Strengths and Weaknesses of Listservs (Email Discussion Lists)

Strengths and Weaknesses of Listservs (Email Discussion Lists)

Listservs (email discussion lists) are the primary method for how online communities share knowledge.  I reached out to about 2000 members across three email discussion lists for their opinions about the pros and cons of listservs from their perspective.
Here’s a quick blog post which shows how written conversations on QiqoChat compare to email listservs and standard forums.

Survey Results:

(The bullet points below are paraphrased from the 27 people who responded to the survey.)

What are the main benefits of a listserv?

  • Relationship building & authentic, remote community
  • Reputation building
  • A jumping-off point for working groups and other collaborative projects
  • Expertise on-demand
  • Knowledge archiving
  • Building a shared history / consciousness
  • Representing the pulse of the community
  • Sending announcements of events/jobs/news
  • It is a way to have deliberate discussions that go in-depth
  • Happens at the 24/7 convenience of the writer
  • Information Push: The very fact that the list comes to us via email—rather than our having to go somewhere online to access it—dramatically lowers the barriers to participation.
  • Members are committed to a cause
  • Active moderator filters out emails which merely say “I agree / Me too”.
  • In-depth discussions.
  • I learn a lot and my awareness expands.
  • It’s asynchronous. It’s pretty easy to join a conversation even a day late.
  • For me the listserv format works well when you are a group of people asynchronously sharing ideas, friendships, and information.
  • It works because of its secret ingredient: the moderator.
  • Private and secure (I don’t trust most of the other groups, like Yahoo Groups, etc.) Privacy allows us to be open and frank and help others.
  • Comfortable with the format and rhythm of the listserve. Old habit.
  • Impermanence of data, like life.
  • Not quite as helpful for lengthy conversations
  • One, we are all definitively opted IN. We choose to be a part of it. And we respect the fact that every post goes to nearly 500 people and we don’t post too much gratuitous or annoying stuff.
  • Email is the lowest common denominator. Everyone knows how to use it and nobody has to DO anything to get the communication so it’s ridiculously easy.
  • I think the fact that we meet in person really helps with accountability. Nobody’s posting anonymously, which enables us all to enjoy mutual respect, which, in my opinion, IS the secret ingredient!
  • An official or unofficial monitor has to keep it open, encourage unknown voices, and keep it going without domineering types.  Otherwise you get the well-known flame wars, or the less well-know “-isms.” Multi-person email discussions are riddled with bias – er, may the rudest dominate the floor!
  • ListServ is an async communications tactic that connects us all without regard to time or place.  I might send a message to the ListServ at midnight, but get to read it in the morning at 6A over coffee – we have a conversation, but when we have tie on our day.  If I’m in Denver, you can connect and participate in Dayton – geography no long is an issue in having a conversation.
  • One reason I like a Listserv is it is very VRM-y.  I do not have to go look for posts as with a forum, they come to me.  In the old BBS model, you dialed into a service and downloaded all the posts as a batch.  Having threaded discussions in topic groupings provided some organization so you could home in on the most important stuff, then relinquish the modem port for the next person.  When we have fast, always-on Internet this doesn’t make sense anymore, at least to me.  Now we have the emails show up in our in-box and then run rule sets over them.  Instead of one topic group, we can tag them with many tags and search within multiple topics.  We can highlight or mute any specific person.  We can search across different lists.  All of this and we still have basic BBS functionality by searching the web archive and replying there.
  • A listserv also has better temporal context.  With a forum, people often find an old thread while searching and then revive it.  Often the problem is long solved but keeps revivifying like a Level 10 Zombie Warrior.  People on a Listserv typically respond to the current conversation threads.
  • It’s underlying information architecture is publish-subscribe (PubSub).

What are the primary weaknesses of a listserv?

  • Conversations take time to develop
  • Many more threads of conversation get opened up than can be effectively addressed;
  • There is a self-imposed censoring where people have something valuable to add, but the don’t feel it’s not valuable enough to cause an email to be automatically sent out to 1100 subscribers
  • Remembering the good stuff is there and finding it again.
  • You can have a discussion but not make a decision or organize a collaborative action if you don’t have some kind of voting or ratification in place; the listserv has to be augmented periodically with other tools for surveys etc.
  • Coming out of school just last year, I have to say young people don’t email much and don’t answer emails from organizations very much; it works as a newsletter but not a conversation. It’s too slow moving. Many of the tools young people like have implied limits of debate, like twitter or IM. You don’t flood the channel and so there’s more back and forth.
  • There’s no sorting or tagging or analytics to give a broad picture of the group. Periodically, I consider doing some kind of dump of my email (none of which is ever deleted, just archived) and running some analysis on the content, because I think it would be interesting to get a big picture, but the listserv doesn’t really feel like public information. It’s a shared email service and there are real identities here, and I can’t share my findings. It’s a pity, because I think the conversation would be pretty much the same on a more public forum, and the conversations are an important resource.
  • I don’t like listserv format for coordinating a project.  (Was that email chain a discussion?  What about that other email chain that has related ideas?  Which ARE we doing?)
  • I don’t like listserv format for remote ‘work day’ communication.  I like HipChat, Skype, Google Hangout, IRC, or one of the many other chat like systems for ‘work day’ communication.
  • Listserve works great for our group, not so much for workplace collaborative set of tools. For one of our remote organizations, we use these tools: Highrise, Box, Yammer, GotoMeeting, joinMe, FreeConferenceCall, Email exchange & everyone is forced to use remote tools even if in same building.
  • For many it’s the inability to share / overshare right now.  For many of us though, that might actually be a benefit.

What do you wish the listserv could do that it doesn’t already do?

  • I’d kill for two features – topic digests (descriptive, concise subject lines summarizing currently active threads)
  • The ability for me to turn off particular topics.
  • I wish we had the AI (Artificial Intelligence) capacity to continuously update a searchable database type index of the content.
  • There’s no real theater to a listserv. I do enjoy the participants, but it’s pretty academic in general and there would be more lurkers if the information was more humanly presented. UI/UX research demonstrates how much people look at images on a page, especially images of real people’s faces (users can identify stock images and tend to ignore them).
  • On average people reading a web page of biographic blurbs will spend four times as much time looking at the image of a person as reading their bio. That came out of eye tracking research. Non verbal communication is more important for social cues than verbal, and we miss out on that via listserv. We have the convention to see each other, sure, but I personally miss the human part – in person the integrity of this community really shines, and isn’t so academic.
  • Saved messages on topics with tagging like a blog.
  • I’m not crazy about the way our archives look and work <;
  • Nada; lots of other platforms for all that.  Pictures, audio, video – all available supporting platforms if we need it.
  • Better tagging.
  • Active reading. For example, while reading a rich-formatted post you can tag it and the tag is communicated back to the server.  You can subscribe to tags on the list or from individual participants – meaning that you receive tags they’ve made public.  If you and I are reading the same email and I tag it #privacy then you see that tag in your copy, and vice versa.
  • The list server has a published set of official tags.  These can be used to search and organize at the client or in the web interface.
  • I’d make sure a list server didn’t destroy the integrity of signed emails.
  • The list server would keep a running log of links and attachments sent in the last 30 days or so.  Then you can search for “that link Doc posted last week”  or “who linked to that EFF story?”
  • Ability to mute threads.
  • Stats – a heat map of topics, tags, posters, threads, etc.
  • Blog registry – a sort of meta-feed of the meta-feed.  Anyone who joins the list can register one or more RSS feeds of their long-form posts.  Then in addition to the emails, we all get notified of blog posts from participants in the group.
  • With throttling and mute ability, of course.
  • Duplicate suppression.  Typically on this list, anyone who replies sends a copy to the poster and to the list.  As the poster being replied to, you get two copies.  This policy is list-wide and has to do with the way the list handles reply-to addressing.  I’d have client-side preferences that can override the list.  That way if I reply to the list, my preferences cause it to remove my email address from the From line prior to forwarding it on, regardless of what the list admin did.
  • Mail hold.  With Listserv I can set nomail while on vacation (so people don’t get spammed with out of office replies) but then I miss all the traffic.  Why can’t I have the Listserv remember when I suspended service, then when I resume send me the backlog?  (Or the most recent x emails from the backlog.)
  • I’d have a real-time API for the list.  Then I’d set up Tasker on my Android phone to suppress list activity during Do Not
  • Disturb times, automatically suspend service while I’m on vacation, etc.
  • Verified and unverified users.  Someone joining the list can provide a miicard, account or similar to attain a higher reputation.  Then subscribers can choose whether to subscribe to all posts or just those of registered users.  Or the list admin can make verification a policy. This would virtually eliminate spam.  Note that verification does not mean you can’t use a pseudonym.

What demographic does this technology serve well or not well?

  • I’ll take a wild, uninformed stab at this and say that it’s best for people 35 and up. The theory being that people younger than 35 have greatly diminished their reliance on email in favor of other communication vehicles (esp. texting, also Facetime and other mobile technologies).
  • The age factor is really what listserv is about. In my experience email as a channel is hitting users over 40 or those involved in enterprise. It’s also not focused to make a decision but nicely shows writing skills for the participants – that’s important for this group because the group is very articulate and accustomed to writing.
  • Especially self-employed with limited company support.
  • All ages
  • Most professions. (I’m in a yoga teachers listserve and this tech listserve.)
  • This format serves just about all of us.  Email is the #1 tactic for connecting and sharing in B2B settings and it’s the #2 tactic for B2C.  There are those who have stopped using email but they’re (still) a fringe element.  It’s just so darn convenient.
  • Facebook groups are also very good for all demographics I’ve seen (any working age or retired professional who is interested enough to opt-in to a book group).
  • Coming from Stanford and now in Silicon Valley – i’ve seen under 30 year olds are responsive to email on 1 2 DAY intervals vs other streams (messengers, Facebook, tweets, etc) where they will check and respond to a stream at least 2x daily – if not 5x+ and often-times every 1-2 HOURS.

Just for fun: What would listservs look like if they were invented in 2014?

  • GroupServer
  • Twitter
  • I’m afraid they’d be way too complex and proprietary. I’d rather just improve on the original
  • It’d look a lot like G+ or LinkedIn Groups


  • Regarding this Listserv, you might poll people to see if they like a heavily-moderated version or not.  The pro is control. The con is control.  IMHO, a lightly-moderated approach is best, or a non-moderated version with deep, responsive, substantive involvement by the sponsor.
  • Regarding trade-offs: Critical to consider what the goals of the software and process are. Letting a thousand voices blossom is hard if you also want to have a high quality, concise stream of conversation.
  • Yammer/IM program has been so valuable for a remote organization we started 4 years ago.

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