Thematic electronic mailing lists: feedback from members of a list on their experience in terms of knowledge and network development

Essay, 2011
21 Pages, Grade: 60/100

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This paper focuses on thematic electronic mailing lists and their use to share knowledge, connections and learning. Through the implementation of a short survey, this study concentrates on a list devoted to the discussion of critical realist epistemology and it investigates feedback from members of that list, with regard to the value they attribute to the list in terms of knowledge, network and visibility development.

The paper also elaborates on the opportunity that thematic electronic mailing lists offer for the application of network, content analysis and netnographic research approaches. Some reflections on ethics and challenges around the use of such approaches are also included in this study.


The pedagogic relevance of learning communities has been studied since a long time ago (Gablenick, MacGregor, Matthews & Smith 1990, Tinto 1995, Tinto 2003); the possibility to look at mailing lists as learning communities has also been repeatedly addressed in literature (Hara, Bonk & Angeli 2000, Concas, Pinna, Porruvecchio & Uras 2007), similarly the opportunities that content and network analytic tools can offer to researchers and practitioners, once applied to the data that electronic mailing lists produce, have been investigated (Moreale & Watt, 2004; Gruzd, 2009b; Kozinets, 2010).

This exploratory paper deals with electronic mailing lists from a number of different perspectives: it builds on categorizations made on the basis of their practical use (finality) and their content (thematic focus) to emphasize constraints and opportunities that finality and thematic focus produce in terms of list researchability. Through the reporting and the discussion of the results emerging from a short questionnaire, the paper also demonstrates that some list affordances (Conole & Dyke, 2004) can be highlighted and monitored to detect whether participants like and/or use them. To investigate this possibility further, the study encourages the application of netnography: a research approach that appears particularly relevant for enabling the emancipatory affordances of electronic mailing lists, in support of potentially disadvantaged members (Steffen-Fluhr, Gruzd, Collins & Osatuy 2010).

With reference to technology enhanced learning, Conole and Dyke 2004, 301 provide a general but certainly relevant definition when they present affordances as the “possible uses […] of information and communication technologies” and see them as properties that emerge from the relationship between technologies and the people who use them. Through the adoption of this definition - that characterizes affordances as possibilities of use, rather than the designer intended uses - this study investigates specifically the perceptions and the leveraging of such properties by members of electronic mailing lists. The three broad sets of social affordances that are considered in this study and henceforth indicated as list affordances pertain the areas of learning, networking and social emancipation.

With the locution of list affordances the author indicates a comprehensive set of properties that include:

1) Learning affordances which refer to list properties that enact participants’ knowledge sharing and development.
2) Networking affordances which concern links and centrality of members, as they might emerge from the email interactions.
3) Emancipatory affordances to be intended as the possibilities that lists offer to potentially disadvantaged members, in terms of learning, visibility and networking opportunities.

The focus and the design of this paper, derives from the research interests of the author and a number of challenges that were encountered during the earliest phases of this study. A broader curiosity towards what determines the use of list affordances, the modalities of such uses and their outcomes, prompted the entire investigation and the initial identification of netnography (Kozinets, 2010), as a methodology capable to address efficiently relevant research aspects, such as list social network dynamics, contents evolution and their reciprocal influence. Unexpectedly a significant number of Critical Realism List participants, initially targeted for the study, refused to embark in a netnographic research and this forced a review of the study both in its scope and methodology. The areas of investigation were eventually reduced to the following questions:

1. What are the affordances – learning, networking, emancipatory properties – that Critical Realism List members enact?
2. How do Critical Realism List members’ differences in gender, age and academic background relate to the enactment and the preferences of list affordances?

A direct survey was adopted to respond to the above questions and the results of the survey were read and analyzed, in the light of additional background information that were provided, via email, by the funder and the administrator of the list.

The paper is organized into three main sections:

Review of literature and general practices: where relevant inputs from literature and practice are quoted and used to clarify the content and the extent to which the areas investigated by this study have so far been addressed.

Research questions: where key research questions and an indication on how they translate into the questionnaire are provided..

Results and conclusions: including a summary of the research findings and some suggestions for further studies.

Review of literature and general practices

During the last decade, conspicuous research has been conducted on mailing lists, their efficacy, productivity and interactive social dynamics (Yokozawa, Shinohara, Ishida 2000; Fielding, Herbsleb 2000; Hertel 2003; Vonkrogh, Spaeth, Lakhani 2003; Ducheneaut 2005; Sack, Détienne, Ducheneaut, et al. 2006; Scacchi 2007; Mockus, Pinzger, Nagappan, Murphy 2008). Most studies in this area have very much dealt with the experience that IT professionals who have collectively and cooperatively addressed tasks that were traditionally accomplished by individuals or teams within formal organizations. Research referring to IT communities has taken into consideration many different aspects of these email exchanges and has built on various forms of analysis (textual and network in particular) to identify more effective and efficient experiences of networked collaborations. The themes, around which these communities were formed, ranged from technical to programming issues that members of lists tried to solve through coordinated and mutually supportive email exchanges.

In practice, these electronic mailing lists, like other dedicated to less technical themes, are simply lists of email addresses from people interested in receiving information or discussing about a given subject. They allow groups of people with common interests to exchange emails quickly and easily. Although there are several different mailing list management programs, which manage the subscriptions, handle the mail, archive messages in slightly different ways, from the finality point of view, thematic electronic mailing lists can be divided roughly into three main groups: announcement lists, discussion lists and mixed purpose lists.

Announcement lists are generally used by an entity – either a person or group – to deliver announcements to a group of people, much like a customers’ mailing list is used by a company to inform customers of the launch of a new article or about the recall of a malfunctioning product.

Discussion lists gather people around a specific theme or project and are created to facilitate discussions and circulation of ideas about that given topic. Every member of the list is potentially able to send mails to the list and have her/his views disseminated within the group and subsequently discussed. Taking advantage from options supported by dedicated software, the moderators of some electronic discussion lists filter all posts and distribute to the entire group only the contributions they judge appropriate. By the same affordance, there are other lists that allow only a few members to address the group as a whole. It must be noted though that most electronic mailing lists leave a large degree of freedom to participants and despite they all have administrators (people in charge of maintaining that one list) and moderators (people in charge of reading posts and deciding if they should be sent on to all subscribers), these lists generally leverage on the sense of responsibility of participants and see very little censorship, if not to defend participants from various forms of spamming.

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Thematic electronic mailing lists: feedback from members of a list on their experience in terms of knowledge and network development
Lancaster University  (Education Research)
PhD in Technology Enhanced Research and Learning
Catalog Number
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1586 KB
Netnography, Electronic Mailing Lists, Affordances
Quote paper
Luca Magni (Author), 2011, Thematic electronic mailing lists: feedback from members of a list on their experience in terms of knowledge and network development, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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