The future of H-Net… LiveJournal?

Mills Kelly has started a real debate in the last few couple weeks about the future of H-Net.

(Follow-ups can be found here, here, here, and here… And to see some of the response this engendered, check here, here, here, and here. Also, check out the discussion on the Digital History podcast.)

Now, in the spirit of full disclosure, I have to say that, despite the advice of many professors and colleagues, I am not and never have been a member of an H-Net community. I have my reasons, though. And they have everything to do with why I’m writing this.

Mills’s article brings up the notion of email bankruptcy. People have begun declaring bankruptcy on Social Networking Sites. for that matter, too. Now, when I first heard about this phenomenon, it seemed a bit silly. But then I realized that this was exactly the same thing that had happened to me years ago.

You see, around 1998 or 1999, I declared (without using the term) listserv bankruptcy. After three or four years of being very active on several listservs, I realized that deleting messages from my lists was taking so much time I was neglecting to reply to emails from friends and family. I quit them all, and though I’ve joined one or two briefly since then, I’ve been listserv free for most of the last eight years.

So I guess I have a vested interest in coming up with a new, viable direction that H-Net could go in– it’s for the sake of my own professional development that I’m thinking about this, because I really don’t think I could face the possibility of joining one of those things again.

But it hit me the other day: there’s already an existing piece of open-source software that could do everything H-Net does now and more, that can play to its existing strengths and help improve aspects that are less than ideal.

The answer is LiveJournal.

Those of you rolling your eyes, please hear me out.

LiveJournal is a somewhat beleaguered website, a situation that is partially fair and partially unfair. It’s definitely a site where a lot of people are doing the kind of unintellectual, quotidian blogging that some opponents of leaving the listserv format seem to feel dominate blogging. So yeah, LJ is to a certain extent contributing to blogging’s bad rap. The site’s earliest adopters and most dedicated users have historically skewed young and female, too, and I think that this has also brought the site detractors within certain male-dominated circles of geekdom.

But the most important thing for this discussion is the software’s architecture– LiveJournal’s software is largely open-source,  making it relatively easy to pick it up and throw it on another server. That’s definitely a plus for a nonprofit project like HNet.

More importantly, the LiveJournal framework combines elements of blogging, message boards, and SNSs. Transmitting H-Net to this new system would give it much more functionality.

Let’s imagine what HNetJournal might look like. The H-Net Communities that currently exist as listservs could easily exist as communities like those on LJ. Various levels of moderation can be set up on these communities, so the moderated gatekeeper function that the lists currently serve could be mirrored there.

On the other hand, communities that wanted to become more open could allow more openness in their membership and posting policies if they wished. New communities could even be set up that might be more open to those who feel excluded. There could be an H-History-Undergrad community, for example. Similarly, professors could set up a community that was limited to students in a specific, encouraging discussion out of class and getting students into the habit of seeing the learning community as an important part of education.

Beyond the community feature, however, there’s the personal-journal element– the BLOGGING element of this framework. If blogging was done by the same process as posting a new item or a comment on H-Net, I’d wager a lot more academics would begin at least occasionally blogging. And those of us who already blog could easily set up our HNetJournal blog to simply be an RSS feed of our blogs elsewhere. More eyeballs, more hits, greater readership.

These blogs, like the communities, can be as open or as closed as you want them to be. Anyone afraid of prying eyes, and using that as an excuse not to blog, could blog for a closed community of colleagues that he or she has already established contact with. On LJ it’s called your "friends list." Something more professional sounding would be necessary, but the idea’s a good one.

The friends list does several things. It allows for the above-mentioned level of control over readership for those who’re still a bit weary of being "all over the internet." It’s a blog aggregater that’s less scary than dealing with RSS feed readers for the technophobic. It allows for community building across interests, as well. You may encounter a fascinating French Medievalist whose work you want to track, even though your research in 20th century Japan isn’t really relevant. You wouldn’t need to join a French Medievalist community to maintain that contact. HNetJournal could be good for interdisciplinary discussion.

There’s the fear of losing even more readership to contend with, though. This concern is understandable and real. However, I think it could be overcome. First off, LiveJournal is actually fairly user-friendly and intuitive. I’d challenge anyone reading this with skepticism to set up an account, and play around on the site for a little while. It may have a learning curve, but it’s definitely no harder– and I’d argue it’s actually easier– than navigating WebCT, Blackboard, or PeopleSoft. Changing software and re-acclimating has simply become a part of being an academic anymore, and people eventually come around.

Another thing that could be done to curb this loss of eyeballs– and here I’ll defer to anyone with a knowledge of Perl– would be to set up email notification. LJ as it exists today already has a comment notification feature, where users can have (HTML or Plain Text) notifications of any responses to posts or comments they’ve made. I’d imagine it’d be doable to set up a periodic notification email system that simply relayed information about major activities on all of a user’s subscriptions. Thus those who want to have the information put in their inbox to peruse or ignore could continue to have this done.

…I’m sure I’ve got more to say on the topic, but I’m afraid that this post is already too long, and nobody will read it. Assuming it generates any interest, I’ll continue to ruminate and offer a follow-up post soon.