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Why do many open source projects collaborate primarily through mailing lists rather than through, say, forums? I may be ignorant in my assessment, but I, along with my communication teacher, think mailing lists are rather inefficient:

  • It's hard to reference old messages. You have to wait until an archiving site picks up the message you want to link to, then look it up.
  • It's hard to reply to messages you haven't received from subscription, since you have to manually copy the sender and message contents.
  • It's impossible to moderate threads of discussion. Posts cannot be deleted or modified without supernatural powers.
  • It's tricky to keep threads together (namely, to ensure all participants in the conversation are copied/replied to).
  • It's tricky for users to participate in multiple high-volume mailing lists, as they have to subscribe and set up filters (or just be really involved).

What real edge do mailing lists have that didn't occur to me?

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marked as duplicate by gnat, MichaelT, GlenH7, Jimmy Hoffa, Ampt Jun 22 at 18:00

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+1. I've always wondered this as well. Being a new graduate, I find it much easier to communicate using forums rather than mailing lists. I suppose the older crowd is more comfortable using what they are used to? –  Brian D. Apr 25 '11 at 17:39
Mailing lists is one of a few things which I was never able to understand. It is simply unusable in my eyes. –  user8685 Apr 25 '11 at 18:17
Here, here. I HATE mailing lists, unfortunately the nature of my work requires me to use them occasionally. –  Mr. Shickadance Apr 25 '11 at 18:28
"It's tricky to keep threads together (namely, to ensure all participants in the conversation are copied/replied to)." You don't reply to the participants. You reply to the list. –  back2dos Apr 25 '11 at 20:06
@Joey Adams: Here is a list mail header looks like: from: Alexander Konotop <alexander.konotop@gmail.com> reply-to: The haXe compiler list <haxe@lists.motion-twin.com> to: The haXe compiler list <haxe@lists.motion-twin.com> ... It should be quite obvious from that, what happens if you "Reply". –  back2dos Apr 25 '11 at 20:24
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12 Answers

up vote 34 down vote accepted

In addition to the "because they are used to it" arguments, email has a few other huge advantages:

  1. You already have an email address, no need to sign up for yet another messageboard account for every project.
  2. With a messageboard, you have to actively visit the page and refresh it to see new messages. On the other hand, most people have their email client (Outlook, Mail, Gmail) open all day and it refreshes automatically as soon as a new message comes in.

In short, using a messageboard requires me to change my habits in a significant way. On the other hand, mailing lists fit simply & easily into my existing routine, so adoption is much easier.

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Doesn't RSS, which is compatible with some email clients, invalidate 2. ? –  Nathanael Sensfelder Apr 25 '11 at 19:35
You still need to run a rss client, but virtually everybody reads email all the time. –  EricSchaefer Apr 25 '11 at 19:48
#2 is particularly true for low traffic boards/lists. You dont want to have to remember to check 20 different boards, each which may get only a couple posts a week. A board with such low traffic never reaches the critical mass necessary to have a dedicated group of users who can answer questions. A list, on the other hand, pushes out posts so everyone sees them. –  GrandmasterB Apr 25 '11 at 20:09
@Cheshire: maybe it's my problem, but I find RSS for forums absolutely unusable, since you get posts from different threads mixed up. With a decent email client (even Gmail) posts are grouped and even shown as a tree. Sure, you can use RSS just to warn you and then visit the website, but that's more annoying than having them "just there." –  André Paramés Apr 25 '11 at 21:22
@Anto: I've heard of this nifty protocol for asynchronous message delivery called SMTP… –  Donal Fellows Apr 25 '11 at 22:42
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Note that volunteer projects tend to be more developer/contibutor-oriented then user-oriented to some extend. This make sense as the former tend to have a limited time while the latter get something 'for free'.

The projects I worked with (mainly GNOME-related) tend to have a real manpower shortage so anything which saves time or makes it easier for developers to participate is a plus. So from perspective of developer (in random order):

  • Mails allow highly customized filtering which people do use extensively. For example all the mails from ML for project I maintain goes to my inbox directly and are labelled as such. For less important ML they go to separate folder and skip the inform. For others I just use NNTP + Gmane.
  • Mails allow highly customizable MUA starting from web interfaces to very complicated programs allowing filtering, highlighting of important emails, creating tasks etc. They allow to script parts of reply and automate certain parts.
  • Accessing ML has 0 friction for (for example) me. I don't need to create any additional account - in most cases I just subscribe via NNTP in Gmane and, on many ML, just send an email. On the other hand I need to create an account on forum, create a password which is a) secure, b) unique [because who knows if the forum does not 'encrypt' password by rot13] and c) fulfil all the requirements [at least 8 characters including smaller and upper case letters and some special characters, but not too special like dot, unless today is Tuesday when we allow the dot...] and then start doubting I'm human while I'm trying to solve CAPATCHA ;)
  • Mails allow to add participants to thread when they are needed. For example for patch review you can add someone to To field and ask him if it won't interfere with his work etc. Most forums do not allow such things - at least not with few clicks as most MUA. Mails also allows to drop people from discussion (by curtsy first by dropping them to BCC) to avoid spamming.
  • I'd argue in some cases the threaded discussion can be have advantages. Yes - it's complicated etc. but patch review can split into several parts regarding different issues.
  • Most MUAs have integrated notification systems which allow to judge as important/spam/deal with it later. On the other hand the forums, if they have notification/subscription system, forces you to go to the website.
  • SMTP/NNTP are standards - they have RFCs and all. There are already tools which run against them - for example git can send patch to ML but it cannot send to forum. The closest I heard about it is ad-hoc support for bugzilla.

... and I don't think list is exhaustive. I can see why/how the workflow might not be welcoming to new users, not mentioning the less technical. Gnome has different channels for them to engage (G+, Fb, and yes - forums) but AFAIK rarely any developer time to take participation in community there, relearn the tools etc.

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Jeff Atwood said http://blog.codinghorror.com/web-discussions-flat-by-design/

threaded discussion is ultimately too complex to survive on the public Internet.

I agree.

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From https://github.com/pypa/packaging-problems/issues/21#issuecomment-46129044

My experience: GitHub (and Bitbucket) are great. Search engines find relevant discussions, or you can browse the repo to see everything. Everyone's comments are on one page, and it's obvious how to add your own (there's a giant green 'comment' button). It's dead easy to make an account--most community people already have one--but if not, it's a familiar process. Thus, GitHub is very welcoming, and levelling too.

Mailing lists, on the other hand, are dire, and I believe excluding to almost all of the community. From a search engine, you'll be taken to a single post from the middle of the discussion. You might see excerpts from earlier posts in reverse chronological order. It's disorientating. To read all the comments, you have to click around a tree structure (shown on a different page). That is ludicrously unfriendly. Most people surely give up. Perhaps the experience is better if you are a member of the mailing list, and receive the messages in your inbox. Understand though, that new people will always read mailing list posts on the web.

Worse, there are no instructions on the page how to comment. For example https://mail.python.org/pipermail/distutils-sig/2013-August/022529.html , there's no big green comment button. If you click around, you can sign up to receive future posts in your inbox (not sure I want that) but that still doesn't explain how to reply to the post you're reading. I suspect older community are oblivious to this problem, because they grew up on mailing lists. Understand, most young people don't know how to use a mailing list--they've never seen one. By modern standards, the process to do so is laughably slow. (I'm reading a post on the web. I should be able to write a comment from the same page). It's prohibitive for many.

PEPs are thus problematic. For example http://legacy.python.org/dev/peps/pep-0453/ . There are no community comments on the page itself. There are links to five different mailing list pages where you can read what other people have said in the past, but there are no instructions how to have your own say. That's a shame. (Compare with Ruby feature requests which are discussed on an ordinary comment thread on the same page https://bugs.ruby-lang.org/issues/8992 )

bugs.python.org is also unwelcoming, in my experience. I reported a bug once, it was closed immediately, with a reply

You can't comment here, you're in the wrong place. This subject been discussed on the mailing list several times before [no link given]. If you want to comment, you should join the mailing list, go back in time, wait for the right post, and reply there.

The message was polite, but completely unhelpful. I felt unwelcome. I gave up trying to contribute to (what I assumed was) the community and started writing rants on Stack Overflow instead. They proved extremely popular, which encouraged me to try participating again. I'm happy I found your GitHub group--you have interesting things to say, and you've accepted my contributions. Thanks. I've even submitted pull requests--I love how levelling GitHub is.

To clarify, I don't believe the poster on bugs.python.org was trying to exclude me--they probably thought they were being helpful. But the perceived "we do things our way" attitude made me feel ignored and unwelcome. I'm sure other potential contributors have turned back at the same or earlier hurdles. http://bugs.python.org/issue16675

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I prefer mailing lists over forums because it's easier. Forums require me to actively go out and do something extra (namely visit yet another web site) repeatedly. Whereas a mailing list sends the messages right to someplace I always have to have open anyways. Single point of contact (mailing list) vs. multiple points (forums). Interrupt driven (mailing list) vs. polling (forums).

There does seem to be a generational thing going on here, but I don't know that it's so much "what you've grown up with" as it is "the stage of life you're in". Now that I'm older, I've got so many more (outside of computer-land) obligations that I just don't have the time anymore to actively go and seek out forums. If it just comes into my mailbox though, it gets handled.

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The Real Edge (tm) that mailing lists have is with less busy projects. In order for a web based forum to be successful, it needs a core of people constantly present who can respond to questions, provide suggestions, and moderate it. But if a board only has a couple posts a week or month, many people interested in the topic (be it an open source project, a commercial project, hobby, whatever) wont regularly visit the board because there's rarely anything new there.

What ends up happening then, is the board becomes what you might call a b-tch session. People only go there to post a bug report or when they have a problem/complaint. But since not a lot of people are visiting regularly, you just end up with a lot of complaints/problems without responses, and very little community building.

If you have a mailing list, those questions, rather than being seen by only the small subset of members who think to visit the web forum that week, are delivered to everyone on the list. They are much more likely to be seen by someone who can actually answer the question.

Once the project gets large enough, moving to a board often makes sense, as at that point people are getting deluged with email.

imo, my favorite way of organizing these things is via newsgroups, but they have fallen out of favor. Groups allowed you, with a newsreader, to see all the new topics on all the groups you follow (benefit of the email list), but with the threaded discussion capability of a web forum. Unfortunately, particularly among non-technical people, requiring users to have a newsreader and set up the groups is a total no-go.

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Google provide a forum-like interface to newsgroups. I've used it for years (after I lost a good NNTP provider). –  Donal Fellows Apr 25 '11 at 22:44
Absolutely true. Forums are terrible for low volume topics. TBH I find them overrated in general, but they just don't work without a certain treshold of traffic. Mailing lists don't have that problem. –  Tridus Apr 26 '11 at 0:31
Most forums have e-mail notification option. –  Calmarius Feb 14 '13 at 11:59
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Bare email in itself already has everything you want. Responding to a specific message, quoting a specific passage, forwarding an interesting post to a friend of yours. On top of that, you can add anything you want.

Everybody programmer has email. And most of them use a decent mail client. A client they chose and they like. A client that aggregates their news feeds, their personal mail, their work mail. And their mailing list mail. Using a forum only introduces unnecessary fragmentation.

Proper email clients give you all the features you want (bookmarking, filtering, tagging, marking read/unread (something you can't do in forums)). They work the same for any kind of email.

So a mailing list leaves control to its users, while a forum locks them in the limited features it provides. Programmers like to stay in control. Thus they have a tendency to prefer mailing lists.

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Habit - Several people post questions about generating interest in open source projects. Sometimes you start with a mailing list of people you know and never switch over to something else.

For the users:

  • easier to flame mispellings with spell checker (gotcha)
  • easier to complain to list admin
  • They have memorized the 'alt' sites they recommend

You can find the joke here: http://www.ahajokes.com/com009.html

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Because no-one has created a better way to do it. By better i mean suited and able to integrate in current development environments.

Maybe Google Wave was in some way a more proper tool but it didn't take off.

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Most of all for flexibility -- it's easy to provide a web-based archive of a mailing list, while still allowing users to use their email client of choice to interact.

Going with a forum instead not only chooses a web-based view for historical messages (easy to provide with either technology!), but locks the users into using a web-based tool for interacting with the forum.

Put differently, using the web to interact with an email-based forum is a solved problem; using email to interact with a web-based forum? Not so much.

Now consider that many developers may routinely follow a dozen or two forums, and consider which is more attractive -- setting up a unique login and password for each one, and learning a separate user interface for each one, or interacting with all of them via an identity you've already long established (your email address), using one tool to see (and archive, and search) them all?

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-1 This is somehow wrong. "while still allowing users to use their email client of choice to interact" - a web-based forum allows you to use a browser of your choice instead. "locks the users into using a web-based tool". No, a forum may allow to use emails, or web, or both, or whatever. No advantage for email here. "that many developers may routinely follow a dozen or two forums" - I'm following a dozen of forums on groups.google.com with a single account. –  maaartinus Apr 25 '11 at 19:43
@maaartinus: "a web-based forum allows you to use a browser of your choice instead." Browsers understand pages, not messages, so they're not nearly as flexible as an email client displaying/filtering them. "I'm following a dozen of forums on groups.google.com with a single account." But then you have to: 1) be locked to Google Groups, instead of having distributed servers, or run your own, and 2) use their interface, instead of being able to choose. –  André Paramés Apr 25 '11 at 21:29
@maaartinus: a Google Groups group is pretty much a mailing list with a web interface. You might argue that this gives you most of the benefits of both systems, and you would be right. –  Shog9 Apr 25 '11 at 21:39
@André Paramés: I'm actually happier with google groups (in any browser) than with Thunderbird. Do you mean "locked" or "logged"? In case of logged, yes, but storing my password for the site in "magical wand" is no worse than storing it in the Email client, and logging in is fast. I agree with the rest. –  maaartinus Apr 25 '11 at 21:47
@maartinus -- the difference is that you can choose an email client whose interface you're comfortable with. Any non-broken browser will show approximately the same user interface for a forum, however -- and, worse, a different user interface for each forum implementation out there. –  jimwise Apr 28 '11 at 15:06
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It's hard to reference old messages. You have to wait until an archiving site picks up the message you want to link to, then look it up.

Assuming your listserv is working properly, this isn't an issue, since we're talking about old messages (referencing new messages might be problematic).

It's hard to reply to messages you haven't received from subscription, since you have to manually copy the sender and message contents.

If only someone would design a feature - perhaps even one integrated into the OS shell itself - for easily selecting and duplicating text. Perhaps it could be modeled after some increasingly-anachronistic real-world activity, like scrapbooking.

(I'm not actually sure what you're referring to here; continuing private threads in public tends to be a manual operation regardless of the software involved)

It's impossible to moderate threads of discussion. Posts cannot be deleted or modified without supernatural powers.

The reverse argument is that it's much harder for a rogue list owner to re-write history by deleting portions of the conversation that disagree with him, since one or more users will likely have their own copies.

It's tricky to keep threads together (namely, to ensure all participants in the conversation are copied/replied to).

Proper client software should handle this easily, as well as provide more flexible display and ordering of threads than most web-forum software allows.

It's tricky for users to participate in multiple high-volume mailing lists, as they have to subscribe and set up filters (or just be really involved).

High-volume forums are no easier. If anything, it's harder (if not impossible) to configure filters in web-forum packages. Either you're "really involved", or you're probably missing something.

What real edge do mailing lists have that didn't occur to me?

Privacy by default, without "yet another website account". Quick to set up. A natural progression from informal email chains as the group grows. No breaking context to move from email to web when processing replies. Familiar to almost everyone (yeah, yeah, Korean kids / the Facebook generation don't use email...)

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For the same reason they use vim or Emacs: technological conservatism.

Also mailing lists provide a "lowest common denominator" interface. And the fact that they can scare off less motivated people can be a Good Thing (less trolls).

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No-one who uses vim does so because of technological conservatism. –  user16764 Apr 25 '11 at 17:35
I do not use Vim because of technological conservatism but because of it being a superior editor to everything else I have tried. I would change the first sentence in this answer if I were you. –  Anto Apr 25 '11 at 17:40
Same here. In fact, I've only started using it a couple years ago, so it's hardly "conservatism." –  André Paramés Apr 25 '11 at 21:32
@Anto and others: this is my opinion and it will stay the way it is written. Your denial will not change my mind. Downvoters, bring it on! –  quant_dev Apr 26 '11 at 6:38
I think people keep using vim & emacs for the same reason I prefer Windows text editors: we are most productive with the tools we're used to. I'm pretty fast at text editing in Visual Studio because I have a lot of practice (e.g. muscle memory), and I'd be slow in emacs or vim. Emacs or vim users would be slow in Visual Studio for the same reason. Now, maybe if the various editors would let you use competitors' keyboard interfaces, we could switch between them more freely. –  Qwertie Jan 23 '12 at 21:11
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