Archivists Association Closes Discussion Group That Became Toxic

The Society of American Archivists' listserver was meant to connect professionals and aspirants, but instead hosted a flame-war culture so notorious it had its own hashtag. A look at why SAA shut it down and what’s next.

The Society of American Archivists (SAA) last week moved to shutter its main discussion listserver, which had been notoriously contentious for years and especially toxic in the past year. The decision spotlights common questions around association discussion lists, such as the role of moderators and how much of a role nonmembers ought to play on such lists.

SAA decided that its main Archives and Archivists list would be “decommissioned”—accessible but closed to posting—on December 31 following attempts in recent years by leadership to strengthen its code of conduct [PDF]. SAA had begun more formally moderating the list after an August thread in which “several of the posters used unprofessional or intimidating language,” according to an SAA briefing paper that recommended decommissioning. But the tenor of the list has been a known issue for years, spawning a popular Twitter hashtag, #thatdarnlist, which participants used to express their exasperation.

Why keep the group an open forum? And why was SAA so hesitant to moderate it? “Archivists are information professionals, and they think that information should be free,” said SAA Executive Director Nancy Beaumont. “And they liked the notion that any archivist or anybody with any interest could participate in the list.”

That open-door policy had the benefit of exposing the profession to prospective members, she said; according to the briefing paper, nonmembers accounted for more than twice as many list subscribers as members. But the list could also be a turn-off to people in SAA’s world: According to a 2014 survey by a working group tasked to address the listserver’s problems [PDF], more than half of the respondents said they didn’t subscribe to the list because they “find it to be an unfriendly or unsupportive environment.”

Our thinking is, let’s use this time to talk about what it is that we want to create.

Regardless, in the past year, Beaumont said the off-topic political arguments had become increasingly heated, and the code of conduct flouted more aggressively. “What pushed us over the edge was the result of the political environment and people’s general unhappiness,” she said. “What kept happening is that people wanted the last word. We had a couple of bad actors who knew what our policies are, but they chose to do it anyway. And so I had to suspend the list a couple of times to allow for a cooling-off period.”

The next cooling-off period will be an extended one: SAA is exploring new technology for its discussion groups, and Beaumont anticipates that a new one likely will not launch until August 2018. Beaumont said she wants a replacement list, but one that can better accommodate staff attention only as needed. Staff moderation is unfeasible for their 12-person staff, she said, and added that making the list members-only is one matter SAA will consider. Plus, a new forum might erase the stigma of the past one.

“Our thinking is, let’s use this time to talk about what it is that we want to create and then create it rather than limping along with software that was inadequate, for a list that has a very bad reputation,” she said.

Beaumont stressed that the move doesn’t close off all discussion within SAA, and that the association continues to maintain distinct listservers for its 46 special interest groups. Any concerns that the toxicity that defined the main group will migrate to those lists? “We’ll deal with that when the time comes,” she said. “I have a lot of practice at this point.”

(sergei78/iStock/Getty Images Plus)

Mark Athitakis

By Mark Athitakis

Mark Athitakis, a contributing editor for Associations Now, has written on nonprofits, the arts, and leadership for a variety of publications. He is a coauthor of The Dumbest Moments in Business History and hopes you never qualify for the sequel. MORE

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