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Electronic mail, personal and social communication - two case studies

Part 2: - the birth of a virtual community (2002)

Bernard Bel In (Bernard Bel, Jan Brouwer, Biswajit Das, Vibodh Parthasarathi, Guy Poitevin, eds.) Communication Processes - 1, Media and Mediation. New Delhi: Sage, 2006.

On their return to France after several years spent in India, the author and his wife decided to get in touch with persons promoting ‘gentle' birth attendance and baby care, as they had been sensitised to these issues in rural India (Bel 1998). A few clicks on a search engine unveiled a galaxy of English web sites dedicated to birth activism, and for a while they took part in several discussion lists such as Online Birth Center News. In Spring 1999 the author collected the email addresses of half a dozen French activists (mostly midwives and doctors) and decided to set up a small bilingual discussion list dedicated to birth activism. The current agenda of the list included the support of the unique free-standing birthing centre in France, Maison de naissance de Sarlat which was under the threat of closure by a court decision, and facilitating contacts for the preparation of a Midwifery Today conference in Paris.

The same group of people exchanged ideas about ways of bringing together individuals and non-profit societies involved in birth activism over the entire country. Many French activists who had not yet been exposed to the North American birth movement were still sceptical, or even contemptuous, with respect to the Internet. Electronic mail, in particular, was loaded with the presumption of carrying unchecked information distributed by persons whose identity could not be traced accurately. The reference to North-American activists even fuelled a rumour that the growing action group might be connected to some unknown cult organisation trying to take the control of a vanishing birth movement in France...

In January 2000 the discussion list was set up in its final operational mode. It was operated by a list server run by, which (due to market transactions) was taken over by and finally handed over to The technical features of this list server are manifold, notably:

  • It has a customisable public procedure for admitting new subscribers;
  • All messages are archived in a searchable database;
  • Subscribers may interact with the server to change their mailing address or subscription mode.

List activity

The growth rate of liste-naissance has been roughly exponential with a doubling of its membership every year. In Spring 2002 it counted 118 subscribers. The list is advertised on various web pages, among which the portal (see infra) and directories of discussion groups.

The average traffic over the past 15 months has been 30 messages per day, covering up to approximately 5 simultaneous discussion threads. There is no more growth of the traffic despite the absence of moderation or restrictions in the number of dispatched messages. Apparently, there is a self-regulation of simultaneous discussion threads depending on the average time an active member may spend reading or writing new messages.

About 20% of the list members who contribute more than one message per week could be designated as “active writers”. Within this group it is possible to distinguish a small kernel of “permanent writers” taking part in nearly all discussion threads. Typical active writers are birth activists (including men) or/and women who can invest a longer time when staying at home during their pregnancy or in the care of small children.

The sets of ‘active' and ‘permanent' writers change over time due to family or professional constraints, and indeed a variable personal commitment to the list. It is quite common to read a message by a member who remained silent for several weeks and declares that s/he is now busy reading hundreds of messages piled in her mailbox...

It would be impossible to categorise sets of ‘active' writers, except by naming them one by one and browsing the database of personal presentations. It is felt that the very diversity of the group, the non-intervention of moderators, the absence of an ideological framework, advocacy or guidelines on the topics and contents, play a crucial role in its growth and social impact.

From time to time, an active writer broadcasts an appeal to silent members asking why they do not take an active part in discussions. This yields a relatively large number of replies. Many “passive readers” feel happy to read discussion threads without writing. A few of them point out that, before they have set up their mind to compose a message, another member already wrote the very thing they wanted to say...

An unmoderated discussion list works in a way that is very close to a permanent semi-public forum. It is ‘semi-public' in the sense that there is no restriction for becoming a member and taking part in discussions, except that applicants must introduce themselves through their individual experience with birthing and parenting. Professional status and enrollment in non-profit societies, trade unions etc., are of little relevance. Even midwives or birth activists would be prompted to tell their personal stories rather than professional and social commitments. Members are expected to expose who they ‘are' rather than what/whom they ‘represent'.

People who sign off the list are not supposed to motivate their departure. A few of them feel like sending a farewell message. Signing off is often the result of the lack of time and an uneasy feeling of piling up hundreds of unread messages in their mailbox. When time is the unique reason, members are advised to change their membership status to “web only” so that they no longer receive messages but still can read them in the server's archive. Thus, a small number of occasional writers are “web-only” members who keep reacting to selected discussion threads.

Sociological profiles

List members belong to a broad category of Internet users in French-speaking countries, mainly France, Belgium and the Quebec province in Canada. (In France, about 33% of the population has been in touch with the Internet.) The list does not have a sociological profile of its own, despite a convergence of motivations in membership. During year 2001, many applicants were women in age group 25-30 who introduced themselves with stories of their hospital births, declaring that they seek moral support, an exchange of information, and advice for making better birth plans in the future. A typical situation is the expectation of a vaginal birth after a caesarean section (VBAC). Men are also invited to take part in discussions. Currently, 10% of the list members are men whose wife or partner is directly concerned with the list issues.

A few list members are midwives unsatisfied with the compulsive medical thinking about birth in hospitals, some of whom have started attending home births under a liberal status.

It might sound extravagant to define liste-naissance as a group of ‘oppressed' people (mainly women), given that most members belong to the middleclass of developed countries who can afford personal computers and spare time for Internet. However, oppression here is less the matter of economical status than the feeling of being victims of unnecessary medical interventions and unethical procedures with respect to the attendance of childbirth.

This applies to professional attendants as well (see Bel B. & A., forthcoming). The social role of midwives in the hospital environment is increasingly perceived as one of subordination to medical doctors and technology (DeVries & Barroso 1997). Liberal midwives are indeed more autonomous, but the very fact that they interact with the less than 1% families opting for home births results in a de facto marginalisation. In France, it is not uncommon to ostracise supporters of home birth as members of a ‘secte' (cult organisation) whose guru would be the midwife.

Thus, discussions on the list highlight the perception of families being victims of an oppressive techno-medical system - the “birth machine” (Wagner 1994) - in the face of which any sort of individual response is exposed to a strong social rejection. Indeed, criticising the medical system per se is commonsensically perceived as a refusal of the ‘comfort' and ‘security' allegedly provided by the medicalization of childbirth (see discussion in Tew 1998; Bel B. & A. 2005, forthcoming). The disavowal of analgesic epidurals, for instance, is ridiculed in much the same way opponents to nuclear power are said to yearn for a return to the days of oil lamps and horse carts.

In sum, many list members introduce themselves as powerless, voiceless and isolated individuals with a strong desire to reverse the alienating process of putting their destinies into the hands of professional medical caregivers, under circumstances critically significant for the healthy pursuance of their family lives.

The flesh and history of individual members

After setting up the list on a public list server, moderators had to face attempts of semi-anonymous subscriptions. It was decided that membership must be nominative, and each applicant was further prompted to send a personal presentation exposing her/his personal motivations for joining the list. Presentations were also asked to all current list members, and the ones who did not comply with the new rule were signed off by moderators.

Presentations are circulated on the list, and membership is approved the following day if no objection has been raised. This procedure discards about 50% of the applicants who never send their presentation.

Presentations are stored in a database that is accessible via a simple link on the web. Making it easy to retrieve personal presentations (and edit one's own) was essential for the perception of liste-naissance as a community of ‘real' people. Unlike the author's ‘virtual' friend Paul (see first essay supra), people become ‘real' when they have both a full name and history. This encouraged list members to talk about the significant events of their daily life, indeed everything directly linked with pregnancy, childbirth and parenting, but sometimes off-topic stories and statements contributing to a more accurate picture of their personalities and expectations.

A radical change occurred in October 2000, when a dozen of list members met for the first time in Paris after attending a conference. No pictures had been exchanged beforehand, and all were eager to discover the faces of persons who had already become their close friends through regular communication via the list. This physical recognition might have been the starting point of the kernel of ‘permanent' active writers that is giving an impetus to the entire group.

The memory and flesh of liste-naissance

With the rapid growth of the list after Fall 2000, more and more list members sought ‘real-life' contacts with others living in the same area. New contacts are often reported to the list, thereby enhancing the awareness of a “social fabric” of parents concerned with pregnancy and childbirth. The earlier social fabric (or “birth culture”) has been torn apart by many factors: the increasing medicalization of childbirth, the dislocation of joint families, and alienating lifestyles imposed by housing and job constraints in cities.

At the local scale, some non-profit societies and informal groups play an important role in reconstructing the social fabric of birth. At the global scale, the discussion list may be viewed as an attempt to interconnect existing pieces of the fabric and isolated individuals. “The list is my family!” said a member...

Because of its heterogeneous, non-ideological and transient nature, liste-naissance might not be perceived as a “birth community” with aims similar to those of North American networks, such as augment collaborative marketting efforts for birth professionals and create pockets of activism to promote birth change and the midwifery model of care. (Yula & Heffelfinger 2000)

Far from these objectives, liste-naissance does exist as a ‘body' with two essential features: memory and flesh.

The memory of the list is basically its archive. The list server has its own in-built search engine for ‘introspective' tasks. However, due to the growth of this extensive memory, and because its access is restricted to list members, it is also necessary to build up a comprehensive replicate of it “at the surface”. This is achieved by publicly accessible web pages tracing the most significant discussion threads, technical points and personal testimonies, notably birth stories.

The ‘flesh' of liste-naissance grew in list-related encounters that took place after the first historical meeting in October 2000. In August 2001, a group of 60 adults and children met during three days in a Summer camp near Forcalquier in the South of France. The organisation was reduced to minimal tasks, i.e. sharing expenses and material work. There was no agenda for this meeting. The group sat in a circle and worked as a “free-speech forum” with no moderator and no time limitation - much like the list in “real time”. Participants had introduced themselves and listed the topics they felt like discussing during the encounter. All sessions lasted for 2-3 hours and were tape-recorded. Each session started with a collective decision on which of the pending topics should be examined in priority. (Links to reports and photographs of all liste-naissance encounters may be found on <>.)

The Forcalquier Summer camp in 2001 was evaluated as a great success. It had a deep impact on the perceptions, sometimes even personal histories, of couples who had taken part in its work. Several expecting parents who had come with a sensation of hopelessness felt empowered and experienced beautiful home births a few months later. Evidently, the fact that whole families had been invited to participate - not only pregnant women “plus the father of their child” - contributed to casting a family-centred, rather than woman-and-midwife perception of childbirth and care of the new-born.

After Summer 2001, several encounters on the same organisational pattern took place, notably one near Charleroi (March 2002, see infra) and another one in France (Summer 2002). It has become obvious that a (heterogeneous) community of friends - an “organic body” - is growing within the (heterogeneous) ‘virtual' community of inquiry embodied by the list.

The time-space structure of a mailing-list community

An unmoderated discussion list with its archive and database of presentations is characterised by a manifold reappropriation of communication space and time, as illustrated below.

Communication space:
  1. Where: There is no need to decide on the place of a meeting and make travel arrangements for remote participants. The place is ‘everywhere' in cyberspace. Members are often warned against geocentric normative statements since membership is not restricted to a small territory.
  2. Up to where: Although space is not located, it is precisely delimited by membership, with the possibility for each member to examine its content (the presentations of list members).
  3. From where: Every member may decide “where to sit” with respect to the current discussion thread: being active as a writer, a reader, or selectively discarding messages. With simultaneous threads, a member may even sit in several places, or move from one to the next at different moments.
  4. Focus: A message may be written as an answer to a particular person's statements, or explicitly addressed to all. It is up to writers to adjust the scope of their communication by designating the potential addressees of their messages. This includes off-list exchange in narrow groups, and the creation of subgroups.
  5. Growth: Off-list subgroups may in turn evolve as self-standing discussion lists. During the past year, liste-naissance prompted the creation of several related lists. Once it has grown to a critical size, the ‘swarming' or “hort cutting” of a discussion list may be viewed as a spatial expansion bearing witness of its vitality. In physical gatherings with limited material resources, it would be much more difficult to imagine similar migrations of individuals or groups.
Communication time:
  1. When: Members may react to messages or start a new discussion thread at their convenience - including messages that were broadcasted and discussed before their admission.
  2. Up to where: Members may expose their point of view in extenso without being interrupted. The persuasiveness of their assumptions does not depend on message length, physical appearance, gender, speech fluency etc., although it could be argued that rhetorical and stylistic abilities (including French spelling and grammar) do make a difference.
  3. From where: Discussion threads are persistent over years thanks to the storage of messages, and message databases (both on the list server and in recipients' mailboxes) may be searched via electronic queries. It is of great relevance to be able to trace a discussion thread from its very beginning and come back to the point at which a reader may have felt frustrated or offended by the turn of the debate. Previous messages are generally explicitly quoted for the sake of clarifying viewpoints. “Rewinding” time to accurately review a discussion thread would be impossible in a physical gathering.
  4. Focus: Electronic communication makes it possible to achieve an immediacy near to that of real-time speech or Internet chat. However, since messages are preserved they may as well claim a permanent validity, as it is the case with press articles, essays, reports, pamphlets etc.
  5. Growth: Participants in a discussion thread sometimes feel the need to break the linearity of time (leading to oblivion) and retain a trace of the discussion in a public web page. Thus, the list opens itself to the outside world while retaining its temporal-discursive dimension. This is particularly noticeable in the way technical information is made available to outsiders. Instead of storing a definitive statement in response to a particular question (e.g. “Are episiotomies any better than tears?”), the page reflects the actual discussion that took place on the subject. In addition, it invites readers (outside the list) to contribute with their own comments and pieces of information. This process may be viewed as one of “hort cutting” a fragment of communication from the space-time boundaries of the list to another space and time of communication associated with web content.

From the ‘micro' to the ‘macro' level: the conditions for social mobilisation

Electronic communication is both praised and decried because of its adequacy to prompt immediate action lacking reference to established power/information structures. Due to its speed and accuracy in sharing material among individuals and heterogeneous groups of people, it is typically the space of innovative, self-organising and short-term activism.

In its early days, liste-naissance was meant to coordinate action groups and work as an observatory of the birth movement in France. It quickly became clear that focusing on individual, rather than group membership, had created the need for a separate list dedicated to information exchange. One of the list members created lettre-naissance with the set-up of an announcement list. She only receives messages, checks their relevance to the field, and broadcasts them via the list. The subscription to lettre-naissance (currently several hundred members) is anonymous and unrestricted.

Because of its insistence on individual commitment, and despite its ‘global' existence in cyberspace, liste-naissance may be viewed as a means of communication between persons working at the ‘micro' level of their nuclear families and close friends. Indeed, a few members are also active in non-profit societies at the local or global scale, but there is little reporting about this medium-scale activism in mainframe discussions. Further, there is no action group, agenda or strategy emerging from a consensus within the community of liste-naissance. For instance, while a few list members would support actions in favour of improving hospital care in childbirth (similar to the AIMS movement in the United Kingdom), others estimate that it makes more sense to exert one's own freedom by opting for home births, and a third subgroup feels best supporting the creation of free-standing birthing centres.

After a year of running the list, a few members came up with the idea of creating a non-profit society on the French territory, or rather a federation of existing societies, as it was felt that the Internet would have a federative effect facilitating the coordination of local actions. This idea was quickly discarded because a federation already does exist and (arguably) claims to coordinate goings-on. In addition, the very fact of founding a non-profit society would imply setting up a hierarchical system run by elective representatives, which was felt inconsistent with the operation of the list.

The discussion focused on the actual meaning of the word ‘citizenship' (citoyenneté) that has become trendy in France owing to the early antiglobalisation movement (the Seattle WTO protest in 1999, ATTAC, etc.). A better English wording for ‘citizenship' in this context would be active democracy, here meaning a system of non-hierarchic, self-organisational empowerment of citizens, in contrast with formal democracy whose basic operation consists of delegating power to elected representatives. The list itself (and list-related events, see infra) embodied the idea of active democracy in its ability to prompt the emergence of provocative ideas and innovative thinking about childbirth and educational issues.

We claim that the concept of active democracy is distinct from that of participatory democracy recently taken up as a motto by almost all French political parties. The latter evolved from the experience of Participatory Action Research (PAR) carried over three decades ago in South Asian countries:

The argument essentially is that praxis and the methodology of PAR releases the creative energy of people, brings out the knowledge system and sets in motion an ecologically sound socio-political dynamics within each culture which can lead to a new kind of transitional pathway to sustainable development. It could also be the precursor of a new kind of state structure which should be participatory, pluralist, truly democratic, and supportive of the emerging ‘seeds' at the micro-level. This support system also helps in the further multiplication of the process in a non-alienating manner. These do not follow the conventional socialist or capitalist state formations nor the traditions of institutions of the ‘representative' parliamentary democracy or bureaucratic type. It promotes a new kind of committed leadership both external and internal; and an open state system based on freely communicated knowledge with the micro-level organisations providing a countervailing force. In other words PAR looks to a better sharing of power, a better balance between the state and people's organisations and of course between people and nature. (Wignaraja & Sirivardana 1998:334-335)

The problem with the participatory process is that it is more consensus-oriented than inquisitive of irreducible confrontations between the different levels of reality experienced by actors involved in the same event. For instance, the ‘micro' reality of birthing parents, the one of professional attendants and the ‘macro' reality of scientific studies. Who are “the people”? In the European birth movement, a typical participatory strategy has been the emergence of parent groups in support of strategies ultimately manufactured by professional birth attendants, e.g. the undebated focus on midwife-managed birthing centres (Bel B. & A., forthcoming).

Active democracy may better be related to the cooperative research methodology (Maid, Padalghare & Poitevin 2005, forthcoming) which is both self-educational and productive of a ‘culture'. Thus, it is more an informal (and constructively ‘chaotic') dynamic process of empowerment and conscientization, than a formal information framework aimed at structuring a fair distribution and delegation of power.

Producing a “birth culture” cannot be dissociated from the construction of a “social fabric of birth”, which further requires the integration of all levels of reality, including scientific facts. A typical example of cooperative action using Internet resources would be the Réseau des Marraines d'Allaitement Maternel, a self-organised network of breastfeeding women exchanging information and moral support.

Indeed, the growth of liste-naissance, once witnessed by the mass media, is likely to induce changes in the vision of childbirth at the ‘macro' level. However, the necessary confrontation and integration of different levels of reality need to be worked out in a way that consolidates isolated efforts. For example, on 14 March 2002 a group of list members attended a seminar organised near Charleroi (Belgium) by Carrefour Naissance, a non-profit society. In the afternoon, a free-running discussion took place in an audience comprising parents, midwives, students and teachers of midwifery. Many questions relevant to the notion of individual responsibility in childbirth were raised and passionately debated by the audience. The entire discussion was recorded. The organisers felt that a transcription of the debate should be edited and displayed on a web site, as it could serve as the starting point for more interactions between parents, birth activists and providers of midwifery/obstetrical care. In addition, on the same web page readers are invited to resume the debate in a specific discussion list with a public archive. (See <> for the full text and links.)

This example highlights a process by which a particular event at the ‘micro' level (a “point in space and time”) may provide a rich informational material that is further exploited at the ‘macro' level of Internet (both global and time-unbound), with the possibility of promoting new discussion groups at the ‘micro' level of a discussion list. Much in the same way, in April 2000, two years of discussions on liste-naissance had provided enough text material and links to set up an Internet portal dedicated to ‘citizen' approaches of childbirth. Since its inception, the portal has become the reference for Internet resources on “free and responsible” childbirth in French language. Its home page contains links to more than thirty reference sites indexed by its internal search engine. It also links to articles, bibliographies, related web sites, non-profit societies, and excerpts of discussion threads on liste-naissance. Bilingual list members have been invited to take part in translating documents for a better accessibility to French readers.

Thus, the portal may be seen as a “window in the global word” reflecting local and multifaceted visions of childbirth and progressive parenting in French-speaking countries. It has also been used as a showcase in public events such as the Eco-Festival exhibition that brought together more than 3000 visitors on 7-9 June 2002.

Legal aspects

The portal is a collective emanation of the liste-naissance group. A consensus is sought on the list whenever a new web site is candidating for a link on the portal's home page and indexing on its search engine.

When it came to finding an advertisement-free space for hosting the portal, liste-naissance was introduced as an “unregistered non-profit society” so that it could become a member of the society offering low-cost web hosting to non-profit societies. The entire legal responsibility of the portal's content lies with the webmaster of the portal, as s/he alone is able to modify the web pages, taking advice from the list.

The webmaster is also the ‘owner' of liste-naissance and de facto (according to French law) responsible for the content of messages exchanged on the list. In view of this, a management committee keeps an eye on the archive to delete any message that might turn out to be prejudicial to the list in the future, i.e., as new members join the list.

These points are of great significance because they underscore the need for a clear connection between the ‘virtual' and ‘physical' existence of the mailing list and its web site, in compliance with the current regulation on electronic communication.


Using the same communication tool - electronic mail - makes it possible to construct a great variety of patterns of human communication. Users may work out different patterns, depending on the communication context and their level of self-implication in it. In other words, the tool itself does not decide on the quality, depth and durability of the exchange. Nor do its alleged limitations, as these can be worked around by other means. For instance, the excessive ‘immediacy' of electronic mail in discussion groups is defeated by message archiving, while its ‘impersonality' is neutralised by the ritual of personal presentations. Thus, there exist solutions to all limitations, once these have been clearly spelled out, much in the same way there exist solutions to problems in ‘real-life' conflicts once there is a real desire on both sides to overcome them.

It remains that constructing a sustainable framework for social mobilisation via the Internet (web sites, discussion lists, etc.) implies a clear strategy for articulating the ‘micro' and ‘macro' aspects. There are steps in which encounters of ‘physical' people need to take place, although these are not meant to facilitate the building or strengthening of uniform groups with consensual views on problems and solutions. The heterogeneity of the virtual community must therefore be positively taken into account in every type of action emerging from its work.


  • Bel, Andréine (1998). Three viewpoints on the praxis and concepts of midwifery: Indian dais, cosmopolitan obstetrics and Japanese seitai. On-line document <> downloaded April 1999.
  • Bel, Bernard, & Andréine Bel (2007). Birth Attendants, between the Devil and the Deep Blue Sea. In (B. Bel, J. Brouwer, B. Das, V. Parthasarathi, G. Poitevin, eds.) Communication Processes, 2, Dominance and Defiance. New Delhi: Sage.
  • DeVries, Raymond G., & Rebeca Barroso (1997). Midwives among the machines: Recreating midwifery in the late 20th Century. In (H. Marland & A.M. Rafferty, eds.) Midwives, Society and Childbirth: debates and controversies in the modern period. London: Routledge: 248-272. On-line version <>
  • Maid, Jitendra, Padalghare, Pandit, & Guy Poitevin (2006). The Micro-Dialectics of Communication. In (B. Bel, J. Brouwer, B. Das, V. Parthasarathi, G. Poitevin, eds.) Communication Processes, 1, Media and Mediation. New Delhi: Sage.
  • Tew, Marjorie (1998). Safer Childbirth? A Critical History of Maternity Care. London: Free Association Books.
  • Wagner, Marsden (1994; original 1930). Pursuing the Birth Machine. Camperdown NSW, Australia: ACE Graphics.
  • Wignaraja, Poona, & Susil Sirivardana (1998) (eds.). Readings on Pro-Poor Planning Through Social Mobilisation in South Asia. Vol. I: The Strategic Option for Poverty Eradication. New Delhi: Vikas.
  • Yula, Cynthia, & Katie Heffelfinger (2000). How to Build a Birth Network. Midwifery Today, 56, Building a Birth Community: 10-14.