What’s 17,000 strong and shows up in your mailbox multiple times a day?
The Cleveland Park listserve is a mainstay of the neighborhood and serves as Cleveland Park’s bulletin board, discussion group, notification system, and virtual yard sale. Headed by publisher Peggy Robin since she and her husband Bill Adler started it almost 20 years, the listserve started as a hobby and has now become a fulltime business.
“Bill had seen the Adams Morgan Yahoo group, which was the first in our area, and we thought it would be fun to set one up for Cleveland Park,” Peggy explains. Little did they know what they had started.
Within the first year, the list grew to 1000 members. Today, it’s one of the oldest Yahoo groups in the city and the biggest neighborhood group in the country. From its humble beginnings, the list grew to be a forum for topics of interest, and quickly began taking up more time for its publishers. “When it started attracting people with agendas,” Peggy says, “we knew it would require moderating to make it balanced.”
That realization hit hardest in 2000 when the Elian Gonzalez case became a cause celebre in the area. A young Cuban boy who became the focus of an international custody and immigration battle in the DC-area, Elian lived for a time in the former Youth for Understanding house (now Rosedale).
“When Florida campaigners heard he was in Cleveland Park, they started flooding the listserve with posts demanding Elian’s return to Florida,” remembers Peggy. “I realized they weren’t Cleveland Park neighbors and that the list was being bombarded.” From that point, Peggy began moderating the list to manage its content.
Much More Than a Hobby
Peggy used to manage a team of volunteer moderators, but now handles most of the work herself. She has a backup moderator to step in if she’s not available. “We curate all the time—anything abusive or really nasty we don’t put through.”
Peggy reads every one of the 35 posts typically received each day. She corrects spelling and communicates with posters who don’t follow list rules or write comments that she feels may be abusive or unfair. “I write to people all the time asking them to revise their statements so that the comment is about an issue and not about the character of someone.
“People get too worked up! I insist that any complaints against a business first be lodged directly with the business and that the business have a chance to respond before we let anything be posted.”
Ten years ago, Peggy realized that the listserve was indeed becoming a real job and that she needed to start accepting advertising. Real estate agents were among her first advertisers, and their good results yielded more advertisers. Today, the list has 11 annual sponsors and 30 others who advertise periodically throughout the year.
A Cleveland Park resident for decades, Peggy says the list is like her third child. She is also the proud mother of two adult children: her oldest daughter is a book editor in New York and her younger daughter works in the restaurant business in Philadelphia.
Sticking to the basics: ease of use and integrity
Looking ahead, Peggy frets about the stability of the list’s Yahoo platform. “It’s a delicate, fragile system that breaks down frequently, loses messages and isn’t the most advanced, but moving 17,000 names to a new platform is a huge undertaking.” For now, Peggy is watching and waiting to see what Verizon, which purchased Yahoo, will do with the platform.
In spite of the technological snafus she has to deal with, Peggy still thinks the listserve’s popularity is based in its ease of use. “Once you sign up it comes to you. If you know how to email, you know how to use it, which makes it useful for any age group.”
The list’s membership encompasses all age groups but skews older. The number of active posters is relatively small, with most people subscribing for the recommendations. “We pride ourselves on our real reviews,” says Peggy, “not fake ones that can easily be posted on Angie’s List or Yelp. We carefully look at negative posts to make sure the other side has a chance to respond. I won’t let an accusation be made on the list without a real dispute that’s not been fairly heard and documented. You need to show that you tried to remediate it.”
Peggy also monitors other area listserves, and quickly detects recommendations for businesses from fake accounts. “We figure that out quickly and ban those people.”
While the list is a fulltime job, Peggy is quick to point out that she doesn’t run it 24/7. “I can’t do it constantly, so hope that people will be patient if they don’t see their post immediately.”
Most of the list’s subscribers are in northwest DC, but membership also extends throughout the city, and even includes people who lived in the area and have since moved out of town or even overseas.
One favorite story is of a woman who moved into the neighborhood and joined the listserve to become familiar with the area. Via the listserve, she looked for housing, searched for wedding planners when she got engaged, found a bigger place to live, looked for babysitters when she had kids, and years later moved away. “We followed her life evolve on the listserve,” says Peggy. “And this is the best part: she signed all her messages ‘Amy, always Amy!’”