Your independent source for Harvard news since 1898

Your independent source for Harvard news since 1898

John Harvard's Journal

Open for Business

November-December 2006

Before telegrams became scarce, the Japanese artist On Kawara would send them with the message I AM STILL ALIVE. Normally he would sign them with his name, and occasionally he would vary their contents by replacing his standard sentence with I AM NOT GOING TO COMMIT SUICIDE. Artists, curators, and friends received them gratefully, chiefly for the delight of knowing he really was STILL ALIVE and only secondarily, I hope, for their future value as contributions to a conceptual project.

I think of Kawaras telegrams and their threadbare pleas for acknowledgment two or three times a day when I find e-mails in my in-box with the subject line Pf-OPEN. Surely the senders of those messages wish only for the rest of Pforzheimer House to know they are STILL ALIVE. Buried among their requests for stamps and queries for directions, I suspect the reality of a few hundred Harvard students who want the world to know they exist.

House lists, as these open e-mail networks are called, unite the residents of the 12 undergraduate Houses in an immediate way. On the same day that freshmen receive their sophomore-year housing assignments, they also receive electronic invitations to join their Houses open list, which enrolls them in an on-line community that often overshadows the physical walls that shelter them. The lists go dormant in the summer, but during the academic year they receive 10 to 50 messages a day. Publicity, procrastination, or purposeful pleasthese are the three principal reasons for posting to ones house list.

To publicize any cause or event, students send virtual flyers to their house list. A single message can reach all of the subscribers in their House community. Seniors laboring to find volunteers for their thesis research can recruit and schedule subjects; event organizers can fill an entire lecture hall or classroom with only a few keystrokes. By networking students with like interests, these lists embolden their members.

When a paper comes due or an examination looms, students need only their house list to procrastinate. They can contribute to an existing threadas serious as a debate on the Israel-Palestine conflict or as trivial as the effort to revive Lobster Night in Harvards dining halls or they can initiate their own discussion by posting some unlikely website or forwarding some provocative bit of news. The closer one moves toward midterms or reading period, the more frequent the number of posts and replies. That same trend asserts itself in the hours after dark, when the collective on-line activity of students still awake (despite their dwindling numbers) overwhelms the list. It is in the early morning hours that one can expect to find ramblings mistakenly sent to the entire house list instead of the single recipient for whom they were intended, unintelligible commentaries devoid of punctuation or capitalization, and inoffensive but still troubling reflections on undergraduate life.

One e-mail to the Kirkland-list, sent after the University of Michigan began boycotting Coca-Cola products because of the companys human-rights and environmental record, found its way to that newsworthy topic from the following introduction:

Its 3:00 A.M. on a tuesday morning and im elated yet saddened at the same time.im in the basement stalling the editing of 5,112 religion-imbued words due in nine hours. about thirty minutes ago, i stealthily disappeared from the quiet study room in search for some sustenance.the orange juice and the merry cranberry-raspberry juice were SOLD OUT, so i reluctantly settled for a sprite, which was also SOLD OUT, and so then i depressingly resorted to coke.

A few paragraphs later the sender purposefully concluded, maybe harvard should take after umich afterall.

Finally, that third category of discussion, purposeful pleas, includes all other inquiries. Whether a rising sophomore wants to know which cellular service provider has the best reception in his new home or a departing senior begs to know who will purchase her worn-out futon frame sans cushion, House open lists allow Harvard students an electronic portal to their peers. From culinary requests (the would-be chef who needs only a few ounces of milk at midnight) to career inquiries (the wallowing junior who wonders if recruiting is really worth it), students find answers and advice.

Although most extracurricular organizations on campus, and even some classes, have their own e-mail lists, house lists are unique in the diversity of their participants. Essentially unmoderated, they are open channels for communication among students, tutors, and house masters. A post requires no ones approval, unless it exceeds the maximum size of an individual message on the Harvard server. And the Handbook for Students states only that e-mail must be neither obscene nor harassing.

The freedom of this forum has produced a few complications. In March 2003, Eliot-list was shut down for a day while its House committee president reacted to the controversy over the use of the word slut on that list. Earlier that same year, Lowell-open responded sensationally to one students characterization of daily e-mails of Black History Month facts as spam. Both tempests were well contained in their original teapots, settled by the residents of the respective Houses without outside intervention.

Lest they be tempered by the policing of any college administrator or House representative, house lists are constantly regulated by their members. No debate concludes without a few meditations on the nature of the list itself, a few attempts to tame the capriciousness of posts. Sometimes a single hasty e-mail can result in a days worth of outrage. Each house list has its own code of etiquette; what one list allows another scorns.

Near the end of a heated debate over a Mothers Day card sale in Lowell this year, one resident asked his Housemates to please stop the madness. Reflecting on how the tone of this e-mail thread has gotten progressively more petty and hostile, resorting to flagrant disrespect and sarcasm or even ad hominem attacks, he argued that it would be best if this e-mail thread were put to rest. (An initial advertisement for the card fundraiser had failed to mention the politics of the pro-life womens resource center in Boston that received the proceeds, but the 27 e-mails that followed that first post involved much more than the charitys politics.)

Less severely, I have been chastised for disguising the content of my messages. I saw no danger in labeling my simple event postings with subject lines such as The Chance To Win A Million Dollars or You Havent Seen A Deal Like This In Ages, but some of my housemates object to this sort of deceit.

I, in turn, protest those who abuse the utility of Pf-OPEN. I have little tolerance for the residents of my own House who cannot fend for themselves. When someone e-mails to ask for the telephone number of some Harvard office, I reply by providing a link to the on-line directory for the entire University. Or when someone asks about the location of a particular building or office, I offer an electronic map of the entire campus.

However bothered I am by these thoughtless requests or the discourteous replies to my own posts, I am grateful when on a Saturday that I have spent quiet and alone in one library or another, having taken my meals in one of the river HousesI am able to look up from my work and smile as e-mails trickle in from other members of my House. Someone has spied a mouse in the dining hall, someone wonders if the shuttle still runs to Mather on the weekends, and someone else wants to know where in Harvard Square you can purchase body paint. Scarcely a connection would I have to Pforzheimer House on days like that if it were not for the e-mails from my housemates, many of whom I have never met but whose postings to the list have enabled me to divine their passions and imagine their personalities.

So there, in the drivel of the Pf-OPEN, the fodder of the Adams Schmooze, or the slipshod dialogue of the Currier-Wire one can find the legacy of the House system, 12 distinct dwellings that bring together their residents for at least three yearsand sometimes forever.

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