Friday, February 9, 2007

QotW4: The Listserv as Gift Economy

Towards the end of 2003, I was introduced to a new genre of music. I was listening to Russell Watson and looking through the liner notes, decided to look for Puccini’s Turandot, where one of his most impressive songs, Nessun Dorma, was taken from. I went to the library@esplanade and found Maria Callas’s recording. And it was thus that my love for opera was born.

My journey into the depths of opera was complimented by my gradually increasing use of the computer, and the Internet. In 2004, while I was surfing around for anything opera, I chanced upon the Opera-L Listserv. What I saw as I explored the site and the message archives greatly excited me. An online community talking about nothing but opera, with messages delivered right to my inbox?! It did not take long for me to sign up. And there I would stay for almost two years.

Opera-L has the distinct characteristics of a gift economy, explored in the following paragraphs.

Information that would otherwise be exclusive is shared. Recently a trend in Opera-L has been uploading videos to Youtube. A good majority of the community is middle-aged or elderly, and are not that tech-savvy as they would like to be. A poster who did not get any response when she asked for a solution to rip DVD clips out fit for uploading earlier posted and thus shared a solution which she stumbled upon (Curtis, 2006). For the younger folks such as I, we often dispense technical advice on uploading videos to Youtube, ripping songs into MP3 format, transferring those MP3s into the iPod and so on. We also do not hesitate to post queries about stuff like the significance of the use of a particular instrument in a particular passage of music, or the changes in musical dynamics that seems rather strange, or about the roles a particular singer was famous for. This reflects the give-and-take mentality, contributing to solving issues raised in the community you are in with an implicit expectation of reciprocated help when you need it (Kollock, 1999).

Kollock also mentioned that a characteristic of public goods, which the information and media in gift economies typically are, is that 'the size of the group necessary to produce many public goods is often reduced to one' (Kollock 1999). Take this example of a lister who posted the following message:

Date: Fri, 6 Jan 2006 15:29:58 -0500
Reply-To: glhoffman@COX.NET
Sender: Discussion of opera and related issues
From: Gary Hoffman
Subject: Mozart's Requiem Uploaded for Streaming
Content-Type: text/plain; charset=ISO-8859-1

I have uploaded Mozart's Requiem to my web site. It is available for streaming. The performers are Irmgard Seefried, Hildegard Rössel-Majdan, Anton Dermota, Gottlob Frick, Wiener Staatsopernchor, Wiener Philharmoniker, Karl Böhm (cond.). It is a live recording from Vienna, 20 November 1955. Windows Media Player and Winamp are recommended.


Gary Hoffman
Opera Today []

This is another example of sharing. It is not uncommon on Opera-L to upload recordings to your personal website and then notify the list, so contributors can have a confident expectation of accessibility to other recordings in return. But notice that this lister obtained the CD or audio record, ripped it out, and put it on his website for streaming – all by himself. Not every gift economy has to be Linux-like – hundreds of thousands of people somehow coming together to achieve an ambitious goal. Little bits of information that are being posted and exchanged with each other daily can also turn a community into a valuable source of information.

Finally, Kollack comments that the Net ‘works a bit like a committee: you'll need a few dedicated persons who do most of the stuff or nothing will get done.’ (Kollack, 1999). Strictly speaking, there is only one person overseeing and moderating posts where necessary. But over the decade or so that this listserv has been around, several regulars have taken on an informal role of what I call sub-moderators. They enjoy no special privileges, except perhaps a certain amount of respect from the group, but are very knowledgeable and often correct wrong perceptions, or step into arguments to clarify the facts. These members of the group may simply be veterans, but without them, it is clear that the moderator will have much much more to cope with than he already has now.

Opera-L has proven itself invaluable in keeping me up-to-date with knowledge of the opera scene around the world. Listers, no matter how few, never fail to somehow respond to a query or request, and it also pleases me greatly when I give back to this wonderful listserv in the form of IT or electronics advice. I slowly realized, however, that I was gaining less and less from the list, that clearing the digest emails were getting to be a chore. A few months back I made the decision to turn off the emailing function, ceasing the daily updates. My experience with the list, however, has equipped me with the firm knowledge that if ever I need or want to look up opera-related news, there is somewhere, someplace, on the almost infinite Web, that I can trust for that information.


Kollock, P. (1999). The Economies of Online Cooperation: Gifts and Public Goods in Cyberspace. Retrieved February 9 from

Hoffman, G. (2005). Mozart's Requiem Uploaded for Streaming. Opera-L archives -- January 2006, week 1 (#327). Retrieved February 9 2007 from

Curtis, G. (2006). Uploading to YouTube. Opera-L archives -- September 2006, week 4 (#76). Retrieved February 9 2007 from


Kevin said...

Well done... no one's touched on listservs so you got a nice niche there. Full grade awarded.

Renhao said...