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The end of Birdchat

August 27, 2010
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For those of us who remember it, the early 90s were a heady time for tech savvy individuals.  I was young, but I distinctly remember my family’s first computer, a DOS hungry beast whose features included the ability to change text colors and an interactive Wheel of Fortune game with a faceless Vanna White.  It was awesome.  Once we got the internet, and at this point the internet consisted of little more than usenet groups and listservs, it was an opportunity to take on the world.  It was around this time that my birding awakening occurred as well, and the usenet groups and listservs that received the most attention from my dad and I were the bird related ones.  I avidly read rec.birds and when BIRDCHAT, a listserv that facilitated e-mail discussion of bird related topics, started up sometime around 1994, we were immediately members.

Birdchat was amazing.  You could post a request for places to see, say, any of the special birds of South Texas and within a day you had several e-mails with specific directions.  Trip reports offered vicarious thrills from all over the world.  Rare Bird Reports, previously phone based, became web-based.  Suddenly, birders around the country and around the world were at your fingertips and like just about every aspect of society at the time, the internet was changing birding, and for the better. My dad and I adopted it whole heartedly.  I had sewn a Birdchat patch on my binocular case.  We had the stickers on our car.   And you can go back into the archives to 1995 and find messages about the Lower Valley from us still.  It was a previously unavailable wealth of information and we, along with nearly every other birder in the country, ate it up.

But Birdchat, with its national scope, has obvious limitations.  For all of its ground-breaking achievements in the fields of knowledge sharing and community building, its greatest legacy is that it spun off the myriad listservs for individual states and specific interests.  It is in these state bird lists that the worth of the listserv model becomes most clear.  For many birders, I may deign to say most birders, the state and local birding community is the one with the most value.  To have state and local rare birds reported to your e-mail inbox nearly instantaneously, to be able to discuss birding locations  with the very birders you’re likely to be most in contact with in the field, and to pass on information with regard to bird status and distribution for species in your area has obvious advantages.  Advantages that are diluted in a coast to coast context.  Largely gone are the days of detailed trip reports (are they even useful in this medium?), of rare bird alerts, of much of anything beyond the occasional dust up about extinct woodpeckers and feral cats.  With only 1000 subscribers, Birdchat is a shell of its former self, and for good reason.  It’s completely obsolete.

Imagine you’re a birder looking to get information on an upcoming trip out of state, for whatever reason.  What do you do?  If you’re anything like me, you sign up to the local listserve or peruse Birding on the Net to see what the locals are seeing.  I might check eBird for hotspots designated nearby and peruse the barcharts to get an idea of what to expect.  But the number one act for any birder looking for information on a new site is the great internet borg Google.  And that’s where listservs fail.  It should be said that they all fail equally here, but by nature of the information historically available, Birdchat fails harder.

Why?  Because the archives of a listserve are not generally available to search engines, the information that has accumulated over the years isn’t accessible through regular means.  What this means for birders is that you have to be “in the know” to get to it, in at least you have to know that you have to go to Birdchat’s page to search the archives.   This is a problem for a couple reasons.  First, that people who aren’t already aware of Birdchat, typically new birders, are not able to take advantage of the archives without first knowing where to find them.  And second, even knowing how to access these old posts, it’s hardly a simple matter with a search function far more complex than what it needed.  It can be done obviously, but when the other option is simply googling the appropriate key words, how many people are going to do it?

The unfortunate thing about this inaccessibility is that Birdchat really does have a great deal of useful information, especially further back in the archives from the days when people used it exclusively.   But the community that the listserv held together has been largely supplanted by the bird blogosphere, which in addition to being visible to search engines offers a more personal consistent voice, though very few bird blogs indeed are speaking to 1000 people a day the way one can on Birdchat.  Though as the advantages of a nationwide listserve become less obvious, trip reports find their way to personal blogs where photos can be displayed, rare bird alerts are a thing of the past as sightings are reported to local listservs, that number is likely to keep decreasing even as local and state listservs increase.

Ultimately, the goal will be to find a way to incorporate all of the information that’s archived in listservs in a manner that makes it easily available to every birder.  How exactly to accomplish that is a matter of debate.  Whether that’s encouraging people to use eBird as a clearinghouse for their rare bird sightings (which they should be doing anyway) or building communities through blogs or forums (which are great but offer many of the same problems as listservs with regard to search engine compatibility), it remains to be seen.  The ultimate fate of the bird blogosphere, and the nature blogosphere as a whole, is still in flux and the sky is the limit in many ways.

What seems clear, though, is that Birdchat itself seems like an idea whose time has passed.

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5 Comments
  1. August 27, 2010 12:53 pm

    Good synopsis of Birdchat. I also recall how useful and cool Birdchat was during the 90s and how amazing it was to get in touch with other birders. You are right about it having been rendered obsolete by region-specific forums and blogs. Hopefuly some tech savvy birder will come up with a way to make the archives more easy to search.

    Meanwhile, maybe this is another step that the ABA should take to remain viable- promote easy, searchable access to Birdchat archives, all other Listserves and birding forums, and promote an easy to use forum with tons of birding information.

    • Nelson Briefer permalink
      August 30, 2010 11:20 am

      I could care less of Birdchat. i also would be pleased to learn of the ABA dissolving. I have been slighted, body -slammed, and insulted by these organizations. Nelson Briefer – Goshawk specialist. 17 years of tracking and chasing goshawks in cites and suburbs. My new blog will http://www.goshawks of Tucson 2010-11. Starting in November 2010.

      • Nate permalink*
        August 30, 2010 11:33 am

        @Nelson- One wonders, then, why you would bother to comment on a thread that addresses both Birdchat and the ABA. And what does that have to do with Goshawks?

  2. Nate permalink*
    August 30, 2010 11:15 am

    @Pat- I think you’ve hit on it. It’s too unwieldy and the information too elusive. The online birding community is too expansive for Birdchat alone, and if you’re behind the curve, you’re going to stay there, especially with the limitations inherent in the model.

    We’re on the same page as far as ABA promotion too. I think there’s an opportunity there to make Birdchat more useful and the ABA can capitalize on it.

  3. August 30, 2010 2:09 pm

    Interesting. I have been an active birder for over six years now and I’ve been in the online birding community that whole time, but I have never been to the Birdchat site or signed up for the listserv. I have always subscribed to the local and state listservs which are very helpful…like the long-tailed jaeger just outside of Boise right now! I too use eBird when preparing to visit a new area.

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