Mailing list etiquette

Mailing list etiquette

As companies get larger, mailing lists get larger and noisier and generally less useful at disseminating information or fostering debate.

Here are some succinct tips on making the most of mailing lists while minimally impacting the productivity of list members.

Joining and leaving a list

Never email a list asking to join or leave it. At a small company where lists have less than 10 people on them, maybe that works, but mailing lists are typically controlled by:

  • Some sort of corporate directory application or website
  • Emailing a different address to manually or automatically subscribe or unsubscribe.

Lists like that have a separate email to manage membership typically list this information at the bottom of every email or it would be listed in some corporate directory.

Sending a message to a list

There are some important things to consider before sending a message to a mailing list.

Sending a message to a mailing list should be a considered action. Think of the time it took you to write the message and multiply that by the number of people on the mailing list. Is your message worth that expenditure of time? Imagine you’re in an auditorium containing all the people on a mailing list. You get up on stage to ask a question at the microphone. Even if most people aren’t paying attention, it can still be a distraction. Should you still ask it?

It’s worth trying to find a more targeted list. Either search a corporate directory or if you can locate one person on the team, email them and ask them what the proper way is to ask a question of a whole team or department.

Use your bug tracking system

People often use mailing lists to announce bugs they’ve found. Perhaps they want to see if anyone’s hit it, whether people think it’s a legitimate bug, or they are just lazy and don’t want to file a proper bug report.

Most companies, especially larger ones, will have a bug tracking system backed by a database. This captures all sorts of metadata, creates an audit trail, and a bug can be prioritized and reviewed. It’s much harder to slip through the cracks than reporting a bug via email.

On a large mailing list spanning many departments, it’s a crap shoot whether someone from the responsible team will even be paying attention to the list. A bug report goes directly to a team member and you’ll know when it gets read.

One exception is if you find a bug, file it, but it’s severely blocking your ability to use your device at all, a mailing list may be an appropriate way to figure out a time-sensitive workaround. Always reference the bug you filed.

Do your homework

When hundreds or thousands of people are on a list, it can be irritating to get a question where the sender has clearly not researched it first. At the very least, search the mailing list if you have been on it awhile. Ask around, especially if you are new, to make sure you know the important internal resources you can tap for information. Ask your team members. People are much more likely to help someone that has first tried to help themselves.

Be clear and concise

The people reading your message probably don’t know the backstory to your message, so start from the beginning. Otherwise, there will be a flurry of messages on the list as many people try to extract more details from you. Don’t be the one responsible for a large, out of control, thread of messages. If you send something unclear, you may get dozens of responses just asking you what you meant. Now the list is flooded with messages.

Tech support for family and friends

Many people don’t agree with me on this, but I feel a company mailing list is not the proper way to get help for your friends and family. Definitely file bug reports, but a mailing list should really focus on the needs of employees. Family and friends can use the company’s tech support line or wait to see the result of the bug report you filed. One exception to this would be an exceedingly serious bug, but that would be appropriate regardless of who found the bug.

Replying only if you have something to add

Sometimes you’ll see replies to a mailing list, often send via an iPhone, that are hasty and incomplete. Or someone will reply and confess they don’t really know the answer. Only if you can give an answer that you are confident is accurate should you send it to a mailing list. If you know who would know the answer, forward the mailing list email to them. Just saying “me too” adds no value.

But but but

I’ll lay out the main objections I hear from my etiquette guide:

It’s a lot easier to send an email than to file a bug
True, but what’s easier for you consumes undue time for others

It’s not really wasting anyone’s time, they can just filter the mailing list and don’t have to read the messages
That sounds nice, but people actually DO want to read the mailing lists and you can’t automatically identify messages that could waste undue time. You may miss something of value if you filter messages!Keeping the quality of the mailing list up benefits everyone.

Everyone on the list seems to be fine with the way things are
What people don’t realize is that many high quality employees DO filter all mailing list email into the trash or somewhere and they never read it. The signal-to-noise ratio is far too low. Don’t just consider those that are active list members, but also those who could be active. My experience with high traffic mailing lists is that they are populated mostly with newer employees.

We can address issues more quickly if we send them to a list
Maybe, but it could also be dropped on the floor because the right people aren’t paying attention.

Is there a better way?

Definitely. I strongly feel that a reddit-style forum could replace mailing lists. New messages would go to the “new” section and voted up and down accordingly. The main page would be “mailing list” messages that a lot of people consider important.

Depending on your time committment, you could decide whether to read just the main page, the top 5, or maybe further pages or the “new” section.

Honestly, I don’t see how it could possibly be worse. Mailing lists aren’t scalable to organizations that have more than 10,000 people or so in my opinion.