Friday, January 28, 2011

In praise of mailing lists

I've recently been on the hunt for mailing list software that can be set up without superuser access, since my webspace provider (of course) doesn't allow the latter. I don't want to leave a home machine on 24/7 to run a list server if I can avoid it; and if I did, neither of the traditional options, GNU mailman and majordomo, would fit the bill: they're way too over-featured and tricky to set up. (A bootable Linux CD that runs a preconfigured listserv and nothing else, analogous to the ones that set up a machine automatically as a firewall or router, would work, but I haven't seen any such.) All I need is a way to setup one email address as a reflector to a list of addresses, i.e. subscribers. I might have to roll my own and set it up as a cron job on the web server—there are Perl modules to get mail using POP3 and send it using SMTP, and I could even with a little bit of effort implement automatic creation of searchable dynamic archive pages.

What's interesting is that in the process of some extensive Googling trying to find a prefab solution for what I need, I came across quite a bit of discussion the tone of which was that mailing lists are obsolete: a curious legacy of Web 1.0 that has no place in the new world of message boards let alone social media. For example, academia is one of the traditional strongholds of mailing lists (and if I recall correctly, among the first pieces of advice on Internet etiquette that I read online, some twenty years ago, was a page like this one explaining how to behave on a list); yet this author strongly suggests forgoing a mailing list in favor of a LinkedIn board or Facebook page for people active in nonprofit organizations (whose online-communication needs, I imagine, are similar to those of academics).

I know I'm a bit old-fashioned, but for me mailing lists are an essential tool for the particular way that I use the Internet as a social medium. Reading new messages as they come in is a lot easier than remembering to regularly check a message board, Facebook wall, etc. for new posts. All my mailing lists' messages come to the same GMail address, and some of the features of GMail seem tailor-made for mailing lists: in particular, grouping messages by subject (so that threads stay together in a neat, tidy, click-once-to-read-me collection), and automatic labeling (again, it just takes one click to see all the conversations belonging to one list's universe and no others). And while archiving messages for later reference is my responsibility, I can also be sure that the ability to retrieve them is as reliable as my email is in general—with message boards, the server could go down at any time, losing historical posts, or a restructuring of the database could break links to old posts (both have happened to me in the past couple of years, with the result that I now am forced to print out and file a hard copy of every useful message as soon as I see it, with obvious drawbacks).

(Ironically, you can host a mailing list via Facebook—but how many people use that feature, I wonder?)

Maybe I'm not quite such a dinosaur: here's a lovely essay on Slate from only six months ago, arguing that
e-mail lists—especially off-the-record lists—are better than Twitter, Facebook, and Tumblr at fostering a sense of community and generating deep, thoughtful conversations.
That's exactly my experience.

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