Tuesday, January 22, 2013

Have discussion groups died?

Two mistakes writers make:
 Marketing to other mystery writers.
 Marketing to the same group too often.
 ~Jeffrey Marks, mystery writer and marketer

Jeffrey wrote that quote maybe ten or eleven years ago, about the time I was learning to market at all, so marketing to other mystery writers seemed a safe and comfortable way to start, like a bike with training wheels. I figured my fellow mystery writers, having themselves been where I was, would cut me some slack.

One of my havens was discussion groups. I belonged to half a dozen. In case you don’t go back that far, or have forgotten, discussion groups were text-only e-mails, something like the call-and-response of some African and Indian songs. One person would post a question or a comment and other people would comment on it.

The rules were simple, and by today’s standards, archaic.

No images; no attachments.

No politics; no causes; no religion.

Play nice.

Stick to the subject, which was usually writing. Occasionally the group diverted into recipes, childhood memories, or television programs. After a couple of days the moderator announced that, as of midnight, she would pull the plug on the off-the-topic discussion, so if we had anything we were desperate to get out of our systems, please do so by the end of today.

No marketing. A little self-promotion was permitted, but it had to be discrete and preferably identified by BSP—blatant self-promotion—in the message’s subject line.

Over time, the rules crumbled. Promo lines attached to signatures worked their way in; ditto links attached to signatures. Then links in the messages themselves. Then, “I know I’m not supposed to post this, so I’ll just do it really quickly. My daughter is walking for a good cause and if you could support her, that would be terrific.”

The catastrophic downslide began with the phrase, “Read my blog…” What had been lively centralized discussions fractured into exclusive enclaves, with participants essentially saying, “I have something great to discuss, but I’m not sharing with anybody who doesn’t come play at my house.”

The other thing that happened to discussion groups was an explosion of personal messages. I met and grew to care about a lot of terrific people through these discussion groups. I wanted to know when they had health issues, when someone close to them had died, when they had been affected by a natural disaster or, conversely, when they sold a book, won an award, or got a movie offer.

But did the responses have to be public? What’s wrong with sending a private e-mail? Especially when the responder included the entire original message and add “I’m sorry to hear this.” or “Congratulations,” only to have the next responder pick up the message and add their sentiment, on and on sometimes through a dozen well-wishers, until the message became unreadably long.

I still belong to a few discussion groups, but honestly, I mostly look at the subject lines to see if anyone has died, and I rarely post anything myself. Yet, I’m really on the fence whether I should pull out or stay. I can’t decide if it’s long-term loyalty or I keep hoping they will magically get better. What I know for certain is that the noise-to-useful-information ratio in every discussion group has degenerated to an intolerable level.

 I’m curious to know if this same thing has happened to anyone else? Did you ever participate in discussion groups? Do you still find them useful? If you’ve never participated or have gone on to something else, what’s your current favorite way to keep up with what’s happening in your profession, and with others who do the same thing you do?
Quote for the week

Things work well when a group of people know each other, and things break down when it’s a bunch of random people interacting.
~ Jimmy Wales, co-founder of Wikipedia


Gerald So said...

Hi, Sharon.

I've been a member of discussion groups since the early 1990s and I still belong to about the same number today.

My early experience was negative. I was one of the few critical voices on a handful of Robert B. Parker groups. A lot of fans didn't want to hear a discouraging word about their hero, but there was often no discussion without me. "We all love him, don't we?"

Some years later, a couple of the listowners merged their groups and I was offered a moderator position. This allowed me to set the tone of discussion. I stayed on-topic, asked honest questions, seldom promoted myself, and the group followed suit.

I've moderated three groups of my own since 2000, on P.I. fiction from 1980-present, Robert B. Parker's works and legacy, and crime TV and movies. The key is to have an engaging topic. Right now, my P.I. fiction list is fairly quiet. I don't think there is the same fervor for P.I. fiction in the 2010s that there was in the 1980s-90s, but I've kept the group open. My crime TV and movie list is also quiet, perhaps because a lot of procedural shows are nine or ten years old, and few new shows catch on. Meanwhile, my Robert B. Parker group is the most active. Our current topic is violence in fiction, unfortunately a hot topic amid recent outbursts of real violence. Discussion of Parker has also been renewed with the continuation of his Spenser, Jesse Stone, and Cole and Hitch by Ace Atkins, Michael Brandman, and Robert Knott respectively.

I also think one has to be responsive as a moderator--to open up discussion but also make sure it stays on-topic--or a group becomes something it was never meant to be.

Elizabeth Zelvin said...

I see a lot of pluses and minuses in today's e-lists (aka discussion groups, or am I missing some technical difference). Sometimes when I post about a blog, it means not "I won't share this with you" but "I had 600-800 words to say about this, too many to post here." I also try to include enough of the topic that sometimes a discussion does break out on the e-list, especially on DorothyL. I've learned about some wonderful authors, books, TV shows, and movies on e-lists. I'm also had to put virtual hands over my virtual eyes to avoid seeing spoilers. I'm on hugging terms with some wonderful people I first met on e-lists and later met f2f at conferences, book launches etc. I do scroll through subjects on my e-list digests and skip many of the posts. But what a thrill when I see a reference to my work--or good news about a friend. And it's still fun to add an opinion or have a chance to be entertaining in the topic discussions that still crop up in between the other stuff. I'm not bailing yet.

Sandra Parshall said...

The members-only e-lists provided by writers' organizations are often helpful, if the atmosphere is friendly and moderation isn't overly stringent. As chief moderator of the members-only Sisters in Crime discussion list,I trust the daily moderators to keep things on topic, and they do a wonderful job. We have some lively discussions about writing and publishing. We also have the ubiquitous blog notices, announcements of new publications, links to articles that will be of interest to writers. Personal stuff is kept to a minimum. I've heard plenty of complaints because we don't allow hundreds of people to post messages that say nothing more than "Congratulations!" but the list is better for that rule. People can post congratulations on Facebook, or in private e-mail.

The Novelists Ink members-only e-list is incredibly busy with posts relating to writing and publishing, and I often skim the topics on the digest and delete without reading because I'm not interested in the particular subject under discussion.

The Mystery Writers of America members' e-list is so quiet it could be taken for dead. Rarely does a real discussion break out there. It was livelier when I joined it years ago.

DorothyL is the queen of mystery discussion lists, and I post irregularly (not every day). DL has so many members who are readers-only that it can provide valuable exposure to writers. Flame wars don't seem as frequent as they used to be, but I know some good people who were driven away by attacks on their views. That happens to me too, but I'm not that easy to get rid of.

I think the main challenger to both blogs and discussion lists is Facebook. If you want a lot of back-and-forth with a wide variety of people, Facebook is the place to find it.

Anonymous said...

Thank you all for your comments.

You're getting at what I think is the heart of discussing groups that stay strong: what they share is a sensible, strong person to moderate. Without that the group is likely to take off in all directions at once.

JJM said...

Like Gerald, I've been on lists (e-mail discussion groups, if you prefer; I'm old-school, though [grin]) since about 1990, and am now on as many lists as ever.

As for how active a list is -- it's been my observation, both as a listmember and as a long-time listowner, that there are three factors involved: the listowner (i.e. moderator), the listmembers, and the nature of the list. (Also, btw, on the number of listmembers; you do need a "critical mass".)

The professional and scholarly lists I'm on tend to be very active, remaining mostly on-topic and civilized -- after all, your potential next employer might be reading ... Listowners will step in if necessary, though.

Non-professional, for-fun, or social lists are more likely to need listowner guidance, but listowning styles vary. Dorothy-L, for example, is fairly tightly controlled by its listowner, who is not otherwise an active participant. On the other end of the scale is 4 Mystery Addicts, which has a small committee of listowners who allow more leeway but do much to steer the conversation. Postings to both these lists are quite frequent -- you neglect your e-mail at your peril.

The one social list I'm on that is pretty much member-directed, with a listowner who participates seldom and is pretty much hands-off, is Foodwine. The core listmembers regard each other (and the listowner) as friends, almost family, and even hold the occasional "Foodstock" (reference to "Woodstock") when the travel plans of one intersect with the home of one or more others. The official description of the list explains that it's like a conversation around the kitchen table among people who are interested in all things food and wine (and other forms of potable), and if the conversation drifts off-topic, well, it'll drift back on again soon enough. That style wouldn't work for many other lists, but it does here.


Sandra Parshall said...

A group like DorothyL, with a huge total membership and an unusually large number of active participants, would disintegrate without its rules and its vigilant moderator. DL is all about opinions -- what did you think of this or that crime novel/tv show/movie? -- and those opinions clash regularly. Simply knowing that the moderator is reading and has the power to cut you off is enough to keep most people polite. But not all. I suspect some members live for those sudden explosions. :-)

We have nearly 1,000 members on the SinC listserv (out of a total organization membership of 3,000 or so, but nowhere near all of them actively participate. It's always nice when a silent member pops up to say, "I've just been lurking, but I wanted to say how much I appreciated the recent discussion of (insert topic)." We are all Sisters, with a strong sense of community, and nastiness is rare. Moderators have to personally approve every post, so they can stop the occasional hotheaded response and ask the member if she/he (we have lots of Mister Sisters) would like to tone it down a little. The answer is almost always, "Yes, you're right. Thanks."

JJM said...

Sandra wrote: "A group like DorothyL, with a huge total membership and an unusually large number of active participants, would disintegrate without its rules and its vigilant moderator."

And I agree, certainly about the rules; there will always be rules, usually spelled out in the intro that gets automagically sent out when one joins.

I was in no way dissing the listowner of Dorothy-L (when did the list lose its hyphen, I wonder? [listname]-L used to be standard for any Listserv™ list), only comparing styles -- listowner style, in combination with nature of list and nature of listmembers, is going to be a factor in how active (if at all) a list is. That's all I'm saying.

My comment actually started out as a general reminiscence of the good old days of e-mail lists, which I subsequently pared down to what I actually posted, and that was basically in reaction to your "The Mystery Writers of America members' e-list is so quiet it could be taken for dead. Rarely does a real discussion break out there. It was livelier when I joined it years ago." Unfortunately, I was in a hurry and didn't catch the fact that the paring process also eliminated the connection between my comment and Sharon Wildwind's essay.

Short response to the essay: I definitely did participate on lists, and still do; both the academic and the professional lists I'm on are alive and well, and are great resources for me.--Mario R.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for the great discussion.

We seem to be under bot attack. I've removed the bot posts and will check back, in case anything else sneaks under our radar.

JJM said...

re: Bot attack: it would be a royal pain, but have y'all considered moderating, instead? This guy's getting pretty annoying. (That's not a complaint against any of you, it's a complaint against this *obnox*.)--Mario R.

Anonymous said...

I'm all in favor of moderating, but since we are a group post, I'll have to talk to the other members. In the mean time, I'm shutting down comments to this post as a temporary measure.