge) never got around to it. While a listserv feels like an answer to me, there might be other ones — the point would be centralization, however it happens, technically.


Alex Golub is an associate professor of anthropology at the University of Hawai‘i at Mānoa. His book Leviathans at The Gold Mine has been published by Duke University Press. You can contact him at

24 thoughts on “One List To Rule Them All

  1. Why don’t you just take the plunge with one of the major email autoresponder services and see how it works out. Most if not all of them have free trials of some sort.

  2. I dropped Anthro-L a long time ago because it became like spam. Too much communication is just as bad as (or worse than) too little. It would have to be nice if there were a way to opt-in to the kind of information/posts you wish to receive. Also, I am not sure AAA is inclusive of all anthropologists and what about non-members who are also interested in the field but perhaps have no affiliation or cannot afford membership in the society? Some issues to consider for whomever decides to take this on.

  3. The five most recent postings as of the moment on the AFS listserve:

    India’s Alan Lomax?
    Ethnic radio scholar for Yiddish Radio symposium ?
    Immigrant arts ethnographies – suggestions needed
    Indigenous Siberians images

    Fwd: Deadline extended for Research Poster Exhibition at AFS 2012

    A AAA-in scope anthropology listserve would be this × 10? 50? 100?

  4. What you’re describing is pretty much what the OAC offers today, only via social media instead of yet another listserv. Email discussion has largely been displaced by other forms of online communication and I’m not sure we should encourage a step back.

  5. I’m new to the OAC and I still don’t get it. Maybe if there was an orientation or a welcome wagon the transition would roll out a little more smoothly for me. From what I can tell nothing ever happens there or its happening in places where I can’t see it. At least with email I already know what I’m doing.

    Once I get my grades in I’ll try a little harder but I’m reluctant to invest time in something like OAC when its unclear whether there’s a pay off.

  6. “a step back”? Wow, I feel like I’m in a Wired article from 1997.

    Teleological accounts of technology aside, OAC is a great organization, although I have to admit that like Matt I’ve never figured out how to make it work. And also, it’s a European location, not an American one.

    Anth-l is, like OAC, a great example of one of those locations where the conversation is kept going on the Internet but…. yeah….

    I don’t know. I take the point that a single list with 20K people on it would be crazy, but I feel like there is still some way to hang more communication on the AAA’s structure. I’m thinking, of course, about forums for talking about changing the organization. Which is maybe why the AAA hasn’t created any?

  7. MTBradley points usefully to the example of Publore but it is important to note that it is not an official AFS listserv. It is a venerable list that many feel very attached to, but it is outside the AFS sphere of influence/control.

    The AFS is working through the very issues under discussion here, but is trying to center things in ongoing experiments based on its new and rapidly changing website. One of the problems with starting a new list in 2012 is the status of the listserv as a technology. The example here is Publore vis-a-vis H-FOLK. The H-SOMETHING_OR_OTHER (i.e. H-NET) brand is very strong but by the time the AFS and its organizational partners in folklore got there, the form was in eclipse (see also, Facebook, Twitter, RSS, WordPress, etc.). I think it would be a challenge to get a new broad list up and running in anthropology, even with several major societies behind such an effort.

  8. I have long felt the lack of large, relevant list-servs in archaeology (or anthropology). Maybe check with other disciplines. I know from some sociology colleagues that they have one or more listservs that light up when something sociologically relevant or controversial comes out in, say, the NY Times. And they seem to have knowledgeable scholars saying real things, not a lot of blather (clueless amateurs and others, shooting off their mouths) as in the few listservs I know in archaeology.

    Yes, the AAA should do this kind of thing, but I’m not going to hold my breath….

  9. This is really interesting stuff and a great comment stream. The listserv is a powerful device and as a non-academic content curation guru put it “e-mail is still the killer app.” In that sense, I see at least mild competition developing for access to that 20,000-person list. One reason I started Anthropology Report was to try and carve out some internet real estate before scraper sites took over. Through the OAC and some of the larger listservs, anthropology may be moving toward the one big list, or at least it seems more interconnected than might have been the case several years ago.

  10. @Rex, I agree that there must be a way to hang more communication on the AAA structure. You’re right to ask why these things weren’t done 15 years ago. There is no doubt that anthro activity online is fragmented and could benefit from being brought together somehow. And of course I get that email is still a primary means of communication, esp. among academics.

    The OAC is still a work in progress and run on volunteer labor. Perhaps the AAA has the resources to do something more structured, but they’re not even trying.

    Incidentally, I’m surprised the OAC comes off as European rather than international. 30% of the membership is North American. The largest group by nationality are Americans (1400) followed by British at half that number. The same percentage of members are from Canada as India, and the same from Germany as Brazil. I think there’s some overlap here between this post and Chris Kelty’s latest on OA, especially when we’re talking about a mass anthropology mailing list being a good idea for AAA members. I’m American, but I can’t afford to be an AAA member. So I already feel shut out of a lot that the AAA does.

    @Matt @GRS, you can subscribe by email to what interests you at the OAC. Email digests will be available soon too, so maybe that will help gravitate people to where the action is.

  11. Most e-mail lists are useless. I’m on the Central States Anthropology Society listserv since I’m a member and I end up ignoring most of the messages on it because they are essentially frivolous. The problem with a lot of academic e-mail lists is that there is no filter. They end up filled with tons of e-mails that are effectively spam. “Hey, check out this cool film about topic x which costs too much for you to view.” “Hey, there’s a presentation in Fairbanks, Alaska that none of you will be able to see but I’m going to post an announcement about it anyway.”

    What, we really need is a central message board/forum. A message board/forum allows people to filter the content of messages (e.g. blocking users whose posts they don’t want to read, ignoring threads which clearly aren’t applicable to a given reader). It allows for better organization (i.e. you relegate certain types of messages to specific sub-board). Finally, it allows for conversations with multiple people at once instead of the complicated back and forth that can occur on e-mail lists. Someone who is not a grad student really needs to set one up.

  12. I too no longer subscribe to Anthro-L. I just mentioned it because it seems the closest thing to a disciplinary list that we have. I also never use OAC. Not because I can’t figure it out, but because it seems that it requires a tremendous time-commitment to use it well. It isn’t like blogs or twitter where you can simply get your feet wet and get back on with what you were doing. You have to dive in head-first.

    Perhaps a better model for what might work for the particular uses Rex is talking about might be something like Reddit. I don’t use that either, but perhaps I would if it was made up of anthropologists? One high-volume list I do subscribe to is H-Asia, which is moderated. As I understand it, Reddit is succesful largely because of community moderation.

  13. While agreeing fundamentally with grad student guy’s observation about the need for filtering, it is far from clear to me that any currently available technological solution is likely to solve the problem. As far as I can make out, the patterns that emerge in forums like OAC are not that different from those that emerge on listservs. After an initial period of enthusiasm in which people jump on board and stake out positions, things settle down to a handful of contributors accounting for most of the traffic and occasional outbursts of concern about why more people aren’t contributing.

    The alternative is to consider filtering as a political problem, where the fundamental dilemma is the gap between the ideal of openness and ease of access and the reality that most people can’t or don’t want to spend large amounts of their day responding to a mass of material that grows exponentially and is mostly repetitious and, in event the best sense, juvenile — an endless rehashing of old arguments that rarely goes anywhere.

    The only plausible scheme that I have been able to imagine is modeled on secret societies with a hierarchy of concentric circles, in which it requires an invitation to move toward the center for all but the outermost circle, to which everyone is invited. Are there other options to consider?

  14. I’ve wondered about this too. The AAA section lists that I have experience with (SCA, EASIANTH, ..) are pretty uneven and also pretty specific. It seems like an H-Anthro along the lines of the H-Net lists would be really useful. OAC has been problematic in my experience, if nothing else, way too much spam.

  15. Alternatives to ListServes/Mass Email Lists:
    It may not really be what you are thinking of, but it is possible to create a AAA group or fan page on facebook or do the equivalent on Google + (I’m still figure google+ out).

    Depending on the degree of centralized control you are looking for a Fan page would all someone at the AAA would have to maintain the page and basically post news so we could all send whatever we want to share to the person who was in charge of running the page. The AAA already as one such fanpage specifically for the Career Center. But a AAA news fanpage could be a possible solution.

    A “group” such as the one for neuroanthro allows all members to post whatever they want and then other members can comment on the information. This would keep it inboxes from being flooded, but it would be harder to find older posts. The “group” option may be better suited for small groups. My two largest facebook groups have a little over 400 members. Also the group option requires the least amount of management. The effort is mostly in getting people to participate.

    I am less familiar with Google+ and its options of a “page” or a hangout. I don’t think a hangout would be well suited for the purpose, but a page could work.

  16. I want to suggest that a distributed network of blogs with multiple aggregating hubs is as close to the ideal means of communication that can get right now. Listservs tend to be dominated by a few voices, tend to be largely irrelevant to a person’s particular interests, are easy to ignore if desired, and have a tendency to degenerate into flame wars. I’ve never been on Anth-L, but I’ve long been a member of EANTH-L, and largely ignore it now. Listservs, in my opinion, are great for very small communities to communicate, but beyond a certain point they just become a distraction.
    As for the OAC – some of you may know I’ve had my troubles with it since shortly after it was created. I’ll not go into details, suffice to say that it hasn’t lived up to the open ideal that its founders had in mind. Beyond that, though, I think Ning is a cumbersome system, and the social network model tends to be difficult to manage in any kind of egalitarian way.
    Blogs, on the other hand, are excellent. Anyone can start one, and it’s just a matter of building connections with others within a community by commenting, re-posting, using trackbacks, etc. It’s not easy, of course, but why should it be? The problem with blogs is that, unless you’re adamant about following a certain set or part of a blogging community that regularly inter-connects, they’re too diffuse to serve as a universal communication in the way that Rex suggests. What’s needed is some way to aggregate the blogs in a single location. Jason has done a great job with this in The Anthropology Report, and there’s also the blog list. By having multiple hubs, you would get different perspectives on the blog community, and make it so that newcomers can easily stumble onto one or more places with lots of information. I also second Kerim’s Reddit suggestion, which allows for feedback to drive those blog entries that get moved to the top.
    In the end, I suspect we’ll need to rely on a heterogeneity of online tools – blogs, listservs, OAC, Facebook groups, twitter feeds, G+ circles, etc. – there are benefits and drawbacks to all of them, and some people will prefer certain sources to others. But combined they tend to balance each other out to create an effective, though messy means of communication.

  17. Thank you for all of your suggestions on new social media opportunities that AAA could embark on. I’d like to bring to your attention the opportunities that AAA currently offers as platforms for anthropological conversation, some of which were even suggested here in the comments:




    @Syndey – check out the above Facebook link, it’s different from the Career Center group – which is intended solely for career opportunities over general anthropological interests.

    Also, due to the vast array of interests within the discipline of anthropology, AAA does offer a variety of e-mail listserves through its sections. The complete list of offerings is located on the AAA website:

  18. What we really need is a central message board/forum.

    That’s not a bad idea at all. I regularly visit a couple of forums—set up on vBulletin, fwiw—and they can actually be both informative as well as kind of fun. In addition to the substantive stuff, visitors may post or ignore images of adorable subaltern (or even enlisted) children a bene placito.

  19. We have over 2000 members on Anthropology Matters – not just UK – membership is worldwide. We’ve kept things simple by sticking to announcements – jobs, meetings, workshops, calls for papers, conferences – and it has always primarily been aimed at postgraduate students in anthropology. It seems to have worked pretty well so far, and required very little in terms of list management. Good luck if you go ahead with this (although not at all sure about this ‘rule them all’ business!)

  20. Okay, wow. I totally agree with Rex.

    This email problem hit me last year, too.

    Name’s Ashkuff, by the way. I’m a business anthropologist, marketer, and guest blogger for AAA. Since I noted the problem, I explored the community of online marketing, learned some tactics, experimented with them, and my email list grew predictably. Felt like a Kalahari ethnographer learning how to hunt; only less cool and athletic. LOL.

    Rex? I don’t know if you read these comments, but if you do, check your inbox for a proposal of mine. We can put a dent in this problem pretty quickly.

    — Ashkuff | | Bored with reading about others’ adventures? Burning to venture out yourself? Let this applied anthropologist remind you how.

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