Saturday, January 07, 2006

Jim Behrle has changed his URL once more. The other day Jim made the following remark on his blog: Silliman's comments fields have become the new Buffalo List.¹

That assertion filled me with something akin to dread. It also made me check out something I’ve been wondering about for a few weeks, which is the gradual de-evolution of the Poetics List. I’ve been a member of the list since late 1994, a few months after it was initiated, and have never signed off, even in the midst of various flame wars. However, since 1995 or thereabouts, I’ve also subscribed only to the digest version, an orderly email that comes out once a day – I get it promptly between midnight and ten minutes thereafter every day. Some of these digests can be pretty lengthy, but lately that has not been the case. If anything, the Poetics List, which last I saw had something like 900 members², has seen the number of posts per day decline markedly. So I decided to take a closer look, comparing the number of posts made in each December since the list began, that being the most recent complete month. The totals look like this:

You can see that the Poetics List has had its ups & downs in years past, but that starting around 2002, usage shot up for a three-year period during which the average number of daily posts for the three Decembers tracked here was 28. My own experience with Listservs, regardless of the number of people on them, has been that 30 is around the upper limit of daily posts over any sustainable period. You can have bursts of 50 or more for a few days, but the time required to wade through even a fraction of those messages overwhelms most readers. However, I’ve seen several lists – not just about poetry – sustain something like 30 per day for extended periods. Which is to say that the Poetics List was operating at something pretty close to maximum capacity for three years running. This is perhaps even more noteworthy coming in a month that includes the holidays, the MLA meat market, and related travel & time away from one’s usual PC workstation.

In 2005, however, the number of posts to the Poetics List in December dropped to less than half of what it had been in each of the three previous years. The average number of posts per day, 14.2, is not only pretty manageable, it really alters the nature and flavor of the list itself – a higher percentage of posts that are simply announcements, fewer (and more intelligible) discussions.

For the past few months, I’ve been using a feature of Blogger that sends me an email copy of every comment posted to my blog. It’s not hard for me to tally up the number of comments made here in December 2005 as well. The number frankly shocked me: 896.

Jimmy would seem to be right. My comments stream has at least absorbed as many comments per day as were being made in years prior to the Poetics List. That doesn’t mean, I should note, that the rise in comments here has come directly at the expense of the Poetics List, only that the phenomena are occurring more or less simultaneously. This is, after all, just one blog among over 700 relating to poetry right now. And the Poetics List is just one among many – Wom-Po, for example, has had 1,036 messages in each of the last two Decembers. Is that a sign that it’s healthier right now than Poetics? Or only that it reached something closer to capacity later than did Poetics? Brit-Po had under 100 messages all last December. Luci-Po, the Lucifer Poetics Group in North Carolina, had 594 messages. Luci-Po, for the record, is unique in my experience in the depth of its ongoing conversations.

In general, tho, the number (and kind) of comments being made to blogs represents a broader, different kind of discourse than one finds generally on Listservs. People aren’t making announcements – at least not very often – and my comments stream has the curious (&, from my perspective, indulgent) aspect to it that I seem to be able to at least initiate the topic under discussion whenever I make a post. However, as any reader will note, comments streams here have a habit, especially of late, of going off topic & sometimes dissolving into testosterone-poisoned pissing matches.

It’s not clear to me who has an interest in reading that, but it does seem self-evident that at least a few people (Jimmy among them: I have zero intention of *ever* behaving”) have some interest in producing it. When I put up my note on New Year’s Eve that mentioned the idea of “blocking the crazies,” I got several emails – not from the usual suspects, either – telling me that they appreciated the openness of the comments stream. So, for the time being at least, I’m going to continue my current approach – I’ll only delete those messages that strike me as spam or as overtly racist, sexist, libelous or otherwise actionable.

But I’m intrigued at how the structure of discourse is changing on the web. It may well be that blogs will be supplanted any moment now by something completely different – tho I’m skeptical that it will be podcasts (which strike me as an inefficient use of time). I can skim through a half dozen newspapers on the web every morning pretty quickly – I can make the rounds of new & interesting (or old & interesting) blogs in just the same way. Listservs are inherently institutional, tho many of them – at least with regards to poetry – have only the most incidental relationship to those institutions. Other kinds of groups, such as those run by Yahoo, have serious privacy issues that need to be addressed, inserting cookies onto user systems so as to be able to track non-Yahoo web surfing.

Watching a discussion ricochet among different blogs is a very different process than watching one in the comments stream, and very different also from watching what happens on a listserv. It’s different also from being at a talk or a reading or a party, although all are settings in which poets can & do exchange ideas. You would think that, as a community, poets might have a better idea what these differences are. But I feel as if I’m just scratching the surface to suggest that they exist at all.


¹ Not, incidentally, the most disturbing one with my name in it on his site (see Foetry’s Alan Cordle wearing an “Obey Ron” t-shirt).

² I haven’t seen a total in quite some time, so this could be wildly off target.