The Advantages of Discussions on Email

This post is on a neighborhood discussion list and will be seemingly off-topic but bear with me.

Our neighborhood list, TakomaDC where Takoma Village Cohousing is located, started in the 1990s by 12 neighbors as a way to notify each other of crimes in the neighborhood. In 2003 when ownership was transferred to me, it had 400 subscribers. It now has almost 3,000 who live in this neighborhood and nearby neighborhoods, plus representatives of the mayor's office and elected officials who respond to postings about problems — no trash pick up, open water hydrants, abandoned cars, etc. The list is the center of communication in the neighborhood.

Residents use the list to find out why there are police cars at an intersection or outside a store or bank. Why a helicopter has been circling for 30 minutes at 3 am. They ask for recommendations for pediatricians, car repair, chimney sweeps, the best dry cleaners, etc. My water is out, is yours? Is RCN down or is it just mine? I once asked why snow was acoustically so powerful, and got a response from a scientist at the University of Maryland. Someone usually knows whatever you need to know.

All replies go to the list. This keeps the “conversation between neighbors” and shares information with everyone. While I and others get very tired of yet another request for a “reliable affordable” roofer or request for a “loving dependable” nanny, these are the needs that attract new residents to the list, then they stay to become members of the community.

Members who post attacking, derisive, or derogatory messages are put on moderation so messages have to be approved before posting. I ask them to edit their messages and give suggestions. I remind (and teach) them to state their own opinions as such and base them on factual information and not on the characterizations of the opinions of others. “That’s stupid idea” is not the same as “That idea doesn’t take into account the information that…" Otherwise private conversations with posters have been very fruitful in changing the tone of messages, making them more helpful, and the intent of their message clearer.

Political discussions are limited to election seasons. As discussions have become more successful, we have extended this period to about 3 months before the election. Ironically the original restriction of 4 weeks began in part because Obama supporters were posting almost daily and others demanded equal attention.

We recently had a very successful, insightful discussion on race that lasted several weeks, which most people would think was impossible on an open list with such ethnically and socio-economically diverse members. Based on previous experience I was very dubious when it started but it was wonderful. And almost no off-list arguments with me about requests to rewrite messages.

The same things people often think are the only kinds of messages that are appropriate for email are banned — press releases (except for government agencies), class schedules, museum programs, etc. People in the immediate neighborhood who are selling or renting their own homes themselves can post, but not realtors. Active members can sell their own things —furniture, children’s clothes, etc.—if they live in the neighborhood. Everyone is asked to post "in their own words" when recommending plays or concerts, not just forward excerpts from marketing materials or reviews.

While other email lists are dying, TakomaDC is growing at the rate of ~5 new members a week. Like Cohousing-L, which I credit for the growth of cohousing at least from its start until the cohousing association became more effective, TakomaDC, in my opinion, has contributed to making Takoma one of the places in DC where “everyone” wants to live. It has become Main Street because it focuses the neighborhood on neighbors.

I think email lists fill a need in modern cultures, and should be cultivated in cohousing, particularly in larger communities. A sociologist friend says that the first thing sociologists look for when identifying and defining a community is a common means of communication. Email lists are the most inclusive and transparent means of communication.

During the formation of Takoma Village, the building of the structure as well as the community, our members list served the same purpose as TakomaDC. Recently some members have been making lists of resources and encouraging people to consult them instead of posting requests on our email list. This efficiency has greatly reduced what we know about each other, particularly new members — who is having a plumbing crisis or has a new dog and needs a vet. Such questions result in the sharing of a range of opinions and resources. More importantly, they spark conversations that build relationships.

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Comments

Email not the only way

Cohousing neighborhood lists are excellent to have, but email is not necessarily "the most inclusive and transparent means". Nor, for many of us, is it the most effective means of communication. As a professional copywriter always juggling multiple clients and projects, I really need to limit my inbox traffic. I prefer the use of discussion boards--the layout is cleaner, they're easily searchable, there are notification options, and one can choose which threads or posters to follow or block. In fact, I found this post from my Google news alerts, not from the L-list.
In our neighborhood, we use nextdoor.com to share crime and event news with our larger Tucson neighborhood, which is called Limberlost. Granted, it limits character length, so it's not the place to talk politics, but it works for crime reports, street closures, and other warnings. It also has a map of child molesters and recent activity, as well as Coffee with a Cop meetings.
I'd like to give a shout out to Sean Davey's free cohousing software, which includes both the capability to set up a coho email list and the ability to have an internal discussion board: http://cohousing.site/ If new coho's are still looking for a way to communicate, I heartily recommend his package--it also has a very workable calendar reservation system.
Cheers,
Mary Baker
Sonora Cohousing, Tucson
http://thecohousinglife.proboards.com/