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I Was a Teenage J-Lister

One by-product of the resignation of Dave Weigel as a blogger for the Washington Post was the demise of Journolist, a Google group created by fellow blogger Ezra Klein several years ago. You can read Klein’s rationale for starting and folding the group here.

It’s time to clear something up, a misconception about the role of lists like this. Almost all bloggers, activists, journalists, policy analysts, and writers of all stripes – on both sides of the political aisle, to be sure – have a rich and variegated set of email groups where they talk to each other in private. I just went over and counted, and I am currently signed up with 32 Google groups and a few on Yahoo, all with varying degrees of activity. I’ve de-listed from several groups as well. It should be no shock that people of like minds like to exchange emails with one another.

There was nothing particularly special about Journolist in this regard, as communications in email lists of this type fall into several predictable categories. I know because I was a member of Journolist. I joined late in 2009.

Now that Matt Yglesias has broken ranks and described the nature of some of the discussions on the list, presumably with the consent of the administrator, I can join him in saying that there was no grand scheme to manage media discussion or content or generate talking points on that email list, at least not any more (actually quite a bit less) than any of the other lists I’m on. In fact, I’d argue my presence on Journolist basically confirms that; certainly I’ve expressed differences of opinion both on that list (though I didn’t participate a lot) and in public with list members. To the extent that there’s any “coordinated” strategy to create a monochromatic liberal opinion, all of that happens pretty transparently. Read some of the avatars of liberal opinion, particularly those online writers in the DC corridor, and the same names always crop up. Everybody links to each other’s posts. If there’s a united front of any kind – and I don’t really think there is, as some of those links end in disagreement – it takes place in public, with documentation, and you can pretty much understand who influences who’s opinions by the list of references.

And incidentally, that’s how it ought to be. I have been known on email lists to openly wonder why a great discussion wasn’t happening in public for the benefit of readers. I’ve seen great writers and thinkers retreat into the world of email lists, where only a select few get the benefits of their viewpoints. I think people engage in these closed loops to a fault, and I would prefer a more vibrant discourse in public. That would take the blogosphere closer to what it was before professionalization and, yes, email lists, when everyone linked to everyone else and argued in comment sections and basically filled the online space with a lot of commentary that now goes into email inboxes.

Now, I do find value in the email lists, as aggregators of content, as interesting discussions with a variety of perspectives in and of themselves, as a kind of progressive Google sometimes (ask a question on an email list of this type, you usually get an answer). But let me co-sign to Yglesias’ take on the nature of Journolist:

But I’ve been looking back a bit at what’s archived in my inbox and what you see lately is an effort to organize a happy hour in Dave Weigel honor, many threads about World Cup matches, Wimbledon matches, NBA Finals games, etc., and mostly a lot of what amounts to self-promotion. People sending out links to articles they’ve published or talks they’ve given, sometimes followed by a reply or two. We had a thread in which people speculated as to where Peter Orszag will end up when he leaves the White House.

I actually found this all the least useful part of the list, but it’s a pretty common feature of all of them. People commenting on cultural events and people writing “hey, look what I wrote” (or occasionally “look what this other person wrote,” from the more generous people) basically comprises 80% of all email lists. It was mildly fascinating to see the concerns and priorities of DC types, but it wasn’t particularly special.

Here’s more:

Another common genre of posts was failed efforts to get an interesting discussion going. Someone recently wrote “I find that my own attitudes have hardened a bit regarding intergenerational equity and Medicare cost control issues after watching so many implacable seniors opposing HCR. Others feel the same?” That’s an interesting subject, in my opinion, but only one person replied.

More rarely, debate would really take off. As I alluded to here some of us had a long debate about whether middle class New Yorkers who own extremely expensive pieces of real estate really count as “rich.” Topics that traditionally divide liberals—trade, issues related to merit pay and charter schools, Israel—would often generate long threads.

Actual policy debates are pretty rare on email lists like this, but they happen, and the fact that they did happen on Journolist kind of disproves this notion of groupthink or talking point dissemination. “Debate” pretty much guarantees people taking up contrary positions.

Did anyone ever write “we shouldn’t get ahead of ourselves about X” or “let’s write about Y”? Almost never, and I’d say that happens more frequently on single-issue-subject lists. It also doesn’t work, at least not well from what I’ve seen. It’s also not really necessary on email lists in an age of Twitter and blogs. That “coordination” (I wouldn’t call it that), as I’ve said, happens inevitably and transparently by virtue of what you read and what you link to.

Here’s what I will miss:

Last but by no means least, you had requests for help. “Anyone have an email for Vanity fair columnist James Wolcott?” That was a quick one. A discussion got going recently about whether it made sense for writers to branch out into podcasts or video and what advice folks might have about that. Someone asked “there was one episode earlier this year when the D’s threatened that they were gonna roll out the cots and really make the R’s filibuster, and the R’s caved immediately. What was that about?” There was a question about whether anyone has any contacts at CSPAN.

This will impact my ability to do my job, though not greatly. It was useful having what amounts to a large online rolodex at the ready. That’s why I’m on a lot of the lists I’m on, so I can find out contacts or perspectives from an issue about which I’m unfamiliar or whatever.

IMO, the major issue with Weigel’s resignation is that someone burned him by leaking his emails. That’s a shitty thing to do, and I’ve already written about that. And everyone will probably be more careful about what they write on email from now on. But people are still going to email one another. They might CC a bunch of people. They might even set up a group to make it easier than having to add people to the CC all the time. It makes me angry that I used up 1,200 words to argue that there’s absolutely nothing special about that, but there we are.

I also associate myself with this comment referring to how the Washington Post stands behind their writers.

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David Dayen

David Dayen