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August 20, 2003 » 7:16 pm

Mailing List Etiquette and Experimentation

I’ve been an e-mail user for over 10 years, and a mailing list and USENET user for just about as long, so I have strong beliefs about proper mailing list etiquette. That puts me in an interesting position as a participant in the Blue Oxen Collaboratories. On the one hand, these collaboratories are supposed to be shining examples of high-performance collaboration. On the other hand, they’re also supposed to be testbeds for experimentation and coevolution.    (8K)

Sometimes, people use the lists in ways that conflict with my inner sense of etiquette. However, etiquette is a form of social constraint, and if we forget why we find these constraints valuable, our sense of etiquette can impede collaboration.    (8L)

The collaboratories are a perfect place to have metadiscussions about this sort of behavior as it happens, but unfortunately, it’s hard for me to participate or initiate those discussions. Because of my position at Blue Oxen Associates, my commentary can be perceived as law rather than opinion, and I don’t want that to be the case.    (8M)

That, of course, is the reason for this blog — for me to WhineInPrivate in public. Which leads me to today’s topic.    (8N)

Cross-Posting    (8O)

The impetus for this entry was a discussion this morning with Andrius Kulikauskas, who called me all the way from Lithuania. Andrius founded the Minciu Sodas laboratory, which is similar in spirit to Blue Oxen Associates, and he actively participates in our collaboratories.    (8P)

One thing that Andrius does often is cross-post across different forums and mailing lists. I’m not a big fan of cross-posting, but I think there are times when it’s appropriate. The problems are:    (8Q)

  • List participation is often restricted to participants, largely as a way to avoid spam. As a result, people will not necessarily see responses to cross-posts, and it can result in stilted and confusing discussion.    (8R)
  • There is a force at work within effective communities: Know Your Audience. People behave differently depending on their audience, as well they should. You may know the audiences of the lists to which you are cross-posting, but the different members of each list may not, and that will affect how or whether they respond.    (8S)

Andrius and I discussed this a bit over the phone. One of his rationales for cross-posting is that it builds awareness of other communities, and that it encourages interconnectedness. I definitely believe in the former, but I’m not so sure about the latter. Simply knowing that a community exists certainly enables interconnectedness at some level, but cross-posting could also discourage interconnectedness. If there is no Shared Language on the different lists, cross-posts can unintentionally lead to further balkanization of communities.    (8T)

I’m not a big fan of cross-posting, but I tolerate it, and for good reason. When Andrius did it, it forced me to think very hard about why I disliked it. That helped me understand the reason for my feelings, and it also helped me think through some half-baked ideas. For example, when you consider the benefits of cross-posting, it’s clear that the technical balkanization of mailing lists caused by restricting participation to subscribers can be a very bad thing. One advantage with USENET newsgroups or web-based forums is that you don’t have this balkanization. On the other hand, these forums are susceptible to spam. I’m certain there is a technical solution to this problem, although I don’t know what it is yet.    (8U)

Off-Topic Postings    (8V)

A great example of where etiquette can be overly enforced is off-topic postings. I’ve noticed that on some lists, moderators are tyrannical about keeping discussion on-topic. While I understand the reasoning, being too extreme about this can do more harm than good. The nature of online spaces is different from face-to-face spaces, and the former is a more tolerant space for divergent ramblings than the latter. I wrote some thoughts on this in an earlier entry.    (8W)

Another reason for tolerating some off-topic discussions is the Water Cooler pattern. Communities are more effective when people have shared experiences, and informal socializing is a great way for identifying or creating these experiences. Several months ago, there was a discussion about local restaurants on the San Francisco Perl User Group mailing list. This clearly had no relevance to Perl, but it was very interesting, and no one complained. In fact, the original poster asked for recommendations off-list, and several people e-mailed him asking to post the responses on-list instead.    (8X)

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2 Responses to “Mailing List Etiquette and Experimentation”

  1. Some groups, e.g. DC Web Women -http://www.dcwebwomen.org/mlist/listfaq.html#lists – have been driven to run a social list in parallel to the “ontopic” one. What do you think about that?

  2. That’s excellent! DC Web Women have recognized the value of informal socializing, and evolved their toolset to facilitate that. Balkanization is still an issue, however. People have to choose to be on that list. You can’t get that accidental socialization that often occurs just before or after a face-to-face meeting, and that can often be so valuable.

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