Mailing lists: Community or communication?

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Core purpose

Mailing lists seem to be the life blood of many open source projects. Here at Red Hat, there seems to be a mailing list for everything. There’s a company-wide memo-list to foster collaboration and connect with colleagues around the world and many special interest mailing lists like our home beer brewing list. Which got me thinking, are mailing lists only a way to communicate or are they essential to community building?

I started looking at all the mailing lists I’m subscribed to and am amazed. I belong to almost 20 Google Groups, several Yahoo! Groups, and countless Red Hat mailing lists. At work, some lists are for team communications, but others are for my own self-interests. Outside of the office, I’m subscribed to a variety of neighborhood lists in Raleigh, NC, user groups, and a few open government topics.

Every list is different, just like every community is different. On some mailing lists, I act as the owner or moderator. On others, I’m a lurker. For some, I choose to get every email; others, only the digest. Sometimes it’s about the purpose of the list, but other times, it’s about the signal-to-noise ratio.

I’m sure many of you are members of several mailing lists. And if you’re like me, you play a different role in each and consume them differently depending on your interest level.

Do you think mailing lists are simply a mechanism to foster communication or does it help create and build community? I’m happy to share some additional commentary after I hear from you in the comments.

Jason Hibbets
Jason Hibbets is a Principal Program Manager at Red Hat with the Digital Communities team. He works with the Enable Architect, Enable Sysadmin, Enterprisers Project, and community publications.


Seems to me that every project, organization, interest area, .... that I'm involved with centers around a mailing list. Seems like a core component of community building to me.

Agreed. Do you think there are different levels of "community" withing the different ogranizations and projects that you're a part of?

Absolutely. Just think about -users vs. -dev lists, or the 100s of lists around RedHat/CentOS/Fedora. There also seems to be the phenomena of frequent posters vs. lurkers on lists, and forking of lists that get too big.

Very interesting question. I'm involved with an internal group at Red Hat that is focused on understanding how our own internal communities work. We just did a survey of hundreds of internal mailing list admins to understand more of how mailing lists relate to community, sense of involvement, and getting things done.

One interesting result is that many list admins identified their lists as being a community of people, but not all of those same admins identified some of the limited criteria we set. We were trying to understand, for example, how many were social communities compared to do-it communities. Ultimately, it was unclear if our stricter definition helped or not - people felt a sense of community regardless if they volunteered or were assigned to the mailing list. The sense of purpose seemed to be the key - having an interest or passion in the topic may create the community sense.

BTW, many have been looking at how we can better engage all the people who don't like mailing lists. There is a self-selective nature at work - mailing lists work for a percentage of the people, but maybe not even a majority. Look at the growth of various social media tools as a way people grow community outside of traditional mailing list structures. This is why things such as <a href="">Mailman 3</a> and the collaborative features of Drupal 7 may signal a doubling or tripling of community sizes where mailing list merges with web-interface in a way that works for everyone involved.

Re. " all the people who don't like mailing lists. There is a self-selective nature at work - mailing lists work for a percentage of the people, but maybe not even a majority"

My sense is that most people prefer mailing lists to the alternatives - or at the very least, prefer to have messages "come to them" - checking forums, drupal sites, etc. is very tedious, and the number of forums that have 0 entries is incredibly large. The dynamic changes when forums (like this one) automatically send you an email when things change - but then things start to behave more like a mailing list (new stuff shows up in your mailbox).

Having said that, FaceBook and Twitter seem to have created a new dynamic, and spam creates a counter-dynamic to email based interaction. But still....

Email to me is perfect for this function, I manage/setup several postfix email servers. I have heard others say email is going away, I find this to be ridiculous to say in the least. Email is something taken for granted that it 'always works'. You can manage thousands of accounts, including spam appliances and no one could careless. However with that being said, if someone thinks if 'ONE' email was blocked or somehow rejected it is the end of the world.
With that being said, with email it is always something no one ever thanked the admin for having a service available for internal/external customers. It is truly a thankless service, however I believe receiving an email from a user forum after someone has responded to your question is still 'state of the art' real time communication. People think that social media sites are going to replace it, they are wrong.

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