Long live the listserv: ArtsNet turns 16

Yukon’s most famous digital bulletin board turned 16 this month. ArtsNet started in March 2001 as a mailing list for discussions about arts and culture topics in the territory.

Yukon’s most famous digital bulletin board turned 16 this month.

ArtsNet started in March 2001 as a mailing list for discussions about arts and culture topics in the territory.

Those discussions are still there — for the most part. But now, there are also house-sitting requests (for starving artists), job openings (sometimes for artists) and the occasional political rants (with more tenuous links to the arts).

“There were a lot of discussions early on about whether it should be moderated, because sometimes people were posting strictly outside that mandate,” said Scott Wilson, ArtsNet Society’s secretary-treasurer.

Wilson didn’t have time to go through every email to approve it.

So it wasn’t moderated when it started and still isn’t, except for rare “flame wars,” as Wilson calls them, that require him to intervene.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s 2015 victory over former prime minister Stephen Harper provided for one of those flame wars, with one subscriber offering to the 1,000-member list a free (unasked for) opinion piece.

“That’s not what’s ArtsNet is for,” was the immediate reaction from one subscriber. What followed was a vigorous discussion on what exactly ArtsNet’s purpose was and one local musician pledging to quit the list over its perceived “obnoxious” character.

On every one of those rare occasions, the list went back to its regular, mostly art-related discussions afterwards.

The non-moderated mailing list has managed to remain a place for civil exchanges and has kept its focus — more or less — on art.

“Generally the list has been quite self-policing and people have been quite respectful of the intent of the list,” Wilson said.

Compared to Facebook groups, forums and other social media offerings, the mailing list is quite low-tech: it’s free, runs through email, doesn’t require an account, and anybody can subscribe.

“It has, for whatever reason, become the go-to list in the community,” Wilson said. “It still fulfils its mandate as arts and culture, as you can see in the traffic.”

Deadlines for funding applications, show schedules, and artists’ successes are still posted there.

It hasn’t devolved, either, into a commercial listserv with people spamming the list with various ads, Wilson points out.

In fact, in 2009, he was asked to create a similar mailing list but for the business community.

It failed spectacularly.

With 5,400 emails sent since August 2015, ArtsNet is still widely used. It even helped orchestrate the rescue of a cat stuck in a tree back in January.

Before there was ArtsNet the mailing list, there was ArtsNet the society.

It was to serve as the umbrella group for arts organizations in town, Wilson said. Around election time, it would put together a questionnaire for candidates and organize townhall meetings.

The society also organized artist summits for a number of years, inviting outside presenters and local artists. It published a magazine, also called ArtsNet, with a listing of art performances and events that was eventually taken over by Harper Street Publishing.

Since then, the society has been “dormant,” said Wilson. Now, it only takes care of the mailing list.

It’s not clear why ArtsNet has had so much success. Maybe it simply came out at the right time, while being accessible given the poor state of internet connectivity available in the territory at the time.

“The one thing it has done over the years, it’s become much more of a community bulletin board,” said Wilson.

In a territory with communities spread far apart and art organizations with limited marketing budgets, that proved most useful.

“It allowed arts groups in our rural communities to communicate with the larger population about their production and about their issues,” Wilson said.

That evolution means the mailing list has recorded over a decade of Yukon cultural history.

Wilson has tried to get archives of the list’s first 13 years from Yahoo Inc. So far, he’s been unsuccessful.

“If we could get the archives from the Yahoo groups, we would see bits of the evolution in the arts community,” he said.

Every once in a while, he’ll remind subscribers of what the list is about.

An anonymous article published in the ArtsNet magazine around 2005 poked fun at the occasional back-and-forth between members about the list’s true goals.

It painted the life of a community through the postings, from the grumpy subscriber complaining to the list that he couldn’t unsubscribe himself to the the upcoming workshop with much-touted Outside artists and the monthly “reply all” landing a subscriber in an awkward situation.

Oh, and does anybody have a selfie stick they’re not using? I think the organizers of Burning Away the Winter Blues are looking for one.

“It’s life in real time,” said Wilson. “A snapshot of the community.”

Contact Pierre Chauvin at pierre.chauvin@yukon-news.com