I hate mailing lists

Posted by james on Oct. 1, 2010

Email mailing lists are a common thing for open source projects. They were (and still are for most) the preferred way of getting support. What's nice is that a lot of times the project creators (or really experienced users) read the mailing list often, and they're normally pretty helpful.

However, mailing lists are a vestigial idea from older times when webpages were not as common. Now we have things like forums, stackoverflow-type Q&A sites, etc. Google Groups is a nice wrapper around a mailing list, and give it some forums-like qualities. But many mailing lists do not use google groups, they still use old-school plain email lists like listserv or mailman.

The problem is that these lists often lack the functionality that make the modern alternatives so great. I want to post a question, and get all replies emailed back to me. With most of these lists, this is not an option. I have to subscribe to the entire list, get all emails, and filter out the ones I don't want - all to answer a single question. Then I have to unsubscribe when I'm done. Repeat process for each question I might have.

In this regard, a forums-based solution is much easier. I can register (boo - openid ftw), then post my question and subscribe for email updates to my question (and any other thread I'm interested in). Then I receive updates just for my post... even if the answer comes months later. This is not possible if I have to manually subscribe/unsubscribe to the entire mailing list.

With good forums software, I can also get the same mailing-list type of email experience in addition to a modern forums-type experience... the best of both worlds. Some forums can be setup to email each message to any subscribers, just like an old-fashion mailing list. But it also gives the option to use the web UI instead, which for many (like myself) is necessary.

So basically the choice comes down to 1) mailing lists which give only a single experience, which is unsuitable for many, or 2) use good forums software that can give both a traditional mailing-list experience and a much-improved modern forums experience.

Given this, it's really hard to understand why many projects still insist on using old, limited mailing list managers. Is the installation that much easier than a forum-software install? Are people just used to it so they continue to propagate this throughout their other projects?

The simple, limited mailing list needs to die as a means of support. There are better options out there.