Saturday, May 2, 2020

Still Life with Robin: Moderating the Pandemic

Dear List Members,

Two days into our second month of the DC lockdown order, and the Cleveland Park Listserv continues to run at about double its usual (pre-Covid-lockdown) message load. 

I’m very gratified by the good use people are making of this neighbor-to-neighbor communications medium. We’re busy helping to get masks to health care workers, pointing people to ways to find hard-to-locate household goods, posting about opportunities to volunteer or just perform a single favor for someone in need….and that’s on top of all the usual stuff, such as finding a nanny, giving away some extra printer ink, recommending an emergency roofer for someone whose house has sprung a leak….and so much more.

That’s the good news. But whenever you hear someone telling you about the good news side of an equation, you’re always primed to think, “OK, so what’s the bad news?”

And the answer is, with about double the number of messages coming in each day, we’re getting a lot more….how shall I put this delicately?....don’t think I’ll try: crap. So we really need to be more careful than ever not to overload people’s inboxes with unnecessary messages. On such a large and busy listserv, we’ve always had a number of screening techniques in place to help us cut down on repetition and unhelpful hints (see our listserv’s Rules page for all the fine print) – but these days, especially, we need to keep the listserv from becoming bogged down, so that the more important messages are not lost in a rolling tide of message clutter.

With that goal in mind, I thought I’d use my column space today to lay down a top-ten list of what NOT to send to the Cleveland Park Listserv. Call it a UN-Wish-List. Here it is, in Letterman-Show backwards-countdown format, from number ten up to the number one most un-wished-for message:

#10: Thank you notes. It’s always nice to show appreciation for a helpful post – but it’s nicer for all not to have to wade through every thoughtful thank-you that every grateful list member has ever been motivated to send. So please, DO thank the original poster personally, and privately. You can send your thank-you note to the whole list only if your note goes on to offer some new piece of information that adds to the discussion. Otherwise, “reply to original poster” is the way to go. You can read about how to find the right reply option on our handy FAQ page.

#9: “I agree” messages. Same rule above applies to an “I agree” message. We’ll post it to all if you have some new and informative comment to add; otherwise, please tell just the previous poster that their words resonated with you.

#8: Easy answers. Never ask a question that can be answered with a fast Google search or a simple phone call. People have been sending in questions like: “Is the Grosvenor Metro Station closed?” The WMATA website has a service alert icon (it’s the exclamation point in a circle) right on its front page. Click on that and there's your answer. Want to find out if your home is in the delivery zone of your favorite restaurant? Why ask the listserv when the restaurant has a website? Or better still, a delivery app. Or a telephone number -- just call them and ask them! They will be happy to hear from you, believe me. Don’t believe me? Well, there’s no disputing this: Your query is not going to be answered on the listserv!

#7 Half-answer & "maybe" posts. If you’re taking the time to help someone else out with an answer to a query, please take a little extra time to verify your information. A half-answer, a “maybe” or an “I don’t know” response is usually more trouble than it’s worth. Take, for example, the thread a few weeks ago about where to find thermometers in stock. I don’t know how many times I had to deal with the non-helpful “Saw them at CVS” response. What good is that if you don't say which one or when you last saw them on the shelves? Do you know how many CVSes are in area? I don’t either, but it’s waaaay too many for me to guess which one you meant. And if you saw the thermometers a week ago, they’re probably not there now. If you’re going to recommend a place to buy something, at a minimum you need to give the location and a phone number. If you really want to be helpful, you could even call the store and make sure they’ve still got the requested item. If you’re not up to doing that, and think the original query writer should make the call, then please respond off-list with your suggestion. Another type of “half answer” is the one that assumes everyone knows about a particular place or institution. Let’s say there’s a plant sale to benefit a public school. You can’t just say, “It’s on at Murch next week” and expect all listserv readers to know what you mean. There are plenty of non-parents in the neighborhood who don’t know the names and locations of our  local public schools – but they still might want to buy some plants at the sale. So tell them what the place is, where it is, when it’s happening, and give ‘em a number to call or a website to visit if they have questions. Oh, and while we’re at it, please check to be sure that the day of the week matches the calendar date. I do try to catch those slip-ups (they are so common – and we all make them sometimes!) but I’ve been known to miss a few in my day. It helps a lot if you do your own fact-checking.

#6: Public announcements. We are subscribed to all the major city announcement lines (DDOT, DPW, Mayor’s Office, CM Cheh’s Office, Metro/WMATA, MPD, and more) and we will post all their messages that concern this part of the city. For example, we will send out a DDOT notice that Connecticut Ave will be closed from Calvert to Cathedral between X and Y date – but not a notice that the ramp to the 295 Expressway will be closed for the same time. So, as a general rule, if you get a city alert, you do NOT need to forward it to the listserv. That said, we don’t always see every alert that affects our area soon enough to warn people to avoid a trouble spot. So, if you’ve been out for a spin along Reno Road and got as far as Yuma before you ran into a water main break, and it looks like the road will be closed for the rest of the day, it's fine to send that report to the Listserv. If we haven’t already posted the DC Water alert, we’ll post your message and add an editor’s note with the official announcement about the road closing and repair work. We just don’t want everyone routinely forwarding the bulletins they receive. TMI!  

#5 A link to a news article – and the rest of the message box is blank. The first thing to say is that an awful lot of malware and spam looks just like that – an email from someone without any kind of note of explanation. Just a link. It’s a very basic rule of internet safety that you should NEVER, EVER click on a link in an email when you don’t know who the sender is or why they want you to go there. If you ever get anything like that, just delete it, unopened. That’s exactly what we do with all these types of messages. We will never let one go through to the readers. That doesn’t mean you can’t post a message that references an article you’ve read on a subject of interest to the listserv. You just need to write your own message to say why you think the article is relevant to something of concern to listserv readers. In fact, you SHOULD cite a news source as backup to a position you’re taking or an argument you're advancing. One more thing: the topic does need to be related in some specific way to life in this neck o’ the woods. That means, whatever your opinion of the move of Harry & Meghan to LA, and however many news articles you can cite to back up your opinion, we’re still not going to post it on the Cleveland Park Listserv. Now, if the couple should happen to emerge from the Woodley Park/Zoo metro and complain that they’re still a half-mile from the entrance to the Zoo, and it’s a long uphill shlog, pushing baby Archie in a pram – by all means, post that news to the Listserv. And you can give a link to a news article, too. Even better if it has photos. 

#4 Asked & Answered. Please do your level best to keep up with what’s already been posted, to cut down on messages answering a question that’s already been answered,  Sometimes we’ll get ten or more answers to a question that can be resolved in a single reply. Here’s a recent example: Someone wanted to know if you could still pay your real estate tax bill by going in person to a Wells Fargo Bank. The information found on the DC Office of Tax & Revenue website was confusing, even contradictory.  We did post a few different responses, because the first one lacked the information on how the payment situation was going to change in the near future; subsequent posts gave more detailed instructions on the payment options and deadlines. But by the time we had received the tenth or twelfth or twentieth reply on the thread, we were beginning to wonder, “Do these posters even read the listserv? Haven’t they seen this question answered already? Of course, screening out repetitive answers does get a bit trickier when the question under discussion is not one with a yes or no answer but one with a lot of ifs and buts. Still, we get posts that repeat points made by a previous poster. We even get posts sent in by the same poster, reiterating the same point they made the day before. Maybe they think people didn’t get it the first time. I’ll take this opportunity to remind everybody, READ what’s on the list before you send in your own response. You don’t have to wait until you get your listserv email; you can go straight to the Listserv’s website at any time to read what’s up:

#3 The “Not THIS again!” post. Any time a message starts off with “I’m so sick of this discussion I could scream!” or some other variation on that theme, I hit delete. I wish the poster would stop to consider: If you’re so sick of reading about a subject, why on earth would you think anyone else wants to read you saying so? Especially if you go on to add two or three more paragraphs complaining about how stupid the other posters are. Listen, if you think a subject is boring or has been done to death, there’s a simple remedy: stop reading now. Skip right over it and go on to the next thing. If you subscribe to the Listserv in digest mode, then your email comes with an up-front, clickable table of contents. Just skim the subject lines and jump directly to whatever’s of interest. Couldn’t be easier. As for that oft-discussed topic – the reason it’s back again is that something new has come up, something’s changed, and we (the moderators) think the discussion is covering new territory. But you don’t have to agree!  

#2 Scolding, nagging, chiding, or snarky notes. This is the most subjective thing, and you can take my word for it that there’s always a ton of off-list correspondence going on over where the lines should be drawn. I would never claim we always get it right. We’ve let some messages slip through that were too mean, while screening out others that were nowhere near as bad. Whatever you think, don’t accuse us of censorship. This is not a public square. It’s a privately run, privately owned, online daily publication. Think of it like a letters-to-the-editor column of a print newspaper. The publishers/list owners get to decide what to run or decline to run in our space. It’s hard to create cut-and-dried rules for what’s allowed or not allowed, but if I had to issue a general rubric, it would go this way: You can criticize – harshly, if you like – as long as you stick to the ideas expressed in a previous message, and stay away from attacking the person who wrote them. That means no digs at the character, motives, or background of the poster. Most of all, do not make any assumptions about what that person probably thinks but did not explicitly say in their message. Give the poster – and definitely the moderators! – the benefit of the doubt, and please, don’t yell at either one of us. You’re not going to change anyone’s mind that way. Well, you’re not going to get the chance, because -- just like there’s no crying in baseball -- there’s no yelling on the Cleveland Park Listserv.

And now the #1 thing never to send to the CP Listserv under any circumstances: Forwards of random stuff you’ve seen on the net and want to share. NO, NO, NO and more NO! I can’t tell you the number of people who are on multiple lists or Facebook groups or subscribe to blogs or journals where they will see something clever, or funny, or charming, or heartwarming, or will read about an EXTREMELY URGENT situation, which they are moved to share with this group. This may not be such a big deal on a group with a few hundred members, or even one with a few thousand members, but on a listserv like this one, with over 14,800 members, it’s no small thing but a major headache – times some multiple of ten. So our rule for the mass-circulated thing you want everyone to see is the simplest of all: Do NOT hit “forward.” If you do, we will delete it. And 95 percent of our members will bless us for doing so. The other 5 percent – you know who you are! -- and you can heed these words, reform, and make the world – well, at least the world of the Cleveland Park  Listserv -- a better place for us all.

One day – and may it be in the not-too-distant future -- we shall all be able to talk to each other again, face to face, in the real world, and we won’t be spending so much time typing on our keyboards or dictating to voice-recognition apps that mangle every other word. When that day comes, the message volume will slip back down to its pre-Covid level, and we’ll all be a lot calmer and even-keeled. Well, I know I will be. Actually, I feel a lot calmer now, having unloaded my top ten listserv pet peeves on you all tonight.

Thanks for listening!

- Peggy

Peggy Robin
Cleveland Park Listserv Co-Owner & Moderator 

Still Life with Robin is published on the Cleveland Park Listserv and on All Life Is Local on Saturdays.  

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