Just over two years ago, folks at the Sierra Club's Mackinac Chapter decided to wire Michigan's varied and far-flung environmental community. They created Enviro-Mich, a free Internet listserv which allows activists to distribute messages -- about everything from logging issues to toxic waste cleanups -- via e-mail to more than 500 subscribers.
The Metro Times recently talked with Alex Sagady, an East Lansing environmental consultant and Sierra Club volunteer who came up with the idea and is responsible for maintaining the system
Metro Times: How did Enviro-Mich get started?
Alex Sagady: It was created out of sheer nothingness -- just an idea. It's really an example of what can come from just an idea and some leadership.
MT: Did it cost much to get going?
Sagady: No. Just $50 to set up the server, and then only $10 or $12 a month to maintain. Also, the Sierra Club sent out about 1,000 brochures to let people know it existed. It has sort of taken on a life of its own by this point.
MT: Who's using it?
Sagady: Most of the postings come from key people in the environmental movement here in Lansing. But we are beginning to get a lot more discussion from people out in the hinterlands, especially about forestry issues. I'm encouraged about that.
MT: Are there many lurkers -- people who read the messages but don't post any themselves?
Sagady: It's hard to know exactly who's on the list. You can identify some things, like university domains, but there's a whole lot of people on the list that I don't know who they are. But there are very many lurkers. I know that there's industry people, like Detroit Edison and Consumers Power. The Engler people are definitely watching the list. And lawyers representing industry. A number of journalists are on the list, and there are a lot of state employees from the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality and the Department of Natural Resources, but some of them have been told not to post things. Most of the people on the list, though, are citizen environmental activists and students.
MT: Does it take much work to maintain a list like this?
Sagady: For strictly management functions, only about 15 minutes a day. But I put in quite a bit more time than that posting items, like things out of the Federal Register. I like to try to help keep the list informed.
MT: What kind of impact do you think the list has had on Michigan's environmental movement?
Sagady: What it's done is provide a way to put information pretty near instantaneously into the hands of 500 people. It has created a kind of commons that we didn't have before, and a level of sharing we've never had before. It is something that newsletters can't do. Everybody can know what everybody else is doing very quickly.
MT: Did you run into any problems you didn't expect?
Sagady: Sometimes people will get too agitated about things. But there is only one time that we ever had to remove someone from the list. Someone from an animal rights group was making allegations that someone from an opposing camp was a criminal. Which is okay. But if you do that, you get a message from me saying that you have to substantiate your allegations within 24 hours or else you are history.
The messages aren't monitored before they go out. They aren't censored. But we won't allow the list to be used as a personal vehicle to defame someone else. No one wants to create litigation for anybody.
There also have been some attempts to spam the list. But we don't allow people to use the list in order to promote the sale of products. It's all nonprofit stuff. And the messages have to have content related to Michigan; we don't want national organizations seeing this as their personal conduit to Michigan.
MT: Any advice for someone who might be thinking of starting a listserv of their own?
Sagady: Make sure you have a reliable provider. And find a server in the same state most of your mail will be going to. Otherwise you're just asking for problems.