My meeting has listserve. Aside from the obvious lack of intimacy using this kind of communication (more on that later), I’ve been reflecting recently about how or whether listserves serve Quaker process. For many years, Olympia Monthly Meeting has had a practice of going around the room after worship to introduce ourselves, to allow for “afterthoughts”, or to share announcements “pertinent to the life of the meeting”. This last category is very broad, and can really say a lot about us as a community. I sense when we are more or less on the same page as a community when I hear these announcements and gauge reactions, just like how a rich worship may spill into more afterthoughts as spirit moving among us stirs our collective pot. After worship we rise, drink weak coffee and follow up with those who shared things that touched us.
Enter the listserve. What gets posted on the listserve for the 166 hours we’re not at meeting may or may not have much to do with things that are even mentioned during announcements. From the privacy of our homes or phones, we post event invitations (progressive, social-justicey or bird-on-it as a rule), ride requests and offers, budget updates, draft business meeting minutes, poetry, prayer requests, product promotions, final logistics for Quaker events already posted in the newsletter. Sometimes, like when a member is sick and the community comes to their aid during the week, message threads begin that provide helpful updates or instructions and respond to everyone’s concern for that person. Other times threads begin unintentionally when a general request or even a specific personal appeal is replied to en mass to the whole list. It is maddening to include your email address in a mass request very clearly requesting individual RSVPs only to get a crazy avalanche of dozens of cross-posted replies and running commentary irrelevant to 90% of the viewers in response. Many times folks will defend a unilateral decision about something in meeting by saying “well, I posted it to the listeserve” (though obviously not everyone is on there and for clear reasons many have no interest in joining) Typically if something very serious or unexpected occurs, like a death in the community, somehow we know that it’s better to set up a phone tree to let folks know.
In anthropology it is commonly understood that most rules are learned when they are broken. Unspoken boundaries certainly exist on the listserve, but as far as I know we have never made any attempt to establish real guidelines. “Great!” you say “isn’t that truly uninhibited continuing revelation at work?” Besides the obvious inconveniences, I’m not so sure. Last year when some nitty gritty exchanges regarding an open conflict in the meeting were mistakenly posted to the whole list, the fallout was intense. The sender was publicly admonished for their mistake in meeting (to the shocked surprise of a whole segment of the community not on the list), they apologized for saying something they never would have said if they’d known it would be shared publicly ( “I would have of course not doffed my hat to Thee privately”), and our take away was that this Friend had blown it. This individual shouldered disproportionate responsibility and we missed an opportunity for growth as a community because of the two Golden Rules of Quaker Club: #1 There are no rules in Quaker Club. #2 You do not talk about Quaker Club. We recently hosted a Friend come to talk about Eldering who challenged these rules of (liberal) Quakerism in his own words. “How we can we hold people accountable as a community if we are not clear about our boundaries or rules?” He pushed us and we DO have rules and boundaries. We emperil ourselves more seriously if we not only deny we have rules but also tacitly discourage discussions that seem to question “they way we do things.” This is of course not a new discussion for the online convergent Friends community.
I think the listserve was created with the best of intentions, but as a tool in practice it invariably reflects some of our biggest blind spots. I would also challenge the digital Quaker community to consider this as an extension of a bigger discussion about elective use of technology within Quaker meetings. We must also ask ourselves: What might come of more and more of our communication taking place in this sterile, impersonal format, especially considering hangups that exist already in our bricks and mortar community? Occasionally I suspect folks post things to the list just to provoke a response out of their community that sits silently for much of its time together. Unencumbered by the expectation to share with Holy inspiration, we cast our thoughts into the Olympia Monthly Meeting corner of the vast digital abyss, hoping our request for feedback on meeting minutes provokes an invite to a butter churning workshop.