On March 1, Yale is pulling the plug on our beloved panlist system. The panlist has been the superhighway for innumerable emails to and from Yale students since sometime around the turn of the millennium, making it not much younger than the current freshman class. Panlists deserve thoughtful reflection. Consider this an elegy.
Panlists — listservs that are used for mass emails — are special because they’re unique to Yale discourse. Like the Wenzel, the Saybrary and “Boola Boola,” panlist is not a term that exists outside of our community. Maybe you’ve already experienced this when you requested to be added to a happy-hour panlist at your summer job, only to get your coworker’s questioning countenance in return. Even iMessage doesn’t get our lingo — panlist autocorrects to “panelist” — in its very presumptuous way.
But allow me to clarify. The Urban Dictionary definition for panlist claims it’s an email list through which a message “pans out to a number of individuals.” This etymology is clearly the work of a misinformed Yalie. Panlist is actually a contraction of “Pantheon list,” referring to the sturdy, well-built program that sprang from the head of one IT professional to connect Yale’s virtual campus.
At first glance, the concept of a panlist is sort of boring. It is, of course, in dullest terms, a list of people’s emails, and those people are ostensibly connected by some mutual association. They are the conduits of mundane yet necessary information — everyday stuff, like where a club is meeting or when a Master’s Tea is taking place.
But more than that, a panlist is a sort of currency, and the marketplace is the Extracurricular Bazaar. “Can I put you on our panlist?” an entrepreneurial student might proposition to a freshman. Whether or not that student eventually joins an organization in practice is secondary; panlist initiation binds a student to that organization on paper. That student might not ever attend a meeting, but rest assured he will receive emails from the Party of the Left until his senior year.
In addition to being useful, panlists have in fact been a site of much campus rabble-rousing throughout their history. In 2001, a botched email broke the Pantheon system temporarily. In 2003, the University considered legal action against a student who sent a schoolwide email via a hijacked panlist claiming that classes were cancelled. In my sophomore year, someone curiously used the panlist of the Yale College Democrats to create a LinkedIn account, much to the chagrin of all 800 students on that panlist who received incessant requests to connect. And until the present day, students have suffered from outbreaks of emails containing only “M,” the supposedly secret (and entirely useless) code of those seeking to “mute” the pestering updates from a panlist email.
If you’ve ever managed a panlist, you know that with any panlist comes great responsibility. Adding and removing people from a panlist requires logging into something akin to a Yahoo!-era GeoCities site, decked out with a dark, not-quite-Yale Blue background and text in nearly unreadable red Times New Roman font. Every visit has the nostalgic tinge of blowing on an old Nintendo cartridge, or listening to Chumbawamba on a cassette tape unironically. The panlist embodies a certain vintage that I will, in a matter of days, no longer be allowed to enjoy.
Just as many on campus haven’t been able to shake the habit of calling Good Nature Market “GHeav,” my sense is that referring to the panlist’s many descendants — EliLists, Mailman, Google Groups, what have you — will feel sacrilegious, and the specter of the panlist shall remain. Anachronistic and skeuomorphic, “panlist” will no longer be a term that is technically correct after March 1, but tradition and technicality don’t always impress upon each other so easily. But durability doesn’t mean permanence. I’m reminded of how Bass used to be called “Cross Campus Library,” and how “Commons” has a new (he-who-must-not-be-named) name. As important as the panlist has been to Yale’s past, it will not be long before the trusty service is all but forgotten.
Walking through the cemetery where the panlist will eventually lay, I see the headstones of yore. I see the telegraph, two tin cans and a string, AIM, Pony Express. The soil in which the panlist will rest is fresh, the Earth ready to take another fixture of Yale’s past and disintegrate it. I’ll miss the panlist, and this column preserves its legacy for whoever writes her digital humanities dissertation in a century’s time. But for now, dear panlist, rest in peace. If not in our inboxes, you’re forever in our hearts.
Austin Bryniarski is a senior in Calhoun College. His column runs on alternate Fridays. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org .