What would you say about a service which:

  • Replicated resources meant for sharing
  • Had very little structure to be used for resources
  • Had long, application-specific URIs
  • Required the user to change the URIs of a resource if the appearance of the resource was to be modified
  • Made repurposing of resources difficult
  • Often hides resources behind an authentication barrier
  • Uses proprietary software to host the service

I have heard the expression “walled garden” used to describe services which, although they may be popular with their users, makes it difficult for the content to be reused.

So what service and I describing here? The answer is the JISCMail service, which is based on L-Soft‘s Listserv software, which is illustrated below.

JISCMail Web interface for the website-info-mgt list

In more detail, the ways in which the service acts as a walled garden, making interoperability with other services difficult include:

  • The main entry point for list archives on the JISCMail Web site does not necessarily provide a citeable URI. For example if you go to JISCMail’s home page and search for the website-info-mgt list you are taken to the address http://www.jiscmail.ac.uk/cgi-bin/quicktype.cgi?m – which does not provide the address of the list’s archive.
  • The URI for individual messages changes if the structure of the list archive is reorganised. For example, as can be seen in the accompanying image access to archives in by year for 2006 and earlier. Unfortunately this change in the user interface resulted in links to messages before the interface was reorganised are now broken – thus resulting in loss of citation links to potentially valuable posts which may have been references in peer-reviewed publications.
  • The lack of structure provided for list archives mean that off-line browsers, which enable related areas of a Web site to be downloaded to an off-line browser cannot be used.
  • Links to individual posts break well-established guidelines which require URIs to provide resource locators which are independent of the technology used to access the resource. A typical URI for a post in a JISCMail Web archive is of the form http://www.jiscmail.ac.uk/cgi-bin/webadmin?A2=ind0706&L=website-info-mgt&T=0&F=&S=&X=40A26C40166C54F05D&Y=b.kelly%40ukoln.ac.uk&P=155
  • Messages in JISCMail Web archives aren’t been indexed by indexing robots, resulting in potentially useful information being hidden from popular search engines such as Google.
  • The content of the JISCMail mail archives is not being archived by the Internet Archive, thus resulting in the potential loss to a service which provides a global Web archiving service.
  • Although RSS feeds are available for mailing lists, in practice their functionality is very limited, as (a) only the subject line of individual posts is provided, and not the full buy antibiotics london content or start of the content, as is normally the case, meaning that the user has to visit the Web site in order to see if the post is of interest and (b) authentication is often required in any case before the RSS feeds can be accessed.

In addition to the limitations of the mail archive provided on the JISCMail Web site, use of email itself also has several limitations:

  • Unnecessary duplication of information: e,.g. an attached file sent to a mailing list is replicated, leading to additional disk space usage and maintenance difficulties if the resource is updated.
  • Email lists are prone to spam. Although JISCMail has a good reputation in filtering out spam, it appears that increasing numbers of users are turning away from email because of these limitations.

Does this mean that JISCMail is of no use? The answer is most certainly, no. I am a member of several JISCMail lists, and have been a subscriber since the service was launched – and of its predecessor, Mailbase. And clearly JISCMail is well-loved by many of its users.

But when the term ‘walled garden’ is used to refer to new services it is important, I feel, to apply a similar level of criticism to existing services. And, as with JISCMail, this is not necessarily a clinching argument, as there are factors such as popularity with the user community which need to be recognised.

On the other hand, in response to a post on Email IS Dying the initial two responses felt that:

I agree that email is dying. Many of our students no longer check their inboxes in the same way they don’t check their pigeon holes, but MySpace and Facebook (and Bebo) combined are small potatoes in comparison with the traffic going across IM and SMS. Microsloth messenger was the “killer app” after Netscape.

and

I agree with this entirely. We’ve stopped sending out mass emails to our students because they simply don’t read them! Online noticeboards, forums and the social networking sites are much more effective. We don’t utilise IM and SMS as much as we’d like too (yet!) but this is certainly the direction we’re heading in to communicate with our students.

So perhaps the lack of interest which seems to being shown by growing numbers of students, coupled with the limitations in interoperability provided by mailing list software means that mailing lists will soon meet Gopher and Usenet in a repository of obsoleted software.