Touching the Third Rail: Politics and TECHWR-L (the email list)

Photo credit: Richard Masoner on

Image by Richard Masoner on, No Changes, License

A technical writing e-mail list is a fragile ecosystem for many reasons. For one thing (spoiler alert!), an e-mail list is not the most up-to-date social medium on the Internet. Modern folks often do their group discussions on something called Facebook, which can be accessed from a simple telephone! For another thing, many Whirlers use their work e-mail as a TECHWR-L address; in the chaos of switching jobs, they might not update their subscriptions, and so another melon goes over the dodos’ cliff. Heck, sometimes famous Whirlers like Andrew Plato and Steve Hudson (sage and Word heretic) simply disappear without warning.

With all that in mind, I humbly suggest that it’s worth making a conscious effort to self-moderate when it comes to political postings and replies. The phrase “third rail of politics” was coined by an aide to Tip O’Neill, in reference to Social Security. But whether or not Social Security is the third rail of politics, I contend that politics is the third rail of TECHWR-L. Some examples:

  • In 2007, discussing the terms “master” and “slave” as used in hardware documentation: “The politically correct crowd are nothing but arrogant bullies.”
  • In 2008, discussing how the Fairness Doctrine could affect Internet postings: “There was not one single statement against the war before we invaded Iraq and anybody who opposed the war was called unpatriotic.”
  • In 2015, discussing variations in overtime laws between the states: “Socialism is a scary agenda.”
  • In 2016, discussing age and culture issues for middle-aged tech writers in a start-up: “a front-running presidential candidate who is all about bluster and self-promotion, with no real substance.”

I’m not saying that it’s always wrong to go off-topic. We also discuss puppies and kittens on TECHWR-L, don’t we? Rather, my concern is three-fold. First of all, I would hate to see anyone who contributes regularly to TECHWR-L just up and leave us in a huff. Staying on an e-mail list isn’t some kind of middle-school, punch-the-arm game to see who’s the toughest, and someone who’s a world apart from me politically might be invaluable to me technically. Second of all, bits of partisan bluster might send away our many lurkers, and thus deprive us of the opportunity to spread the gospel of the Oxford comma (blessed be its holy name). Finally, given that TECHWR-L is still useful to us, we should applaud any new contributors. It would be a shame if they subscribed to TECHWR-L, landed by bad luck into a thread arguing over the latest election, and unsubscribed on the spot.

By the way, I was serious about self-moderation. Yes, I know we have Admins, but their job is hard enough, and if they’re busy, they’re likely to show up well after the damage has been done. Also, I like to think that tech writers by nature are independent cusses who would rather keep the barstools on the floor than have the sheriff show up in person.

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