In Praise of Spammy Listservs

Every law school has one: the community-wide email list where students can post anything and everything (by which we mean mostly desperate pleas to sell used textbooks). At Yale, the list is called “The Wall,” reflecting the old practice of posting news on the walls of the school. At NYU our list is called Coases, after Ronald Coase of the Coase theorem. Officially it’s a play on Coase’s observation about transaction costs, since it theoretically could lower them. (Also, of course, because it’s New York we don’t use walls. They’re not In.)

Some listservs are spammier than others. Photo by Moose Hart adapted from Flickr Creative Commons.

I say theoretically, since in the past semester Coases has been generating a few emotional inefficiencies of its own, as it has taken to being the host of a few entries in the interminable dispute between supporters of Israel and supporters of Palestine. I have been exposed to a much sharper version of this dispute both at Penn (where students could at least be persuaded to talk about their differences) and at the London School of Economics (where, to put it mildly, they couldn’t). By the standards of the conflict, the denunciations and name-calling that went on via Coases were downright civil.

Yet it must be said that NYU students are very conflict-averse; each outburst of the e-dispute has been met with considerable hectoring for both sides to, in a word, shut up. Indeed, the Dean convened a roundtable of student leaders just last week where Coases civility was at the top of the agenda. One proposal doing the rounds has been to split Coases into three listservs: one for events, one for buying and selling, and one “general” listserv for political discussion. The plan is ingenious, since it would mean that almost all students would unsubscribe from the third listserv (especially if, like the current Coases, it remained opt-in), squashing campus-wide political debate.

Why are people on Coases in the first place? I stay on the list to keep tabs on free food left over from events (a food group in its own right), to learn about upcoming events, and to generally hear about the random things that go on at NYU Law. If these functions were disaggregated, there are emails begging for outlines that I’d never be able to respond to; powerful political statements I’d never see voicing student outrage about recent national travesties; and, most important of all, I’d never have been able to offload my broken microwave on someone willing to convert it into a Weighted Companion Cube.

To be sure, a lot of Coases is irrelevant to me; some of Coases I find annoying. But mixing together all these different kinds of messages—from the commercial to the political to the gustatory, from the relevant to the inconsequential to the critical—maximizes the chances they will be read. It also reflects the best of our First Amendment aspirations: that all ideas compete in the same marketplace for our attention and deserve the same opportunity to capture it.

So I hope, for my sake and the sake of students to come, that the Law School keeps the Coases listserv together. It’s working just fine as it is.

Though I’d be totally down for a change of name.