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Mailing list etiquette: Best practices for creating, maintaining and participating

Mailing list etiquette - best practices for creating, maintaining and participatingMailing lists are an essential community and support tool, and I myself participate in a good handful ranging from beta tests to individual app support and even simple enthusiast chatting on one topic or another. In my experience, I've found that a number of things do and don't work from both a management and participant side, and I thought it would be helpful to start a discussion about these best practices to see if I'm on the mark, or if you readers have other ideas that should make the cut.

Following are two sets of mailing list etiquette that I've put together. One for those creating and managing lists, and another for those participating on them. If we can all agree on at least a few, may they be written in digital stone for future generations to benefit from.

  • Introductions are in order: Most lists I've come across don't have a problem with this, but it's still a good starting point. Sending an introduction email to new list members is a good ice breaker for providing useful links (such as help and unsubscribing) and list rules.

  • A subject prefix is crucial: This one is a personal peeve of mine - some of the lists I'm on don't insert a subject prefix for one reason or another, but typically it's some sort of variation on "what's the point? Aren't we the only list you ceaselessly obsess over?" Whether you're like me and you aggregate messages from all your lists in one folder (or label), or you simply let them mingle in your inbox, mailing list subject prefixes are essential for keeping things organized and easy to pick out in a crowd. I'm on at least three lists that don't use a subject prefix of any kind, which makes it impossible to pick out messages from one list or another simply by glancing at subject lines. Please, won't you think of the children and add subject prefixes to your list(s)? If you see the light, [using brackets] and an abbreviation to keep things short and sweet are the standards these days.

  • Provide online searchable archives: Few things can be more irksome than a newbie hopping on the list and asking a question that's been answered time and time again. Just like forums, lists are more useful if their archives (or at least a decent and recent portion) are searchable too, which means an online archive is ideal. Bonus points for being able to link directly past messages in said archive.

  • Easy breezy unsubscribe: In the footer of every list message should be an unsubscribe link that soothes members' pain when they want to cut their ties. Sadly, they probably just deleted the list's introduction email, which means they have no clue on how to break the ties.

  • Allow rich text, if not full HTML: This isn't the dark ages anymore - bold and italic text formatting have tried and true visual and psychological uses, and something tells me that this whole hypertext markup language thing is going to be big. Text styling and linking - even if it's a simple auto-generation of the full link URL in a message - are invaluable to the way we interact with electronic information.

  • Pay attention to the rules: each list obvious has its own set of rules to live by, and you typically are emailed a copy of said rules once you join a list. Read them. Since joining a list is the digital equivalent of barging into a strangers' coffee talk, knowing these rules can save your butt from embarrassment and "RTFM newbie!" ridicule. Besides, once you know the rules and prove it, you get to be that "RTFM newbie!" guy when someone who didn't read this post hops on the list.

  • Pay attention to what's important to you: No one expects you to read every message and remember every topic the list ever covered, but that's what search is for. If you run into a problem or have a question, you owe it to yourself and the list to search your email to make sure you aren't a dupe. If you're a new member, search the archives too. On the converse, if you start a thread that gains traction, be sure to read all the replies if you plan on chiming in farther down the chain. Few things look sillier than a thread participant who isn't paying attention.

  • K.I.C.S. - Keep It Constructive, Stupid: Never mind the insult in this rule's title; it just fit the colloquialism. No matter what happens on list, you need to keep your cool and respond with respect. Maybe someone mis-informed another member, or maybe they even started flinging mud first - you still need to keep things civil, even if the situation might need management to step in and take take some administrative action. Still, if you just *have* to write that cleverly scathing response, do everyone a favor and simply don't send it. Save it as a draft when you're done (or better yet: file it in the circular bin), and instead use your witty powers for good after you take some time to cool off.

  • Take the personal stuff off-list: As shocking as this may be, the entire list doesn't want to hear the way-off-topic "that one time" memories you're sharing with another member. In the same vein, things like inside jokes, personal plans - basically anything that has nothing to do with the list's subject - should probably be taken off-list. Granted, each list and its community will have their own tolerance and interest levels for stuff like this, but just be aware of the possibility that not everything you have to say is proper fodder.
That's about all I have for both sides of the mailing list fence. Did I miss anything?

Tags: behavior, etiquette, lists, mailing lists, MailingLists, management, netiquette, participation