Why is it that some lists carry on numerous, simultaneous discussions while, on others, folks get in an up-roar when another subject is brought up and the conversation is, in the view of some, "thrown off track"? Is one part of the equation possibly that part of what the conversationalists resent losing is the perception that they have the attention of an audience, and that audience is imagined to be lost when a new topic of conversation is brought up? Can a conversation that is on-line truly be interrupted by outsiders in the same way that a verbal conversation can be?

This boat has already sailed. The discussion is over. Try to keep up. We don't want to lose momentum
I've been watching a list disintegrate over the past few weeks, because a very few people -- mainly two -- have swamped it with tedious posts and an endless thread that goes nowhere. They've each been posting a dozen or more messages a day, often with the bulk of preceding messages quoted ad nauseam. This behaviour appears to have choked off the participation of everyone else on the list -- and this is one where there is lots of scope for wide-ranging and interesting discussion.

Some things that could be studied objectively is the rate of production of distinct threads, the (average) length of time they persist, their "density" (what proportion of the list participates in each), their "intensity" perhaps (would require content analysis of language use in each thread, length of messages maybe).

The conventional practices of social discourse do tend to carry a bias toward (uni-)linearity. (At least, some of them do.) We somehow seem to think that it's difficult to carry on multiple threads of conversation at once. (Except we all know people --and not just gossiping women, with a phone in her ear, a cup of coffee in one hand and a movie magazine in the other, carrying on three conversations with her friends at the table as well-- who are quite able to do just that!) I think that maybe the [social] ego (whether big or little, Fred) carries a bias toward that uni-linearity.
I've been recluctant to introduce yet another dimension/theory which is particularly close to me personally/professionally/academically and more) for fear of overwhelming the circuits here (yours, not mine) but Harriets last two posts are calling it out of me. I'm also reluctant because I don't like to be controlling - I don't like to be controlling because I've learned that nothing moves or grows in a controlling environment. If something has to go "where I want it to go" it's by definition going in the wrong direction.
Is it good house keeping to try and stick to a single subject per post or is it nobler to drown under a flood of short posts?
it is possible to talk of different things, have differing threads going at the same time. everyone need not be drawn into the same discussion. not everyone needs everyone else's attention.
If we can truly carry on as many threads as we wish, if we can pick and choose which threads are interesting and bear comment, then why are we anxious when not everyone responds to one of our messages
My guess is that we humans just aren't built to discuss 20 things at once.
Since a list broadcasts each message to everyone, it doesn't readily lend itself to multiple disparate conversations. I suppose we use the medium the least awkward way we can -- the non-net metaphors more resemble meeting halls, or passing a megaphone around, or taking the floor and using the chalkboard... not a bunch of little separate conversation rooms. Private email is far better for that.
In f2f, I know for a fact that I cannot follow multiple "threaded" discussions. The reason for this, quite simply, is, it would be too noisy to concentrate.
The best way I know to start a discussion is to simply post a message describing what you're interested in discussing.

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