Mailing lists are parties. Or they should be.

I can’t go to bed because Mairin is right on the internet and so I want to (1) say she’s awesome and (2) add two cents on mailing lists and using the power of a web interface to make them better. Bear with me; maybe this is completely off-base (probably I should just stick to law), but it has been bouncing around in my head for years and maybe me writing it down will help the lightbulb go off for someone who can actually implement it :)

Here is the thing: I think mailing lists are almost like parties in a lot of ways, and so we can steal ideas from parties to help write better mailing list software. I know this sounds silly, but bear with me.

First, the similarities. At most parties, like most mailing lists, most people want to have interesting conversations, and they understand the shared social standards and interests of the other people at the party. And at most parties and most mailing lists there are a handful of people are boors who probably don’t want to spoil the party, but who violate those shared norms- some in very mild ways (boring, talking too loud, posting too much), or maybe some less mild (the guy who doesn’t think he’s a racist, but really is.)1 If you’ve got similar mixes of people, why then do parties usually handle boors well, while mailing lists often fail and flame out?

At a party, one thing that helps keep conversations functional is that people who lack social graces or are uninteresting get social cues which encourage behavioral change. Sometimes these cues are very explicit- someone saying out loud ‘you’re not interesting, I’m leaving.’ But those direct cues are a pain to send- they are usually considered ‘rude,’ they require a lot of emotional energy, and they often mean more interaction with the boor- which is the last thing anyone wants. And blatant signals are often counter-productive too, since they make well-intentioned people defensive instead of giving them a face-saving way to learn they have a problem. Since direct signals are a pain, at parties we’ve evolved a range of more subtle cues to use- people cough and shuffle their feet, or quietly move to another part of the room, or say ‘how about the weather?’ And this actually works pretty well- worst case, people walk away from the boor and have good conversations elsewhere; best case the boor gets the message, changes their behavior, and becomes more fun to be around.

Mailing lists have no low-cost equivalents to coughing and walking away. There is only silence, or confrontation. Mairin’s mockup excites me since, if implemented, it could provide those more subtle, less confrontational cues by allowing ‘-1′ digg-style votes on posts. You could imagine making the cues even more subtle and non-confrontational than she suggests, perhaps by sending positive cues to everyone but negative cues anonymously and only directly/privately to the boor.

Another way that parties and mailing lists aren’t enough alike: in a party, if you are part of a boring conversation, you just walk away. Besides giving the social cues already discussed, this also has the awesome effect of allowing you not to hear that conversation anymore. In contrast, a mailing list is like a party where you can’t walk away from a conversation. You hear every single conversation whether you like it or not. Some of the best email software allows killing entire threads, but that doesn’t give the social cue to the boor. They think everyone is paying attention and so they keep talking. And for people with less good email clients (most of us), the options are to just tolerate the boors or leave the list altogether. Imagine if you had to leave every party that had even a single boring conversation. You wouldn’t go to many parties. That is what most mailing lists are like, though.

We can fix that. You can easily imagine mailing list software that allows you to tell the server ‘don’t send me this thread anymore.’ As a side-effect, if enough people ignored a thread, you could tell people posting in the thread that ‘X people have walked away from this conversation- maybe you should take this off-list?’ These would probably both require a fair bit of hacking, but it seems like the upside is a more party-like list.

On the more positive side (Mairin said she liked to focus on the positive!), at a party it is easy to find the good conversations. Just wander around the room at any decent-sized party; you’ll see a tight knot of people and hear they are talking excitedly. Can’t do that with a mailing list; you’ve got to at least start reading every thread. Once you know which threads people like (maybe via a ‘like’ link in the footer?) you can offer a party-like ‘subscribe only to threads that already have a crowd.’ Twitter/identica sort of do this through the idea of retweets/repeats; you don’t have to follow everyone on earth- some people will just pass the cool stuff along- and that seems like it could be pretty useful for mailing lists.

Note that virtually none of these behaviors require browsing the email through a web interface or a specialized mail interface. All of them could be implemented by ‘click here to mod up/click here to mod down’ links in the footer of each email, so people who live in their mail clients could still participate and benefit, which I think is a must.

Bottom line: Software can’t save a mailing list full of people who actively dislike each other. Maybe I’m crazy, though, but it seems like software that helped mailing lists function more like parties could really help mailing lists cope better with anti-social people.

  1. There are only a small number who are actively malign and I’ll ignore them for the purposes of this post- if you have too many of them on a list, you have problems software can’t solve. That said, the analogy may have some use in dealing with trolls too. []