The way we communicate in groups online naturally changes as our technology evolves. We cannot assume that a technology or format that worked in one decade will work as well in the next.

And yet, there’s a reason why some technologies persist, despite alternatives that seem to offer additional benefits. Email is still with us (and seems likely it will always be, in one form or another), largely because of its asynchronous and convenient nature. Unlike so many other newer online technologies and services that seem to demand our real-time attention, email is happy to be exist in the background on our computers and mobile devices, ready to be reviewed in batches when our time permits.

Yet time and time again, organizations seem to face the same common conundrum — now that we’ve “outgrown” our mailing list, how do we move our organization to an online forum?

Let’s review the benefits and drawbacks of different ways people communicate online today in groups, and see if we can’t answer why mailing lists remain popular, despite their flaws.

Mailing Lists

Electronic mailing lists — also referred as by one of the specific and most widely-used brands, “listservs” ((Think how some people refer to Xerox versus copier.)) — have been with us long before the web, since 1984. Their longevity can be attributed to the fact that email is still a commonly used, daily tool by most of us. Because mailing lists exist, in user’s eyes, primarily through one’s email box, they are simple, automatic, and require little end-user thought. The conversations just come to you.

The downside to this automation is one of focus and volume. As mailing lists grow in volume — whether through an increase in subscribers or through existing subscribers simply posting more and more to the list — some people find it harder and harder to manage the growth.

As mailing lists grow, they also become more diverse. A topic-focused mailing list of 100 people can grow into a morass when it reaches 1,000 subscribers. Why? Because people start branching out in discussing tangential or social topics that are less focused than the initial mailing list’s topic. Some people find this annoying or hard to manage, while others see it as the normal, healthy growth of a social group.

Mailing lists stink in their ability to easily manage and archive a diverse set of topics. While most mailing lists have web archives, the archives are often difficult to access, search, or browse through. They can only be organized via date, threads, or authors — but not topics! This is largely the fault of stagnant software development for mailing lists, since they are seen as such old and stale technology. ((There’s nothing sexy about mailing list software.)) Mailing lists seem to work best when their topics are very well-defined and don’t stray too often outside of that specific topic area (e.g., a mailing list about Lady Gaga would be a better limited topical choice versus one entitled, “Pop Singers”).

Mailing lists are also greatly dependent upon a user’s email software, and the user’s ability to successfully use all of the program’s features. For instance, email programs since the early 1990s have had the capability to filter messages and organize them into specific folders, to make for easier reading and tracking. Yet still many users don’t know they can do this, or how. Therefore, some users can quickly become overwhelmed by a high-traffic mailing list’s volume.

Mailing lists also have few social aspects built in to the software — aspects that can enhance a group’s psychological closeness and sense of community. There’s no concept of a user profile with a photo or links so that other users can easily see what that person’s all about. There are no friends lists, or “ignore” lists for people you don’t want to read emails from (although a person could do this via their email program’s filters).

  • Automatic for end-user – requires no new learning, everything ‘pushed’ to user
  • User engagement is stronger – no need to remember to visit a website
  • Inaccessible archives
  • Confusing to subscribe/unsubscribe
  • Volume of messages
  • User experience largely dependent upon type of email client used
  • Threading, filtering is email client dependent
  • Discourages media sharing (such as photos)
  • Hard to social share
  • No sense of a user profile
  • No “friending” or “ignore” capabilities

Web Forums

Web forums come in a diverse set of shapes and sizes. Although web forums have been around nearly since the web itself (circa 1994), people still tend to think of online forums as “new.” The most widely used commercial web forum software was first developed in 2000 — 12 years ago! — and is called vBulletin. Now in its fifth generation, it is a mature product that still has a vibrant developer community to help with add-ons and ways to enhance its functionality and change its looks.

Forum-based online communities are usually a collection of forums, organized around specific topics (which may also have even more discrete sub-forums). A pop singing community could have forums for each popular singer today (“Lady Gaga Forum”), and then sub-forums for even more specific topical discussions (“Lady Gaga Concerts,” “Lady Gaga Clothing,” etc.). Web forums are simple, too. You go to the forum’s website, register for an account, confirm your account, and usually can begin posting right away.

To try and combat the problem of reminding users to re-visit the forum community, most forums also allow members to subscribe to specific forums or topics of interest, so they can receive updates via email. Usually, however, a user can’t reply via email — they have to log on to the forum and make their reply there.

Forums allow not only for a greater diversity of topics, they also have much richer social sharing aspects. People can share photos, their user profile, and even create friends lists of people they like on the forums. Alternatively, if a user finds they don’t want to read any more of a particular person’s posts, they can also add them to their “ignore” list.

Such rich features make forums an obvious and easy choice for most. ((Nobody talks about starting a new website and ensuring they have a mailing list associated with it!))

  • Simple paradigm understood by most
  • Better organized via topics
  • Archives & accessing old topics easier
  • No email distractions unless you manually subscribe to them
  • Same user experience for all – user experience not web-browser dependent
  • Encourages sharing media (such as photos)
  • Easy to social share
  • Rich user profiles
  • Can “friend” other users, or “ignore” ones you don’t care for
  • Have to remember to visit forums – it’s pull versus email’s push
  • Requires manual signup & registration
  • Can have more off-topic conversations by members who stumble upon forum

The Paradox of Mailing Lists vs Forums

So why does anyone still use mailing lists? Despite their older tech, why does Yahoo Groups, for instance, list over 50,000 health-related mailing lists? ((Admittedly, most are inactive or defunct.)) Why are the most active cancer support groups still based around mailing lists? Why does most software development still happen via mailing lists?

Herein lies the paradox of mailing lists. Despite all of their faults, they are the easy, lazy choice. That is, because they don’t require any effort on the part of the user to access the topical conversations, they are easier for many people to use, especially if a person belongs to multiple online communities (and who doesn’t nowadays?).

Here’s a personal example. I have not only a half-dozen professional organizations I’m involved in, but I also enjoy about an equal number of hobbies and social interests. Add to that another 4 or 5 areas where I need to keep up as a developer, sysadmin, and owner of a small business. That’s about 18 different communities I’m actively involved in. (And that doesn’t even count the usual array of social networks like Facebook and LinkedIn.)

Imagine they all had web forums as their community of choice. That means in order to stay current with them, I would need to visit 18 different websites a day (in addition to the dozens of other sites I already visit for news, entertainment, distraction, information, research, etc.). This problem is getting worse, too, as more and more websites want you to download their specific app for your Android or iPhone.

I could, alternatively, carefully curate what specific topics I’m interested in for each community, and subscribe to them to receive email alerts when those topics are posted to in the forums. This would require some time up-front, and then some time to keep such lists updated and current. I’m also not sure how receiving so many notices would cut down on my email volume, however, of email volume was the problem I was trying to solve.

That is why mailing lists remain popular — you can subscribe to dozens of different topical lists, and visit them in your mailbox whenever you want, without having to remember to visit each specific website.

From most organization’s perspective, web forums are the obvious choice. But that choice may not always be so obvious to the organization’s members. ((I’m not defending that this is the right choice, only explaining why mailing lists remain popular tools despite many worthy alternatives.))