The Washington Post
Masters of Their Domain
on Local E-Mail List
By Peggy Robin
Thursday, November 14, 2002; Page DZ04
It has been a day of heavy traffic on the Cleveland Park e-mail list. There's a debate raging on the fate of Klingle Road: Should it be reopened or remain closed? One person has posted four times on the subject in two days. Is that "over-posting"? Meanwhile, a new list member has posted a message introducing herself as a massage therapist, describing the types of massage she practices. Is she simply introducing herself to her neighbors, or is she using the list as a form of free e-mail advertising (otherwise known as "spam"), which our list rules strictly prohibit?
These are the kinds of questions I face every day in my role as moderator of what we believe to be the District's largest neighborhood e-mail list. There are more than 900 members of this free e-mail network. People write in about lost dogs, the search for an honest plumber, the cat-loving housesitter they seek, what new stores are moving into vacant storefronts, whether the traffic light on Porter Street should be retimed, how new zoning rules are needed to restrict the number of bars (but not restaurants) on Connecticut Avenue, and dozens of other things, both weighty and trivial.
My husband, Bill Adler, and I started the e-mail list in 1999, and we have been running it ever since. It's not a lot of work -- half an hour a day on most days -- and it's often fun, although occasionally it can be a big drag. When a message writer ignores the posting rules, Bill or I will take the time to send a brief note to the violator. Bill writes to a member asking him not to send pages and pages of text that overload the system, and then I write to another one asking her not to post endlessly on the same subject. We both write notes reminding members to sign their names, and -- most frequently of all -- to stick to the main subject, our neighborhood.
We learned early on that unless we act quickly in our role as moderators, things get out of hand. Our first big lesson came in the summer of 2000 from the attempt by some Miami residents to bombard the list with messages opposed to the return of Elian Gonzalez to Cuba. The issue was international, but there was a bit of a local hook: At the time, Elian was staying at the Rosedale estate in the heart of Cleveland Park. I suppose the would-be posters thought they could have some influence over events by directing their e-mail to the people who lived in the surrounding neighborhood. But the messages posted were shrill diatribes, not the least bit neighborly in tone.
As a result, Bill and I decided that we had to have some rules about who could post and what sorts of subjects were acceptable. We prohibited name-calling, spamming and cross-posting (that is, including the Cleveland Park list on a mass e-mail list for an announcement or press release). Our aim is to get people to use the list to talk to each other online in just the same way they would if they met in the park or at the supermarket. No shouting slogans at each other. Say hello first, and then say what's on your mind. No commercial advertising. No promotion of out-of-neighborhood causes, however worthy. There are plenty of other e-mail groups to join for those interested in such causes.
Despite the need to rein in the occasional shouter, we think that, on the whole, our list has become one of the most civil in cyberspace. It's useful, too: Lately, people have been approaching Bill or me on the street to say that they found a great contractor through the list, or the most wonderful babysitter. Our list has become the quick and easy way to find the answer to any question. A short while ago, there were helicopters hovering overhead for 20 minutes or more. Someone asked if anyone on the list knew what was going on. Within a few minutes, the answer came back that there had been a holdup at a local market and the robbers had escaped on foot. Police were using helicopters to guide police cars in their attempt to catch the men.
Sometimes misinformation is posted, but usually when that has happened, a list member has jumped in with a correction. Unlike most other e-mail lists that accept anonymous posts, we ask all people to sign their names, to stand behind what they write. That has been one way to keep things neighborly.
Still, sparks do fly on occasion. When Giant Food unveiled plans to expand, heated arguments pro and con dominated the list for months. An e-mail list gives people a fast, convenient way to register opinion -- perhaps too convenient. People who don't attend meetings or write a paper letter that needs a stamp and an envelope can always fire off an e-mail. Yet a good case can be made that the list does provides a fairly accurate way to gauge how the lines are drawn on an issue.
The Giant Food discussion on the e-mail list led directly to the formation of a grass-roots group of residents in favor of a bigger store. (Until that development, meetings had been dominated by leaders of neighborhood organizations adamantly opposed to Giant's expansion plan.) Eventually, city officials worked out a compromise that so far has been hailed by all parties as a victory. We like to think that discussion on our e-mail list played a part in that outcome.
Then there are the perennial issues for which no compromise seems possible: dog walkers who don't scoop vs. neighbors who are sick of the mess. (Oh, you think no one would defend a scoopless dog walk? Think again.) People who think city living means a lively streetscape and, yes, some late night noise, vs. people who think Cleveland Park has always been and should continue to be a tranquil oasis in the midst of a busy city. People who think it's better to let traffic flow smoothly through neighborhood streets vs. people who would like to see more traffic diverted from purely residential streets and onto the major arterials. None of these debates shows any sign of achieving consensus in the near or far future.
As long as people in Cleveland Park have keyboards, e-mail servers and modems, we're going to be hearing more on these subjects. As moderators, we stand ever at the ready, poised to send out a firm but politely worded (and always private) note, "Please refrain from questioning the parentage of another list member. Remember, you are talking to your neighbors. Please keep it friendly! Sincerely, Peggy Robin & Bill Adler, Moderators, Cleveland Park E-mail List."
Peggy Robin is a freelance writer who has published seven (mostly how-to) books. She lived in the Washington area for several years as a teenager, moved back in 1977 and has lived in the city ever since. The Cleveland Park e-mail list can be found at www.cleveland-park.com.
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