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Listservs Celebrate Central Role in Upper Valley Conversation

Thetford — They’re home to everything from civic debate to offers of piles free stuff.

How much does it cost to run the recycling center on Route 113?

Why do you oppose the VTel Tower?

I found a dead porcupine. Does anybody want it?

They’re the listservs, the online community forums that allow users to write the electronic version of a Post-It note to their neighbors, and they’ve been sparking conversations in the likes of Thetford, Norwich and Lyme for more than a decade.

While listserv poularity is on the decline as Facebook and other interactive social networks expand, they’ve maintained a central role in the public dialogue of the Upper Valley since the first list is said to have been created here in 1999.

Recently, some Thetford users celebrated their listserv’s 10th anniversary — marking the occasion, of course, with a few posts .

“(Thetford listserv founder Stuart Blood’s) post was a good reminder of how thoroughly this communication vehicle has integrated itself into the fiber not just of Thetford, but of the whole Upper Valley,” residents Dan and Dana Grossman wrote in early February. “It’s hard now to imagine getting along without this method of seeking lost pets, finding new homes for old stuff, promoting community dinners and village fairs, and debating community issues.”

By most accounts, the history of listservs in the Upper Valley dates back to 1997, when Lyme resident and then-School Board member Bill Weeks began an email correspondence among residents to exchange ideas about school issues. In 1999, he founded a bona fide listserv, hosted by Dartmouth College and known as the LymeList.

Dartmouth Listserv Postmaster David Avery said the college hosts about 600 lists, but only two of them are town-based. In addition to Lyme, the Enfield list was founded in the late 2000s. Residents can subscribe to either list by visiting https://listserv.dartmouth.edu.

“People joke you can dispose of anything on the list,” Avery said in an email. “Once a person found a dead porcupine while hiking and offered it on the (Lyme) list in case someone wanted it as a source of craft materials. They had three offers in five minutes.”

The lion’s share of Upper Valley listservs was spawned from the Thetford list, which was created by Blood in January 2003, and hosted by ValleyNet starting in March 2004. From there, an additional 21 community-based listservs were cloned. Residents can subscribe to any of the lists by sending a single email to the listserv account, such as thetford@lists.valley.net, and a full list of ValleyNet listservs is available at http://lists.valley.net/lists/lists.

“I look at it as kind of a combination between modern day Town Meeting and general store,” Dana Grossman said in a recent phone interview. “A lot of us don’t cross paths with friends and neighbors in town as used to be the case, and I think the listservs have sort of filled the gap. It makes us feel connected with each other in a way that is really very important for the vibrancy of small-town life.”

At the time of the interview, Dan Grossman was out looking at office chairs — he had seen them listed in a “free” post on the listserv for Norwich, where the Grossmans have offices.

That town’s listserv was described as the “gold standard” of listservs by Hartford Selectman F. X. Flinn, who works as an information technology consultant and uses the Hartford listserv to disseminate information. He and others praised Norwich subscribers for the “tremendous amount of discussion about town policy ... and clearly it has a big impact.”

Norwich resident Watt Alexander was one of many residents who frequently posted on the listserv leading up to this year’s Town Meeting , and was one of several who consistently wrote in favor of an article that would have the town borrow money to build a communication tower rather than partnering on the project with a private firm.

“In Norwich, our listserv has evolved into a fairly active and broadly read source of local news,” Alexander said in an email. “For hyperverbal people like me, it has been a useful path to reach a much broader audience than I could hope to reach face-to-face or through town meetings. While it lacks the immediacy and give-and-take of personal conversations, I believe it allows us all to deepen our understanding of the issues on our own schedules.”

The listservs have not been without some intermittent spats — including some that heated up in Norwich in 2009, when one poster told an ex-resident that “you foment and incite and opine and meddle,” and later complained of “vitriol.”

However, through the years, several subscribers said, an etiquette (Avery said the term is “netiquette”) has evolved.

“In the past, people tended to get a little more testy,” said Dana Grossman, who described herself as a “lurker” on the Norwich listserv. “I think for the most part, that function of the listserv works best when people disagree respectfully. ... The recent debate on the Norwich listserv over the communications tower was fascinating to observe and I thought it was very healthy.”

Flinn called the listservs an information boon, and suggested they’re not diminishing personal interactions from the pre-Internet days, when folks would run into each other at the Post Office or grocery store. Instead, he said, the listserv is enhancing them.

“There are all kinds of different networks where people are talking and having conversations,” he said. “The listserv is just another one of them. Are there people who will never see or participate in a listserv discussion? Yes. Are there people who will never participate in a discussion of the 20 parents who sit around a soccer field every Saturday? Yes. ... So there are pools or networks of people all over the social landscape, and the email discussion lists are just another facet of that.”

Denise Anthony, a sociologist and Director of the Institute for Security, Technology and Society at Dartmouth, said online users in recent years have started to move away from listservs toward “open kinds of communities,” like online bulletin boards and Facebook, “where anybody can come and post.”

In many ways the need for listservs has actually declined with the rise of the Internet, as people can search for information using Google instead of asking a question in a forum like a listserv. But, she said, communities like those in the Upper Valley might be coming full-circle.

“(M)aybe we’ve come back around now where we find ... hearing it from somebody who you know is on ValleyNet or in your community maybe still has a value to it,” she said.

She’s not aware of any research that looks at which community size works best for a robust listserv, but said some hypothetical guesses put forth by Dana Grossman sounded plausible: Upper Valley communities are often small enough that many people know each other and are plugged into local issues, Grossman suggested, but big enough that the listserv will have a critical mass of activity.

“(I post about) somewhat arcane things that I’m looking for, and hardly ever do I get shut out that someone doesn’t have it, and the amazing thing is often only one person contacts me, but it’s the person that I need,” said Lyme resident Michael Whitman, who said he also uses the list for town discussion and promotion of community groups. “I don’t know what I’d do without it.”

Maggie Cassidy can be reached at mcassidy@vnews.com or 603-727-3220.