The difference between a listserv and a social network

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(Cross-posted to solosmall, mypractice, and Lawyerist.)

At the Practice Management and Marketing Section meeting yesterday, Roy Ginsburg asked me about the difference between solosmall and mypractice, a listserv and an online social networking site.

The quick distinction that came to me is that a listserv is like a conference, while an online social network is more like a cocktail party.

At a conference, you sit and, if not listen, at least watch a variety of people get up on stage and talk about various things. So with a listserv, where a more-or-less constant stream of e-mails—presenters at the conference—announce all kinds of topics. You read—listen to—some, you ignore—sleep through—others.

The communication is forced on you, though, like a speaker in a room. You get your chance to talk back at the speaker, but then everyone has to hear you talk—or at least the subject of your comments—too. There is a well-defined audience, who are those who are not at the microphone at the moment. You may meet some, but only if they step up to the mic at some point.

You don’t get to know people on a listserv, you get to know of them.

A cocktail party, on the other hand, is for mingling, small talk, hanging out with old friends, and making new ones. Share baby pictures, book recommendations, talk about events in each other’s lives, etc. So is a social network—online or offline. If small talk is the bane of the listserv, where there is a moderator or public pressure to “stay on topic,” small talk is the life blood of the social network.

Some social networks, like some cocktail parties, are for more professional “”small talk.” At , for example, you will find questions and answers about business, recommendations and referrals, and the like. On Facebook, on the other hand, you will find friends sharing photographs, music, videos, in-jokes, and keeping in touch.

Is a listserv better than a social network, or vice-versa? No, but each has their strong points. Trying to make connections on a listserv is somewhat pointless, but trying to make a name for oneself is certainly possible. A listserv is a good way for a large, disparate group of people to discuss a subject, while a social network is a good way for a large, disparate group of people to get and stay in touch.

Both are a useful tool—for lawyers and everyone else.

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