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Abstract -- User-Oriented Listserv Operation: A Case Study of PHNLINK Users Track
U1: Innovative Designs for Users

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User-Oriented Listserv Operation: A Case Study of PHNLINK

Kim, Sara ( sarakim@u.washington.edu)


This paper discusses the determining factors that shaped PHNLINK project (Population, Health, and Nutrition LINK) as a viable e-mail based listserv operation. It reflects my experience as the PHNLINK administrator at the World Bank between 1993 and 1994. The project was launched in July, 1993 with two objectives: connect via the Internet, researchers and practitioners in the field of population, health, and nutrition for information sharing; and establish an electronic archival system that stores publications of the World Bank as well as external agencies for e-mail retrieval. Over one year period, PHNLINK expanded into a network that supported a subscription base of more than 1,000 users around the world, maintained an archive system providing hundreds of articles for electronic retrieval, and offered channels for user feedback.

The overall structure of the paper includes: characteristics of listserv application as an Internet tool; origin of PHNLINK; description of two development phases of PHNLINK in terms of its main activities, subscription profile, as well as administrator's role; and factors that affect the usability of the PHNLINK including users' technical means, their levels of familiarity with e-mail system, and design elements of the system. Two major weekly monitoring systems on the profile of subscribers and the status of article retrieval from the archive will be discussed as they provided important quantitative information to the administrator and management. Also discussed in the paper are issues related to management's commitment to the sustenance and growth of a project such as PHNLINK, inter- agency collaboration, and social marketing aspects based on low-cost technology. Finally, the paper suggests the potential contribution of listserv to the development and refinement World Wide Web. This paper draws upon research studies on e-mail based communication and the case studies of CGNET (Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research) as well as EIES (Electronic Information Exchange System) experiences.

Three determining factors of listserv operations that helped shape PHNLINK into a sustaining communication tool among population, health, and nutrition (PHN) specialists:

  1. constant enhancement of the system based on user feedback;
  2. supportive human link between the system and the users;
  3. a collective effort of the administrator and the users to create a PHN electronic community.
After six months of stagnation and struggle, PHNLINK project was able to evolve into a flexible system, rather than remain as a static tool, only when enhancements of the system were designed and implemented based on the user feedback received through questionnaires and e-mail messages. The paper emphasizes the importance of an administrator's role in strengthening the user-system-design nexus. In the case of PHNLINK, the administrator's role as a link between the system and the users evolved from the role of an information transmitter and provider of technical support into the role of a listener to the user's voices and a negotiator with system developers to design and incorporate new technical features to support users with diverse needs and profiles. A challenge to the administrator in the next phase of the PHNLINK evolution lies in creating network opportunities among the PHNLINK subscribers for the purpose of facilitating various collaborative work, which can be realized with a critical mass in the community who desire to seek rich human resources in addition to the electronic resources.

In short, the success of PHNLINK was attributed neither to the superior technological set-up nor to the efforts of the administrator alone. Seeking and listening to user's feedback and modifying the system to better meet the users' needs rather than demanding the users to adapt to a rigid system were the key ingredients that helped the cyber seed called PHNLINK to sprout and grow.

The spread of e-mail is expected to permeate every facet of our lives and with its spread, the number of listserv forums is likely to multiply. A study into the usefulness and potentials of listserv forums that can be combined with other Internet tool such as World Wide Web is important because listservs carry a unique attribute not replaceable by other tools: the creation of human connectiveness through dialogue and information sharing as well as its sustenance supported by simple media that are accessible and affordable by the mass of people.