Mailing Lists

May 26, 2011

Chapter 10 – Written Communication

Mailing lists are a hybrid form of communication. They share many of the group communication dynamics of wiki pages or forum postings without having the same sense of a shared space. They have no mechanism for editing content after it has been distributed. However, dealing with groups in an email list means that you have to consider a few extra details.

Send To The Right List

Make sure you are sending your email to the right list. Most mailing lists have a specific subject. This might be a knowledge-based area like “developers of a specific tool,” a geography-oriented subject like “everyone who sits on the third floor,” or something else entirely. When you post to a mailing list you should stay on topic.

Mailing Lists For The Whole Company

To help organize their large volume of email the Viewpoints Reasearch Institute team uses mailing lists, but not in the standard way. Normally mailing lists are used to communicate to a specific subset of people. VPRI uses mailing lists to categorize information. Every member of VPRI is on every mailing list and the list name is automatically prepended to the subject line of every email. This makes it very easy for team members to ignore email they aren’t interested in.

Using mailing lists to provide information to the entire group in a way that keeps everyone informed but can be easily ignored is a lot like IRC. Some members of the VPRI group are moving toward IRC, but it is a slow process.

Use Threads Properly

Mailing lists rely heavily on the concept of threads, which organize emails by topic. Threads start with a specific question and continue until the issue has been resolved or everyone gets bored. Which thread an email belongs to is determined by the subject of the email. When you reply to an email most mail programs will add “Re: ” before the subject line and automatically include your email in the thread.

The goal of a thread is to create a coherent trail of information about how a decision was made and make it easy to find that trail in the mailing list archive. Keeping the thread useful means staying within the designated topic of that thread. If you want to discuss something else you should create a new thread by sending an email with a new subject.

Mailing list archives

Many mailing lists are archived and made available on a website. These archives can be years long and include tens of thousands of messages. A well-organized mailing list is an asset to your team, but a disorganized one just takes up disk space. When you post to a mailing list you are adding content to this archive and you should make sure your contribution will enhance its utility. You will benefit from thinking about mailing lists this way even when they aren’t archived.

Previous post:

Next post: