Mailing Lists: Why Are They Still Here, What’s Wrong With Them, and How Can We Fix Them?

Online group discussion has been around almost as long as the Internet, but it seems we still can’t create tools for it that satisfy everyone. Starting with the first mailing list in 1972 and evolving to modern social media tools, we see tensions between people’s desire to participate in productive discussions and the struggle to manage a deluge of incoming communication. Our group wants to build better tools to address this problem. As a first step we decided to learn from an existing tool. Mailing lists have survived almost unchanged from the earliest days of the Internet, and are still heavily used today. The fact that they’re still here suggests that they’re doing something right; the fact that so many new social media tools have tried to replace them suggest they’re doing something wrong.  We wanted to understand both sides. We interviewed a variety of mailing list users to understand what they loved and hated about their mailing lists. We discovered an interesting opportunity to combine some of the best features of email and social media to address the weaknesses of both.

To understand how different types of groups use mailing lists and why they continue to use them, we interviewed members of two active mailing list communities and surveyed 28 additional mailing lists of many different types. When asked whether they would be interested to switching to a different tool, such as Facebook Groups, or a discussion forum, or a subreddit, most people across the board were not interested in switching to a newer social media. In fact, only 12% indicated they were interested in switching to Facebook Groups, the most analogous tool to many people. When we asked why, people’s responses grouped into the following four themes:

  • Email is for work while social media is for play or procrastination. One interviewee was concerned about more cat pictures and other irrelevant or silly posts if his group moved to a Facebook Group and felt this was the wrong tone for the list. Other people felt that mailing list communication was actually somewhat in between work and play.
  • Email feels more private while social media feels more public. People mentioned images of people’s faces and hyperlinks to their profile as making the Facebook Groups interface feel more public. However, we were concerned to find out that most people surveyed and interviewed did not realize their mailing list archives were public. Nor could they properly estimate how many people read their emails. In most cases, people guessed an entire order of magnitude lower than the true subscription count.
  • There is a greater confidence that email will be seen. Not only do more people use email instead of Facebook, people also had a sense that email would be seen, while Facebook algorithms might make it uncertain who receives what.
  • Email management is more customizable. People enjoyed being able to set up their own filters and customize their notifications and experience of their mailing list.

Given all of these reasons for preferring mailing lists, have all of the social moderation features and controls in newer social media been created for naught? It seems the answer to this is also no. In our research, we found many tensions within mailing list communities, specifically issues arising from people within the same mailing list expressing very different opinions and perceptions about the list. The following three tensions stood out the greatest:

  • Tensions over type and quantity of content on the list. While some users enjoyed intellectual discussions on the list, others hated them. Same for just about any other category of content, such as humor, job listings, rental and item sales, etc. People even disagreed about the correct etiquette for reply-to-the-list versus reply-to-the-sender.
  • Tensions over desire for interaction versus hesitation to post. Most users expressed a desire for more discussion on their mailing list, yet the majority of these folks have never participated in a discussion themselves. When asked about the reasons people were deterred from posting, they mentioned concerns such as the fear of spamming others, fear of looking stupid, fear of offending, and fear of starting a heated debate.
  • Tensions over push versus pull email access method. Most users either received all their mailing list email in their main inbox (push) or filtered all their mailing list emails to a separate folder (pull). We found very different attitudes from people with these two different strategies. For instance, push-users were much more worried about missing email, were more likely to miss email, and were more hesitant to post out of fear of spamming. On the other side, pull-users read email when they felt like it and not when it arrived, were more likely to miss emails, and had a more relaxed attitude towards sending emails.

Some of these tensions have been mitigated in newer social media systems thanks to social moderation and other newer features. So what can we do given what we’ve learned? One thing we can do is to improve new social media systems by incorporating more of what people like about mailing list systems. Another thing we can do is to improve mailing lists by incorporating some features taken from social media. Some things that we consider are introducing slow propagation through the list using likes, allowing friends to moderate posts before they get sent farther, allowing topic tags and following of different topics and threads, and more. We emphasize improving mailing lists because it’s something that anyone can work on (you don’t have to work at Facebook!), it’s relatively easy to build and test since users continue to use their existing mail clients, and it’s really about time that mailing lists had some innovation.

In that vein, we’re actively working on a new mailing list system. It’s still in a very preliminary stage but you can check it out and join or even start your own mailing list group at http://murmur.csail.mit.edu. You can also read our research paper published at CHI 2015 or look at slides and notes from the talk given at the CHI 2015 conference.

*This blog post was first posted at the Haystack Blog: http://haystack.csail.mit.edu/blog/2015/05/05/mailing-lists-why-are-they-still-here-whats-wrong-with-them-and-how-can-we-fix-them/

This work was conducted with Mark Ackerman of University of Michigan and David Karger at MIT CSAIL.

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