Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Bullamanka-Pinheads, Building Virtual Community Before Facebook and Twitter

Over a decade ago there was a listserv called Preserv-L that had 600 or so subscribers, mostly professionals within the Historic Preservation field.

The person who formed this listserv was a computer science major and had an idea to start a list. He had nothing more than an idea to create an online vessel and not much of a connection w/ historic preservation. There was very little done to cultivate the list, and there were no rules of engagement stated once a person signed up. People subscribed to the list I think because of the word [Preserv], but I believe the oddest thing about it is that less than 1% of the correspondents actually wanted to receive any e-mails.

I found this uncommunication out when, wanting to explore how to develop a virtual community, I started to write a tongue-in-cheek series about a brother and sister who inquired as to how best to treat the preservation of a fiberglass outhouse that may have been used by Alan Ginsberg and Peter Orlovsky at a 1970s War Moratorium in Washington, DC, and that their father had acquired prior to his decease. [SOS Gab & Eti... SOS = Save Our Shitters, it went on as a serial e-mail narrative for like 2 years. T-shirts are no longer available. And since Geocities has shut down the series seems no longer to be hiding along the I-way. No more leaftime I suppose? No more recreation of bubble gum splotches on historic Levittown sidewalks?]

This vein of humor got a whole lot of people pissed off. [Also confused my mother since in a brilliantly inspired sleight of hand I used her e-mail address.] Eventually I found myself scorned in public in business, spurned on visits to historic sites where my name was mentioned, and in time I received virulent death threats (a lot of screwed up people have Masters in Historic Preservation along w/ debt load) against the characters... but I also found an audience, and friends that did not take historic preservation with quite so much of a Blue Blood Holy Grail fanatic obsessive religious attitude.

With all of the death threats and angst and other unpleasantness (that included my enduring a life sustaining heart operation for reasons not having much to do with social network media, but having something remotely to do with a long weekend in a Polish hospital w/ a visit to cardiac intensive care w/ 24 hr surveillance, pretty nurses to watch through the window at their station) I went looking for a host for a listserve independent of nasty people that don’t want to hear from each other, don’t want to know each other, have hatred in their hearts, small brain capacities and feel very proprietary in protection of their career investments.

We landed w/ St. John’s University at the psychology department. Our list was hosted alongside support groups for mental depressives, recovering drug addicts, and people with odd psychological disturbances and bizarre illnesses that to this day I cannot even pronounce the names of.

For the longest time we imagined that we were lab rats.

Bullamanka derives from the possibly Australian idea that it means “over there that away but we are not quite sure if it is there, or not, or even if it exists at all” and Pinheads derives from what was then called the Preservation Industry Network (PIN) and well, pinheads. We used to get various preservationists together in the NYC area once a month and share coffee and bagels for an informal breakfast gathering. Until we got sophistication, upgraded our act and abruptly stopped doing that.

We do not advertise the BP list, though your reading this is something of an advertisement, and sometimes I get the impression that as a community we do our best to chase people away from the list once they have subscribed.

Regardless, eventually St. John’s gave up their server status and we ended up w/ ICORS.

In great deal this transition and survival, and the retention of our archives (13 years of histo presto history, BS, noise, no or little signal, picnics, deviant stories, technical information, and plain good writing) is indebted to COD, our one subscriber who understands how to keep the internal lights of the machine burning. And seeing as how COD created light it makes sense that he/she/it wld know how to do that.

ICORS just got an award from L-Soft
and they asked if we would mind contributing to a survey.

BP survey -- Please provide a brief description of your list:

- Name: Bullamanka-Pinheads

- URL/link to archives: To terminate puerile preservation prattling among pals and the uncoffee-ed, or to change your settings, go to: <>

- Purpose: Connect practitioners and otherwise, often in remote or urban locations around the earth, who are involved in the preservation of the existing built environment, outreach, community support, problem solving, education, idle entertainment.

- Content Overview: Preservation of the existing built environment within a closed-system earth, stories shared, help given, questions answered, people connected

- Subscribership: Just past 13 years of activity in October, roughly 100 subscribers on average. Traditional trades practitioners, writers, educators, architects, structural engineers, architectural conservators, and the curious and friendly.

Please provide one or two examples (without names/identifying information) of how your list has helped its subscribers: Currently one of our subscribers is in the Yucatan in the jungle attending an environmental conference. He is a stonemason and a story teller and as an avid audience we are keeping tabs on him. His writing stories about his work and adventures, and the audience that he has through the list, induced him to attend a week long writers conference in Minnesota. Another member recently lost her PALS glasses while traveling and we all pitched in with various comments to aid and confuse her. Post-Katrina a number of subscribers participated on-the-ground in various efforts in New Orleans, in particular to work in the historic section of the Lower 9th Ward. We also recently learned how to avoid cone nosed kissing bugs.

Please describe how your list provides a unique service and benefits to its subscribers: Serves as a community of support to answer to the needs of individuals who are in the business of preserving the built environment. It is relevant that the most green building is the existing building that is not thrown away. The people who help save old buildings often need a channel of support to save themselves from being thrown away. We connect people.

Please describe how your list makes use of various LISTSERV features: As the subscribers have various levels of computer skills, and various levels of connection to the internet, some of the connections being dial-up or through their local library, and in several different time zones, the lack of bells n’ whistles works best. We have tried in the past to move the community to web passed forums and other forms of social networking and in all cases the result was a total failure. We do not share photos, and we do not ascribe to the correction of grammar or spelling. [We do have a special hand signal with which to identify each other in public in RL. – this was not included in the survey response.]

What is the one thing you would most like people to understand about your email list? We long ago made a decision to promote quality of subscriber over quantity. We play a lot of games, joke with each other, and some people found the laughter to provide too high of a noise:signal ratio. What we have found is that when people play games together, that when real important business comes up that a context exists with which we have a sense of trust in the sincerity of the communications. Noise is not distraction, it is the environment within which depth of relationships are cultivated. But never never wax your porch screens with Thompson's Waterseal.

What are some of the key issues and challenges facing your subscribers and stakeholders? How does email list technology enable you to assist them with these issues? E-mail is asymmetrical in that a subscriber either participates in full, or does not participate at all. It is difficult sometimes to control the excessive flow of e-mails, to not overwhelm people in information that they consider irrelevant to their own personal perspectives.

Please provide a quote summarizing the way your list helps change and improve people's lives: The CDC updates on people biting bats is always a blessing. When all else fails we laugh about it.