Posted on Monday, January 7, 2008 by Michael
Thanks to Maggie Gundersen for drawing my attention to today’s Washington Post article about PTA-focused Yahoo Groups in the Washington suburbs… worth a read.
Over the past few years, electronic mailing lists have become the main forum for parents across the region to talk about their schools. With just a few keystrokes, the lists offer parents unprecedented power to spread information, to ask a question or answer one, to praise or pillory for an audience of hundreds.
As school e-mail lists multiply in size and reach, they are increasingly becoming ensnared in contests for control of the medium and the message. Principals are accused of trying to silence their discussion-group critics. Parents have allegedly stolen or hijacked e-mail lists. Moderators who step in to halt vitriolic threads are sometimes accused of censorship.
Some of the most contentious school controversies of recent years have played out largely on e-mail lists: reaction over a plan to distribute hip flasks as a senior gift in 2006 at Arlington County‘s H-B Woodlawn Secondary Program; debate about military recruitment at Walt Whitman High School in Bethesda in 2005; and discontent, this winter, with a $50 graduation fee at Montgomery Blair High School in Silver Spring.
“It’s the new venue. It’s the new community forum,” said Pat Elder, a Whitman parent who protested the presence of military recruiters on the Whitcom mailing list. “We’re too busy to, you know, meet.”
It goes on to detail some of the disagreements.
This begs for comparison to Front Porch Forum. Somewhat similar technology, scale and local focus… but big differences too. Schools, almost by definition, are breeding grounds for controversy and skirmishes among parents, teachers, admin, politicians, media, etc. And email, especially bulk email, is a notoriously poor medium for resolving conflict. It tends to foster and escalate misunderstanding.
Front Porch Forum tends to turn all that around… building community within neighborhoods. Still, there are lessons here.
You’re right. E-mail, mailing lists or other online methods of communication (except possibly those that include video conferencing tools) are no a good place to deal with what could be heated conflicts. The lack of visual cues and the propensity of people to fire off messages without thinking may only fuel tensions.