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Mailing list blues

Filed under: friction — Thomas @ 10:17


When I look at the list folder in my Evolution these days it's just a depressing sight. So manny mailinglists I've accumulated membership to that go unread now.

I think the model of mailing lists is just fundamentally broken. I just subscribed to the cdparanoia mailing list because I had a bug filed against morituri related to the sample-offset option. And you have to subscribe just to be able to post.

So the process to get some question answered is:

  • ask to be subscribed
  • wait for the request mail to arrive, which arrives somewhere in my admin/list folder which I keep forgetting about because of server-side .procmailrc rules
  • wait some more, because the greylisting on our mailserver probably delayed the arrival
  • reply to it
  • wait some more, you're now subscribed
  • send your question
  • wait some more
  • update my Evolution folder subscription selection, because another .procmailrc rule (that I probably stole from jdub) automatically filters the mail into an unfiltered subdirectory which is a catch-all for all mailing lists; but it only shows up in the list when the mail actually arrived of course
  • check the mail in the list, which is usually only mine
  • remember to check that folder over the next few days for possible answers
  • end up accumulating years of cdparanoia list mails that I won't ever read because the friction of this process is just too much and it's just easier to waste bytes across the net

Of course, I can just change my account settings on a particular list to not receive mails, until I have my next question, but that's still painful.

My garden is in dire need of weeding here, but I don't even know what direction to take it in. Anyone who feels they have a good handle on the mailing list problem want to share their approach with me ?

In particular, I've been googling for a solution to a very particular problem: the not noticing mails on mailing lists that are directly for me - either as a reply to one of my questions, or because I'm being CC'd somehow. My filters file all mails to mailing list in their respective folders, and I tend to miss the mails addressed to me a lot. Surely there is an easy procmail recipe that, when I'm in CC in some other way than just through the mailing list, also leaves a copy of the mail in my INBOX ?
Surely there must


  1. I’ve had similar grievings in the past; I think I’ve worked around it through gmail and a dedicated mailing list account.

    Gmail space constraints are virtually unlimited; never think about space for twenty years or so, I think.

    Subscribe to the ML (usually via email, it makes things quicker than going through a webform), then as soon as the first message arrives set a filter for the list with a ml-specific label. If you’re actively following such mailing list, don’t check the “Archive it” label; you can always set it later, when you’re not involved anymore in such ML.

    In Gmail you can add as well a filter like “if the sender or the receiver of the message contains then star the message” – this makes it extra-fast to check threads where you were involved.

    BTW, I really miss the usenet – quick browsing through thousands of discussion groups and just a single registration needed – the one for the news server. I think NNTP was forgotten too soon, as there is no good replacement for it right now, and mailing list software would need something like OpenID and OAuth.

    OTOH if you think that the alternative may be a FORUM – something i really dread – you’ll see mailing lists are far from suboptimal solutions :-)

    Comment by Alan Franzoni — 2011-03-21 @ 11:08

  2. My solution is to subscribe without getting email (SET NOMAIL) and then reading/posting via gmane.org and NNTP client. The sad truth is that still in this year 2011 newsreaders (as in NNTP clients) are much better in dealing with huge amount of stuff. Killfiles, kiling threads are things which still didn’t work to my expectations in email clients. So, yes I am subscribed in the endless list of lists I don’t read anymore, but they don’t bother me, and I collect these subscriptions more like a permissions to post to the newsgroup when I eventually need it, rather than obligations to read the stuff.


    Comment by MatÄ›j Cepl — 2011-03-21 @ 11:28

  3. I’m using the gmail approach as described.

    Mails directed to you can be intercepted so they stay in the inbox for you to read, others get archived automagically. Works ok, and it also allows to use gmail to search for things in all the mailing lists you’re subscribed to.

    Comment by Jan — 2011-03-21 @ 12:00

  4. No, mailing lists aren’t fundamentally broken. What’s broken is the requirement that someone subscribes before they can send a message. GCC has done very well with open lists dating from the egcs fork; anyone can send a message without subscribing.

    If the intent is for a mailing list to be a private community, then subscription before posting is appropriate. But a FLOSS project should have at least one way to allow non-list-subscribers to get in contact.

    (I’ve been involved with GCC for many years).

    Comment by Joe Buck — 2011-03-21 @ 15:49

  5. I encountered this problem several times myself, and I finally ended up with a solution that neither drowns me in email nor leaves piles of mails I won’t read. Stop filtering list mail to a separate folder! I used to think it made so much sense to filter each list to a dedicated folder, but I realized that mail I actually want to read should go to my inbox, and if I don’t want to read mail on a list I shouldn’t subscribe (or if the subscription lets me post, I should disable mail). So, I subscribe to a handful of project mailing lists and actually *read* them, and they all come to my inbox.

    To complement that, I also have a grand total of one non-inbox place to put mail: Archive. All non-spam mail that I’ve processed goes to my Archive folder, and I can find it via search. That means I don’t have to put any thought into getting a mail out of my inbox. (In mutt, “save-hook ~A =Archive”.)

    Comment by Josh — 2011-03-21 @ 20:31

  6. Bug trackers are 10x as broken, too. All the same pains for what usually amounts to even less dialog.

    There is absolutely no reason to require a login to any of this stuff. I’ve been running a public bug tracker that doesn’t require any login at all (one is optional for users who want to set advanced settings, or be assigned bugs, etc.) that simply uses Akismet to filter out spam. No spam has gotten through, and I’ve yet to see any false-positives in the filtered bug bin (which autocleans itself of messages older than a few weeks, so it’s zero-maintenance).

    And then there’s the web forums. Half the projects these days require a minimum of three different accounts to interact with their communities. And that’s just for each single project. It’s ridiculous how much barrier to entry there is. Most of it for no reason other than that everyone is using some ancient cruft mail manager or forum software or bug tracker that was first designed in 1995 and then never evolved along with the rest of the modern Web.

    Comment by Sean — 2011-03-22 @ 03:18

  7. Sean:

    This might get slightly OT, but I’m actually writing a series about some grievances with many community-driven projects, and what should be employed to let people actually contribute to your projects:


    Comment by Alan Franzoni — 2011-03-22 @ 09:35

  8. I feel your pain, the subscription really does make getting problems solved take twice as long (at least!) as they should. Plus I have over the last few years subscribed to so many newsletters etc, that quite honestly I can’t remember which emails are spam, which I would read if I had the time, and which are important.

    What I will probably need to do at this point is set up one email account for mailing lists, one for IT-related stuff, one for orders and business critical stuff, and one for personal.

    Comment by Tim — 2011-04-07 @ 18:47

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