Community ties grow on town's e-mail list
By David Desjardins, Globe Correspondent, 7/25/2002
ARLINGTON - When a Fordham Street house burned down on July 6, news of the tragedy sparked a community response. One resident, Jerri Newman, contacted the family who owned the house, asking what kind of help they needed. Another, Diane Gordon - whose own house had burned down a couple of years ago - talked about the aid her family received after the fire, and, along with still others, volunteered to help organize assistance.
Offers of aid in the wake of a neighbor's disaster are not all that unusual, but the nature of this particular response was. None of the people offering help knew the family who lost their home; in fact, many didn't even know one another. Their interactions took place mostly over the Internet. They are members of Arlington's e-mail list, a lively daily online conversation devoted to all things Arlington.
''It was very nice to get a call from those people,'' said Marianne Benson, whose family is in temporary housing until the house can be rebuilt. ''It's wonderful what they did.''
The list, a five-year-old institution in town, doesn't always concern itself with such serious matters. Topics for public consumption range from excitement over the imminent opening nearby of a Krispy Kreme donut shop to the pros and cons of closing one of the town's fire stations.
E-mail lists aimed at people with a common interest are all over the Internet; there are lists for devotees of almost anything one can think of: dog lovers, hikers, train enthusiasts. Arlington's list is uncommon in that, for a group whose members have only their place of residence in common, participation is extremely active. Postings to the list usually run over 100 each day.
''I've never participated in an e-mail list that's so local,'' said Jan Stetson, a technical writer who constructed the Web site www.arlingtonlist.org, where people can get access to the list. '' A person says, `A tree fell in my yard, and I've cut it up: Does anyone want firewood?'''
Officials in the neighboring towns of Belmont, Lexington, and Winchester say they don't know of any comparable list in their communities. Even technology-savvy Cambridge has no links to an e-mail list from the town's official Web site.
''Arlington is frankly ahead of most other towns on this,'' said Bob Sprague, Arlington's webmaster, a frequent contributor to the list.
His opinion is echoed by many list subscribers. ''Arlington has a huge number of people who have made the leap of using e-mail as a way of life,'' said David Coletta, who manages the Arlington list. ''It's no coincidence that AT&T and RCN both used Arlington as a pilot community for rolling out cable modems. Many people here are in high-tech, and they have the money.''
The list is open to anyone who wants to subscribe. Messages come via e-mail either individually or in batches of as many as 30 messages at a time. Subscribers can read all posted messages, which include the sender's name and e-mail address, and can respond either individually or to the list itself.
Started in 1997 by Betsy Schwartz - using software made available at the University of Massachusetts at Boston, where she worked - the list is many things to many people: 550 subscribers by last count.
Some members are content simply to read other people's messages - ''lurkers'' is the term that list members use for these. Others write frequently on a universe of subjects: the frequent power losses of recent weeks, for which NSTAR has come under severe fire; the proposed closing of the Park Circle fire station (later defeated at Town Meeting); news about new restaurants; recommendations on local business establishments. Some submit messages of immediate interest: Travis J.I. Corcoran - known to list members as TJIC for his initials - for example, said, ''I sometimes send out news flashes (for example, an oil spill on Mass. Ave. which caused me to drop my bike during my cycle commute), because I know that others do read continuously and may be able to make use of alerts.''
Town officials also use the list on an informal basis. School Committee member Paul Schlichtman, Selectwoman Diane M. Mahon, and state Representative J. James Marzilli Jr. are all regular contributors, and Sprague, the town's webmaster, makes frequent use of the list to disseminate town-related information. The town's Web site contains a link to the list. Sprague is such a frequent poster that list manager Coletta said a lot of people write him and call him Bob.
Political discourse is also a regular component of the list. Corcoran, a seven-year Arlington resident, relishes the list's political debate because, he said, his ''libertarian/anarchist'' views are generally unrepresented there. On the other side of the political spectrum is Joe Tully, a Town Meeting member who describes himself as ''left of left'': ''I'm probably more active than I ever wanted to be. I can't let things go.'' Tully said he views the list as ''a quick and efficient microcosm of the Internet, as it relates to our town politics.''
A key element of the list's popularity seems to be its open atmosphere. Unlike many e-mail lists, the Arlington list is not moderated: members' submissions are uncensored.
Coletta - who works for eRoom Technology, in Cambridge, and said he spends a couple of hours a week of his personal time managing the list - describes himself as ''the benevolent dictator.'' There are pretty simple rules, he said: no personal attacks on other list members and no re-posting of private e-mail. When those rules are violated, Coletta said, he contacts the offending party. ''When I give someone a warning,'' he said, ''people have generally responded positively.''
Still, sometimes the conversation on the list gets heated; in some people's opinion, too hot. ''There's quite a free range of political debate on the e-mail list,'' said Sprague. ''Because it gets into such free-ranging discussion, it's probably best that the town not be formally connected with it.''
Stetson said the free expression found on the list is crucial. Another list she subscribed to, she said, changed dramatically after becoming a moderated forum: ''It became essentially useless. It didn't seem to be a free-flowing conversation. It ceased to have the immediacy - that you could throw out a question or problem and get back answers from a variety of quarters.''
When it comes to discussing the list's role in the community, most members point with pride to its grass-roots effort last year to help a young girl with cancer. It started when Sprague, who had learned that the granddaughter of a fellow town employee was in need of a bone-marrow transplant, posted a message about the girl's situation. Other list members responded, wanting to help.
One, Joe Tully, contacted the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute and was told that people who wanted to be tested for a possible bone-marrow donation should go to the Boston facility. Another, Lori Uhland, decided that wasn't enough; she persuaded Dana-Farber to hold a bone-marrow drive in Arlington. Within a month, the drive was held at Town Hall, and 97 official donors were signed up.
The girl did receive a bone-marrow donation - though not, in the end, from any of the donors who signed up that day. Some of those donors, however, have continued in the program with Dana-Farber. ''It was most certainly the list's finest moment,'' said list member Jane Stein.
''It was amazing to see all these people reaching out and doing something for a stranger,'' Uhland said. ''People say that we're disconnected as a society because of people using computers so much, but in this case, the exact opposite was true: Computers brought individuals together and created a connection that is really strong.''
One subscriber, Linda Guttmann, organizes monthly dinners at which subscribers may put faces to names and enjoy conversation and a meal. Still, a surprising number of list members say they personally know few fellow subscribers. Coletta himself said he has attended only one list dinner: ''Not knowing the people is helpful in some ways,'' he said. ''I sort of assume that any of the people I meet in town could be list members. It tends to soften your daily interactions around town.''
Whether it be help in finding a lost cat or advice in caring for a sick relative, many list members say they've seen the list's benefits firsthand.
Said Stetson: ''There are so many positive things. ... There's as much free-floating helpfulness and good spirit as there is mean spirit and unhelpfulness.''
This story ran on page N1 of the Boston Globe on 7/25/2002.
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