Mailing lists as community channels - ugh

· by Steve · Read in about 4 min · (807 Words)

gnu_mailmanI’m not blogging as often these days; as you know I don’t traditionally ‘do’ short blog posts - in my book if something is worth blogging about, it’s worth making sure it holds together as an argument, and as a piece of writing generally - and a combined lack of time of anything I’m motivated (or permitted) to talk about has left the site a little  bereft of content. Luckily my OGRE Twitter is stocked with more frequent and less lovingly crafted status updates on what I’m doing there.

So, on to the title of the post. The Internet has been around for a while now, and has evolved rapidly, particularly in the last decade. And yet, particularly in academic and some open source developer circles, there is an attachment to a particularly creaky piece of technology that I can honestly say I do not share - the venerable mailing list.

Now, to clarify the context, I’m referring to the use of mailing lists for multilateral communication for an entire community, including newcomers, as opposed to a simple 1-way notification list (like we use for commit notifications for example). For N-way communication among a small group of core developers, all of whom will want to read every post, I can see the utility and convenience of a mailing list. But as a community communication channel, where people just want to drop in and drop out, I find it a staggeringly inefficient, awkward and archaic approach. I say this primarily as an occasional community member of various projects that use mailing lists, and therefore someone who has a specific interest in a mere subset of the discussions that go on - I have no time or desire to read every single thread, and indeed if I tried to do this for every project I have an interest in, I’d never get anything done. It’s hard enough to keep up with my own open source community!

The simple fact is that mailing lists have an all-or-nothing mindset that is woefully outdated for community interaction on the scale that the Internet has now grown to.  Subscribing means you get bombarded with every single discussion, either individually or in digests, which pretend to be useful but in fact aren’t, because while they cut down on the number of emails you get, it makes replying to specific posts a pain. If you want to read every single mail in the list, I’m sure they work fine - but most people outside the core group do not want to do this. Most members of the community just want to keep a closer eye on a few select threads of discussion that either affect or interest them, and to be able to search and browse through the rest easily - and the mailing list is a woefully inadequate, blunt instrument for this kind of task.

Sure, you can choose not to subscribe, and go through the archives, searching or browsing them. But you can do that with forums too, and there at least you have the advantage of categorised areas of interest, being able to follow certain people, and to watch certain threads. Mailing list archives have a single filter: date, and also lag by a number of hours dependent on the individual setup, so if you’re not subscribed, you get a lesser service.  Another technique is to subscribe completely but tell your email client to archive or filter things for you, so you can dip into your local replica at leisure. Horribly, horribly inefficient, but it does work.

Mailing lists worked in the 90’s when there were small groups of people who wanted to read everything being discussed, and when email was the primary form of communication between people. We’ve moved on. Forum systems and other flexible hosted systems are far superior in their ability to let you watch particular discussions (or all new posts) that you’re interested in and get told when there’s an update. Anyone can search them easily (internally or via Google) and there’s no archive lag. Maybe some people are worried about forum databases being lost, compared to inherently replicated mailing lists, but anyone worth their salt has a server backup strategy.  Honestly, any project that uses mailing lists as their only community discussion channel instantly puts me off getting involved in that community, because I know that as an occasional participant interested in only certain discussions, the experience is going to totally suck.

And, if you insist on loving your mailing lists approach so much, for goodness sake move to Google Groups. They’re still pretty basic, but at least there, those of us who have moved into the browser world can use an interface we find useful and productive, rather than being forced to use 20-30 year old technology designed to replicate posts around a university science department.