Wither H-Net?

Mills Kelly over at edwired wonders about the health of H-Net in the Web 2.0 era. Resorting to a little number crunching, he found that traffic on three out of four lists he surveyed dropped by from 10 to 77 percent over the past three years. Sadly, that seems to fit with my own experience on the lists I have subscribed to over the past 10 years or so.

Aside from level of traffic, Kelly also notes that the content has grown quite different over the past few years as well. In many cases, these lists are no longer the “communities” of discussion envisioned by H-Net’s founders (at least as I remember it). They seem more like bulletin boards, generally marked by a one-way style of communication, or as Kelly observes, “conference announcements, requests for papers, or cross-postings from other lists. Definitely not the cutting edge of scholarship these lists used to offer.”

Another troubling indicator of the health of H-Net is the evident decline in the number of book reviews published on the lists over the past year. Last year the H-Net lists published 960 reviews before September 1—up from 825 the year before. So far this year, only 506 reviews appear in the database at H-Reviews, a pretty precipitous decline.

I find this quite sad. As an early fan of H-Net, I helped engineer a free booth for them at AHA meetings in the mid-1990s to bring the cutting edge of technology into our meetings. H-Net serves an essential function for the profession as a channel of communication. Over the past 12 years I have used the H-Net lists to distribute information on jobs, prizes, and events as well as requests for articles and a survey on part-time employment. In almost every case, I received a wider and more immediate response from the H-Net lists than I did through print publication of the same information. In that respect, H-Net represents a valuable tool in the exchange of information about scholarship and history.

I am not prepared to write H-Net’s epitaph by any means. There are plenty of smart people working over there, and I assume they are developing new plans for H-Net. But as we at the AHA struggle to shift the balance our traditions in print with the imperatives of new media, it is troubling to see an organization that was “born digital” seemingly falling behind the fast pace of technological progress.

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  1. Kelly Woestman

    Mills makes some excellent points about where H-Net needs to be going. We’ve been discussing some of these issues internally for several years – money and time and labor are issues as always.

    The communities I’m most associated with are alive and well and we are also in the process of launching a new list on the teaching and learning of history and those researching this emerging area.

    We need to continue to have these types of conversations so that we make sure we adopt the best technology to meet our useres needs instead of letting the technology drive the content by our unwillingness ot move forward.

    Kelly Woestman
    H-Net Vice-President for Teaching and Learning
    woestman@pittstate.edu

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  2. Larry Cebula

    Twelve years ago I took a tenure-track job at my small school in the rural Midwest. A great job but one that came with a heavy teaching load and very meager resources for professional development. A few decades ago taking a job like mine would have meant you were out of the game. You can’t go to conferences or archives, your professional networks wither as your research agenda stalls out, and no one ever hears from you again.

    The start of my career, however, coincided with the start of H-Net, and that has made all the difference. H-Net has been a huge professional boon, especially to academics off the beaten path. I have used H-Net to organize conference proposals, to learn about new publications and approaches, and to keep in touch with my discipline. My book and my modest list of articles were enhanced by contacts I made on H-Net. The H-Net lists have been a lifeline.

    On the other hand H-Net was never the non-stop colloquium that we all hoped it would become. It has always been more of a bulletin board and a bibliography exchange. A conversation on the lists is an anomaly. And H-Net has not kept up with the digital times. The 1980s listserv software is cumbersome indeed compared to platforms like Yahoo Groups or Blogger. You can’t share a picture or a document via H-Net, unless you upload it somewhere else on the web. The email digests are ungainly and filled with administrative spam—announcements not relevant to the list and so on.

    The real history conversations we had hoped would come out of H-Net are finally developing, but on individual and community blogs rather than listservs. The blogs are uneven, idiosyncratic, and hard to find and even the most popular count their fan base in two digits. But imagine how popular and active an H-Net (or AHA?) blog on say American Indian History could be. With a built-in initial readership from the H-Net lists and the blogs ability to contain real conversations and post pictures, H-Net group blogs (where anyone subscribed could start a new post) could realize the initial promise of H-Net.

    What do you think, Kelly?

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  3. Tim Lacy

    Colleagues,

    As someone active in both the blog and H-Net arena (esp. H-Ideas), I see advantages to both. I don’t see why they can’t coexist—-after a necessary adjustment period. With that, right now we’re in the midst of H-Net adjusting to weblogs: historians are only just now seeing the advantages of the latter and doing something with the technology.

    But weblogs are not yet fully a push technology (unless you’re active with readers and such). H-Net lists push important information on us: all we have to do is delete unnecessary notes. H-Net, moreover, is established. Many scholars are comfortable with list activity: they’re fine with the types of notes received, the lists are moderated fairly carefully, and they often know others on the lists (at least by name). H-Net is also more collaborative than weblogs—-at this point. I’ve witnessed the emergence of several group blogs in the past year, and even helped start one (http://us-intellectual-history.blogspot.com, or USIH). But overall weblogs are still mostly run by individuals.

    But there’s no electronic collaborative panacea to interconnectivity and networking. Just as H-Net activity ebbs and flows, so does blogging. USIH goes through dry spells: teaching interferes, summer comes, inspiration wanes, etc.

    As for the downturn in reviews, well, that could be explained by weblogs. We review books at USIH, in part, because there are so many books to review. Plus, we wanted to underscore books related to U.S. intellectual history in particular. But weblogs and H-Net share one thing in common: they lack the word and length restrictions of reviews published on paper. Of course this can be a negative: wordy reviews might become more common. Let’s hope not. But my point is that they seem to be complementary technologies with regard to reviewing.

    Sincerely,

    Tim Lacy
    Loyola University Chicago

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  4. Larry Cebula

    I did not mean to set up an opposition between listservs and blogs, but to highlight one of the ways that H-Net’s software has fallen behind and a possible alternative approach. Tim makes a good point that we need a push technology. RSS feeds would be nice for the H-Net discussion groups.

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  5. Julie Hofmann

    As one of the editors for H-Teach, I have to say that we have an awful lot of conversation going on. I think each H-Net list has its own culture, and the cultures are sometimes influenced by the editors. But I use H-Net and blogging very differently, and can’t see either taking the place of the other. My blogging informs my writing and helps me to connect with other academics in my field, some of whom are at the same point in their careers. Those connections are collegial on more than one level. H-Net is only professional. I honestly don’t want to read the kinds of things my colleagues and I blog about on H-Net.

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  6. Mark Stoneman

    Larry Cebula writes that RSS feeds would be nice for H-Net discussion groups. Actually, such RSS feeds exist, and I use them, but they were not easy to find. I had to Google “H-Net” and “RSS” to find a page devoted to RSS feeds. Really there should be RSS feed buttons on every page that contains changing content.

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  7. Zachary Schrag

    Mark Stoneman is correct that H-Net has done a poor job of publicizing its RSS feeds. These are a wonderful feature that allow me to keep track of H-Net discussions without a single message hitting my in-box. Their existence suggests that the opposition between H-Net and blogs is not as great as it might initially seem.

    That said, H-Net should consider borrowing additional design features from the world of blogging:

    1. A post and its replies should appear on a single web page, instead of forcing the reader to click “View the Next Message . . . by thread” for each comment on the original.

    2. Readers should be able to post or reply through their web browsers, as I am replying to this blog entry, rather than having to send an e-mail.

    3. Most importantly, H-Net discussions should be open to Google and other search engines. Since H-Net is now mostly invisible to Google, is it any surprise that our students use Wikipedia instead?

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  8. Kelly Woestman

    In case not everyone was aware, Matrix provides the technology for H-Net and much of the technological expertise for the core operation. H-Net is dedicated to open source for the same reasons that others are – providing the best product at the smallest cost without commercial profitability being a primary driver (ads, etc.)

    There are several products in development and a lead programmer’s recent untimely death will slow H-Net down a bit more. However, H-Net is headed in the directions described above but is battling with the same challenges discussed throughout the H-Net lists and blogosphere – moving from a comfortable, established technology (email lists) to not only figuring out which technology will best serve the needs of H-Net but also satisfy the demands of its diverse community members. Second Life has emerged as the dominant 3D online interactive world for primarily the same reasons that H-Net has been so successful – users drive the community. And, as is the case with both of these ‘worlds,’ meeting the demands of hundreds of thousands of diverse users is a challenge – but one the H-Net leadership is attempting to manage.

    We will be meeting at the Social Science History Association meeting in Chicago in November and I imagine will once again spend much time discussing these issues. H-Net will also host a reception at the AHA meeting and invites anyone interested in H-Net to join us.

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  9. Katja Hering

    If you consider the number of book reviews published on H-Net, you have to include the reviews published by H Soz u Kult in German, which are not included under H Reviews, but which you can search with the general H-Net search engine. In 2005, H Soz u Kult published 994 reviews; in 2006, 1026 reviews, and in 2007, up to now (Sept. 16), 678 reviews. These numbers don’t really justify to speak of a “decline” in the number of published reviews.

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