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Barry Wellman, University of Toronto, firstname.lastname@example.org
Youngsters may think that the American Sociological Association was always as internet-sophisticated as it now appears to be. After all, we register online, submit papers online, and, if all goes well, communicate online with the Executive Office or section members.
It was not always like that. Too often, even sociologists assume that things are just so because that is the way they are. But crucial decisions were made years ago to make our sections’ websites and e-mail Listservs the way they are. There is no technological determinism for the internet. This is my story of how our main communication mechanisms came to be—and what you might do to develop them further.
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It was 20 years ago, in 1994-95, that the catalyst of this story, the recently deceased President-Elect Maureen Hallinan called me by what we now call “landline” (except in those days we said, “by phone”). “Barry, we need to get the ASA into the age of the Internet. Can you help?” She knew I was one of the few sociologists at the time hanging out with computer scientists interested in developing ways for people to talk with each other. So, I became the ASA’s first—and so far only—Electronic Advisor, 1995 to 1997.
Then, as now, the ASA had at least three power centers. The President is the most visible, but only reigns for two years: one as President-Elect shepherding the program and one in full presidential panoply. The other two, less visible, power centers are longer-term: The Executive Officer runs the place as chief operating officer. The Secretary, also functioning as the Treasurer, has immense power as the chair of the Committee on the Executive Office and Budget. She has the power to say, “We can’t afford it,” or “We can.” At the time, the Executive Officer was Felice Levine, who has gone on to run the American Educational Research Association (AERA) and the Secretary was the formidable Teresa (Terry) Sullivan who went on to face down Tea Partiers as the President of the University of Virginia.
Maureen Hallinan’s main concern was communication. We agreed that it would not be possible or wise to get all ASA members talking with each other—perish the cacophonous thought—but that it would be great to enhance communication within sections. Sections had only two communication channels then. One was ASA Annual Meeting sessions and section receptions. The second was intermittent newsletters, printed and mailed by the U.S. Postal Service. Together, both communications consumed most of a section’s budget and were so rare as to leave great gaps in connectivity.
What to do? Active discussion among Maureen, Felice, Terry, and me led to a two-fold solution: The ASA would set up section websites—only a few had them—and section Listservs.
The websites would get information out from section leaders to members. In short, they would be what we now call Web 1.0. One member of our little band wanted to impose a strict template on how the websites should look. This would ostensibly make it easier for the webmasters maintaining the site, but it would also limit design creativity and section initiatives.
So, a hybrid solution was set up. Every section was given a standard template. As I recall, the ASA Executive Office filled it in at the start. These template section pages are still there, containing a Mission Statement and a list of officers. To see the current list of sections and their web pages, visit asanet.org/sections/list.cfm. The ASA-hosted pages also link to a call for awards, award recipients, bylaws, and in some cases, individualized section websites. These individual websites allow sections to create their own styles and do more exciting things. The Section on Altruism, Morality and Social Solidarity has a nice one.
What about communication to and with section members? After some initial false hopes, we realized that ASA members rarely went to their section websites. Even the few websites that were frequently updated did not have enough “pull.”
E-mail-based section Listservs were the answer, for they would “push” information at members. Like websites, these came in two flavors. First, only administrators were allowed to post messages to the official section Listserv, which went out to all section members. In addition, when e-mail attachments and easier formatting came along, e-newsletters supplanted printed section newsletters, delivered by the administrator to the section Listserv or announced there but posted on the section website. For example, the Science, Knowledg,e and Technology section does a nice weekly one.
Second, some sections already had active discussion lists that enabled all members to contribute, and a few other sections soon started them. In some cases, posting and reading was not even limited to section members but open to kindred scholars in other disciplines and other countries. For example, the Community and Urban Sociology Section (CUSS) Listserv has participants from the Community and Urban research committees of the International Sociological Association.
Using standard Listserv procedures, participants in these discussion lists can choose to get every message as it is posted or, as I do, get quasi-daily digests containing a bunch of messages. Here, too, the CUSS and the Communication and Information Technologies Section have been exemplars. While setting up these discussion lists was bothersome at the start, Judith Friedman, CUSS’s long-serving listmaster tells me that experience and better software have made them easy to handle.
The sections now are a mixed electronic bag. Some primarily use the official ASA website template; others use their own individualized sites with much variation in how informative and current they are. Most sections only have infrequent announcements by administrators, while some have lively discussion lists with multiple members posting daily. My sense is that some section officials may not be aware that they can create their own websites or have open e-discussions. I was unable to find many links to Listservs from section websites.
I strongly feel that every section should have a discussion list. Yet, less than half have one now. A discussion list takes very little work after initial setup, and they actively share information and build community among section members. Skimmable daily digests make them easy to read quickly. I suggest administrators bar attachments to avoid malware and limit length.
Websites are more work to set up and maintain, but by this time, each section should have a few volunteer members competent to do this as webmasters and newsletter editors. The technology is much easier to use these days: no need for wizards.
Now that the ASA has set up a Social Media Task Force with more than a score of members, we may see another burst of cyber-energy as we march bravely into the 21st century. (For example, sections (or subsections) might set up thematic blogs.) But the task force responsibilities are diffuse. Changes to ASA publications were ruled off-limits, so I will have to wait even longer until my dream is realized: making the American Sociological Review as well as other ASA journals short readable articles showing ideas and key findings, with hyperlinks to more extended presentations of the technical stuff and literature review.
Acknowledgements: My thanks to Justin Lini and Johanna Olexy (ASA Executive Office), and to section leaders Mary Blair-Loy (Organization, Occupations & Work), Steven Epstein (Science, Knowledge & Tech), Judith Friedman and Ray Hutchinson (Community & Urban), and Laura Robinson (Communication and Information Tech). This article is dedicated to Maureen Hallinan, an effective saint.
Barry Wellman directs NetLab at the iSchool, University of Toronto. He is the co-author with Lee Rainie of Networked: The New Social Operating System_(MIT Press, 2012).
(Editor’s note: During section orientation there are units on communicating via Listservs, websites, and social media. All chairs are sent instructions on using the Listservs).