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. []

38 thoughts on “Mailing lists are parties. Or they should be.”

  1. I think it’s a great analogy.

    I think having server side information about whether people are reading a thread or not would really help. Muting at the mailing list level instead of the email reader would do that. And that functionality already exists.

    In the Systers list I’m on, every email comes with directions on how to unsubscribe to the thread:

  2. You know you’ve just described NNTP newsgroups.

    Besides you haven’t addressed the problem of topic drift where multiple sub-threads are spawned off but the subject never changes.

    For example I’ve been in a newsgroup where a thread lasted for months but soon drifted off into various unrelated topics but there was no indication in the subject what the current discussion was about. Changing the subject didn’t work because as soon as you adjusted it, the discussion would drift again.


  3. It’s been my experience (and indeed this is commonly asserted in relation to child psychology, teaching and so on) that rewarding good behaviour is usually better than punishing bad behaviour. The way that this is presented in relation to teaching is that you want to give positive feedback to students who are engaging and ignore students who are being disruptive unless it’s reached a point where it needs to be tackled. The idea is that if you react to bad behaviour it tends to turn into a battle between teacher and student which is in the end more disruptive to the class as a whole and ‘rewards’ the disruptive student with teacher attention.

    Of course the difference in the teaching/parenting case is that there is an authority who is able to decide what constitutes good or bad behaviour. In the mailing list case this process needs to develop through some kind of community consensus. Subscribing/unsubscribing from threads may be a way to ignore bad behaviour rather than let it degenerate into a flame war. But in general I’d strongly advocate thinking about ways to reward ‘good’ mailing list/ community behaviour rather than focusing exclusively on excluding/punishing the bad.

  4. Don’t you think +/- votes will turn the mailing list into a popularity contest (i.e. just what most parties are)?

  5. I’m happy for mailing lists to get smarter, but whatever you do, *please* keep them away from web browsers. Web forums suck, and there’s really not much you can do to make them suck less.

  6. You know you’ve just described NNTP newsgroups.
    please keep them away from web browsers

    You know, if you don’t have the time to actually read and understand the whole thing, please don’t comment on it either.

    Ducky: I agree that there is some risk of that, but if the options are popularity contest or flame-fest, I’ll take popularity contest every time. At the end of the day, there are some people who deserve to be unpopular and we have no way to do that. And like I suggested, some steps could be taken to minimize that, like making the minuses private/anonymous.

    Ben: I think that makes sense when dealing with children; less so with adults who already have ingrained habits. And of course there are different types of negative feedback- like I said at the beginning, there is the abrupt, in-your-face, public, heavily punitive ‘screw you’, but also more subtle mechanisms that have very different impacts on the person getting the signal.

  7. I find myself agreeing with ben; there’s at least dislike, disagree, and not interested; lumping the three into “-” can be counterproductive to maintaining a good tone. See for example the “what’s with all the downvotes” meta-threads that pop up on sites on which you can downvote.

    I’m certainly ok with hiding people or threads though. Some people you won’t hang around with, party or otherwise :)

  8. Andy: I didn’t mean to suggest only ‘-‘; definitely ‘+’ or ‘like’ is needed as well- see the paragraph starting ‘on the positive side.’ And yeah, you’re probably right that it makes sense to distinguish ‘-1 you’re an asshole’ from ‘-1 this just isn’t interesting.’

    I’m also still a fan of /.’s ‘+1 because ____’ or ‘-1 because ____’ system. You could see implementing a similar one in this use case.

  9. I think there’s some good ideas here, but I’m not sure the ‘web interface’ idea is going to be popular. A web interface on a mailing list is basically a forum, and look how popular forums are with developers…not very. Mailing lists are *mail*, they’re not web: that comes with certain advantages that people take very seriously, as they have entire toolchains set up for processing email which don’t work at all in a web world.

  10. “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.”

    Maybe I should have removed the ‘virtually’ so that it would be more clear.

  11. Hey Luis!

    This is a great post, thanks :) It’s funny when Luke and I were talking about the idea we were relating it to walking into a coffee shop. The mailing list is the particular coffee shop (different cafes have different cultures) and each thread is a conversation you can walk up to or avoid completely. So we added the notion of indicating how many people are involved – eg in a coffee shop if two people are screaming at each other, in mailing list terms you’ve got maybe 2 participants and 30 messages sent at a rapid pace. In a coffee shop if you’ve got a very open discussion taking place you might have 12 people and 12 messages on a thread. One thing we thought might be cool too (not mocked up) is to indicate if a rare poster is involved in a thread. E.g. I think a lot of folks decide to read a thread based on whether or not someone with a very high signal to noise ratio (like yourself, Luis :) ) is involved – when those folks get involved the conversation gets more popular, just like it would when the life of a party enters a conversation at a party :)

  12. In a way, this makes things more like a www forum. I think implementing them in a forum, at least initially would be less work than hacking everyone’s mail programs :)

    On a related note I’ve seen forums linked to mailing lists before, where posts on one turn up on the other. I don’t know if you can get such a thing ‘off the shelf’.

  13. Sam: I think lots of high signal-to-noise ratio people (including, if I may be immodest, me) avoid web forums, for a variety of reasons; the main two probably because they are poll rather than push, and because they require a different UI ‘context’ for each community, which is a pretty high cognitive cost if you’re involved in multiple communities on a daily basis. But yeah, it is certainly possible that it might be easier to hack good mail flow into a decent forum than do it the other way around. (For what it is worth my workplace recently tried to hack good mail flow into a web forum and it (1) took forever and (2) still isn’t very good yet- threading is broken; no posting by email; etc.)

    That said, I’ve never seen any forum with most of these features either. Most of them are just as bad if not worse; horrible interface for people who are ‘good’ at lists while still having all the social mis-features that make lists horrible.

  14. Mairin: woot. :) Coffee shop definitely seems like another useful analogy. Note that a good coffee shop doesn’t let people scream at each other; they get thrown out on the street so that they don’t scare away new customers. Whereas our mailing lists let those people keep screaming, which you can definitely bet gives ‘new customers’ the wrong impression of what list culture is.

    One thing that I kept coming back to when thinking about this in past years is that you can do a lot of this yourself in an excellent mail client (e.g., gnus) but you can’t surface it to the broader group, so maybe it is useful to focus on ‘what information do we know people already have stored in their heads and mail clients which we can coax out into the open.’

    In other words, I know people who have gnus rules which say ‘don’t show me a thread unless $CLUEFUL_PERSON posts in it.’ But there is no way for the entire community to share the collective wisdom of who $CLUEFUL_PERSON is. Rarity is a good start in that direction; I imagine you could come up with other emergent properties as well.

  15. What baffles me is the overwhelming popularity of Yahoo Groups in non-geek domains. It shares all the problems of any list server that hasn’t seen an update in 10 years, along with a few unique mis-features.

    My favorite is allowing moderators to edit posts. I could hardly believe my eyes when on a local neighborhood list, a hapless moderator edited a user’s post that criticized a local business. The only evidence of the edit, aside from a confused and indignant response from the victim, was a line in the message header, which only geeks know how to find.

    Participating in a moderated Yahoo Group is like being at a party where everyone stands mute for hours until a chaperone steps into the room, approving (and possibly altering) what was said since his last visit, triggering a crescendo of chatter followed by another long silence.

  16. @adam: I think the fact developers tend to avoid forums (I’m one of those) makes the web interface to the mailing list – yes, that’s sort of a forum – even more important so we have a tool that can link the regular users (forum interface) to the developers (mailing list) with zero effort required to both.
    I was looking for a tool like this to kick off the Fedora Italian community, but nothing open source *and* functional come out, so it would be really nice if this could be implemented soon!

  17. I think this is a great idea and I can think of another positive reason why this may well work out great.

    In an unmoderated forum (which in practise is what mailing lists are) people tend to start ignoring comments from anyone new. Since they have to wade through so much dross on the list on a regular basis, this attitude makes a lot of sense. It is much easier to just read the posts of people you know and respect already.

    But it has the negative problem that new people hardly ever get the attention their post may deserve. You could be presenting an awesome idea, but if nobody reads it, what is the point?

    In a normal party, you CAN always just go up to someone and say: “Hi, I’m Andy. I heard you are a marine biologist. That is awesome!” and if you behave nicely and politely you will normally get a bit of attention to present yourself or ask interesting questions.

    This is impossible in an unmoderated forum. Due to the above-mentioned problems. But in a moderated forum, it isn’t that hard to read through most reasonable posts and consequently you are more likely to give a nice newcomer a chance by reading his/her post.

  18. […] Mailing Lists, Parties and Fear This blog post is more about my reactions to some posts, and maybe explain why some other people may not feel too happy about the analogy. In the end however, I do think making mailing lists into a more social medium is desired for certain areas.. especially ones designed for collaboration. When I read through Mairin's post and then Luis's post via LWN, my first gut reaction was the same feeling I had at my High School Prom. The part where a girl asked me to dance, and the next thing I knew it was 10 minutes later and I was driving up the Interstate at 90 mph. Parties are things I dread. I am socially awkward if not blind.. and never know if I am talking too long or what social gaffe I have enacted this time (that 40 minute monologue on Social Growth of Organizations at FUDcon.. probably way too long…. and the conversation on the bus about why some pictures are art and others demeaning, awkward.) I have also never understood how do people shut off all the conversations going on? My brain is constantly trying to figure out if people over at the pool really should be talking with the people in the kitchen since they seem to be talking the same things. And how am I supposed to know that even though they agree with each other, they hate each others guts.Thankfully after walking the dog, I started to think about why I was afraid versus making some angry supposedly "witty" response. Why was I afraid? In the end it is because email and mailing lists make everyone else socially blind like me. Is Jack a jerk, or someone who only knows English from Quentin Tarantino films? On a mailing list, you can not tell and so have to lumber along. The only social ques you get are if people respond to you, and well even if its a long rant about everything you had wrong in your post.. it is a response. But why should everyone be 'blind' because I am? Being socially 'blind' is rather unfair, but so is making everyone else be that way. Neuro-typical people are built to be social creatures wanting to build tribes, and without various ques will degrade into sociopathic forms as evidenced on Fedora about updates or Ubuntu about where your buttons are.So the important question is, how can we make this better for people in general? I think that having some sort 'out-of-band' ques will help the majority of neuro-typical people. It might even help me if there is some way that it can give me feedback on how to do better. Posted by Smooge at 18:52 […]

  19. Your analogy is ironic because mailing lists and parties are both social interactions.

    So its pretty straightforward that they share the common characteristics of a social interaction.

  20. I’ve been thinking lately about how Twitter creates a much better environment to have conversations that a “closed”/”walled” form like a mailing list or forum: In twitter if you don’t like what somebody is saying, you just unfollow him (which is like the “walk away” situation your describe for parties).

    That is great because you just unfollow one person and not the entire group. In this sense, you have as many groups as people are in the system because every one has his own group, that he has get to create.

    Maybe this concept might be introduced in your proposal? You don’t get into a walled group, but you start following people who are talking about things that are interesting for you. In this way everyone has to try hard to create their audiences, interesting threads will get RTed and so their authors will get more followers…

    This has some important drawbacks as that a group might have the same information to be able to work and so on, but maybe with a scheme like this the important things would always be vissible?


  21. Actually, I would agree with Philip (and I don’t understand why I brushed him off so roughly) … NNTP newsgroups and always were much more sophisticated both technologically and socially then email lists (whenever possible all my email lists go through

    Their decline and decline of Usenet as whole is one of the main reasons why I tend to believe that the bright future already happened and we are just stepping down as less worthy sons of our fathers. Or to quote J.R.R.Tolkien:

    “I am a Roman Catholic, so that I do not expect ‘history’ to be
    anything but a `long defeat’—though it contains (and in
    a legend may contain more clearly and movingly) some samples or
    glimpses of final victory.”

  22. […] Luis Villa's Internet Home / Mailing lists are parties. Or they …Luis Villa's Internet Home / Mailing lists are parties. Or they should be. on 17 -Mar-10 at 4:50 am. Kramer auto Pingback [. … Uncategorized by admin […]

  23. […] 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. Syndicated 2010-03-17 06:08:06 from Luis Villa's Internet Home » Blog Posts […]

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