You "like" this but what do you really think?
March 27, 2012 11:08 AM   Subscribe

Are email lists for group discussion dead? If you were starting a new group -- for networking or to talk about a local issue -- what would you use to bring people together online?

Right now, we are just starting to gel and we have a Facebook page. It looks very nice and we have gotten a number of people already who are interested. It's a local group and we will be having occasional meetings to get together and network. But, I've never had a Facebook group really seem to generate or sustain discussion. On the other hand, email discussion lists almost seem antiquated. Do people even have time for email lists after they peruse Facebook, tweet to their followers and update Pinterest?

I've also been looking at something called Groupsite which is kind of like a Facebook clone with an emphasis on discussion forums and allows you to make a profile. What would you use to encourage connections and discussions online?
posted by amanda to Technology (15 answers total) 6 users marked this as a favorite
Email groups seem to be dead, and in my mind Facebook groups don't really substitute. I don't think there is a contemporary equivalent to the vital mailing list communities of the late 90s. Web forums are the best bet. Vanilla (a PHP webapp), for instance. But it needs critical mass to get things going, in particular to bring people back to reload the page. RSS doesn't work outside of nerd communities.
posted by Nelson at 11:13 AM on March 27, 2012

I think that the death of email groups is greatly exaggerated; I belong to several very active ones, including IT-related groups, on Google Groups and Yahoo Groups. I think the underlying technology has changed, but you still subscribe with an email address just as you did in olden days.

The nice thing about email groups is that you can be pretty anonymous. And you don't have to subscribe to yet another service to join the group.
posted by Currer Belfry at 11:18 AM on March 27, 2012 [1 favorite]

I think you should just stick with Facebook and maybe a group Twitter or something for now, and don't go off trying to start parallel or complementary sites where you might not find that much traffic following you yet. If you find that people do start to post on FB/Twitter and are having good conversations and they want to be able to do more of that or do it differently, then you have a problem to solve. You can then look for a tool that meets the needs of your community. But right now I'm not sure if you'll find your audience following you to a new site just for online discussion, especially if you're giving them the chance to meet and discuss face-to-face.

I wouldn't call email lists dead; I'm the member of several of them for work and they are alive and well there. Certainly they're not what they were in the 1990s, but then things have changed. I do belong to some Yahoo groups now that are relatively active, but I usually only subscribe via digest format.
I also don't participate in web forums like I used to, especially these one-off type for specific groups or small communities. They don't generally get enough traffic to warrant being on my radar these days. I still see Ning being used here and there for this kind of thing sometimes. Have you considered Meetup? There are discussion boards on that site and it's super easy to set up events and it will be easy for newcomers to find you, if you're open to newcomers. But it's not free to run it.
posted by aabbbiee at 11:29 AM on March 27, 2012

Facebook often displaces other forms of electronic communications without doing a good job of replacing them. Facebook has the advantages that a lot of people are already there, and it's simple to interact with once you are there. But in terms of carrying on a complex discussion, or referencing old topics, it stinks.

E-mail lists still work, and I'd recommend one, at least as a starting point. But they seem to have a traffic ceiling beyond which they become overwhelming. Different people will have different tolerances for how much traffic is too much, and different lists will develop different cultures that may move that ceiling up or down somewhat. And with Google Groups (or most other e-mail lists), people can interact via the group's web interface if they prefer.

Beyond that threshold, web-based forums offer some additional organization that makes the traffic volume feel more manageable. At a glance, Groupsite doesn't necessarily seem to offer anything that you couldn't get elsewhere. You could self-host a BBPress install or something like that if you wanted to.

Depending on what you're doing, you may need/want to rope in other forms of online communications. I'm involved in a project that has a public-facing website, a Facebook page (mostly just for publicity), a mailing list for the team, and a wiki for the team.
posted by adamrice at 11:33 AM on March 27, 2012

This really really depends. I find that if you need your conversations to be more or less private, like really private, mailing lists are still the way to go for people who email a lot. Now I am a 40-something librarian so you can filter this however you want to, but I am on a few mailing lists that are well-used and well-loved. One of them is a friendlist for old school folks in a hobby I am in, one is for Vermont librarians to discuss issues and one is a sort of think tank of like minded folks. I also will look through the archives or more public mailing lists like the ones that the ALA does and it's a great way to find stuff about particular topics. I have a few other groups that use the sort of php forum type situation and a few more that do facebook discussions.

If people aren't sharing files or other social stuff and they're motivated to talk about things, mailing lists can be fine if the people are already email-heavy folks. There's a low barrier to entry [if you're going to employ some technological solution] and people can interact from computers or phones. They're also very easy to moderate and have clearly delineated rules. For people who maybe aren't as motivated, having the discussion happening in some place they already are [i.e. facebook] can be a good motivator because the interactions feel more personally linked to the people in a way that email doesn't quite do.
posted by jessamyn at 11:35 AM on March 27, 2012

I think it depends on what you are looking for in terms of discussions- like a pp, I am on a library list serve and it is an invaluable resource to me in my job especially because it has a searchable archive. I am on a parenting group on Big Tent, which is more about giving advice and getting advice- you can search there too. I am also involved in a forum that is really just social- that forum recently moved somewhat over to facebook- which works because the conversations end and there isn't a real need to reflect back on them- but I think for information sharing a forum set-up or a email list serve is more valuable.
posted by momochan at 11:57 AM on March 27, 2012

a friend's rule of thumb on Facebook that I've come to think of as pretty astute:

If you wouldn't be comfortable discussing it in an auditorium filled with a mix of friends, acquaintances, strangers, don't discuss it on Facebook.

But there are a lot of things we do discuss in such public situations. Indeed, such situations are a big part of what makes our (mostly) open culture work, get people talking, informing and educating themselves.
posted by philip-random at 11:59 AM on March 27, 2012

I haven't seen a new non-tech mailing list in a while. Ad-hoc CC list for an urgent topic, sure. Distribution list for broadcast, sure.

Discussion groups (often PHPBB or clones) seem to be the thing now, but like Nelson says, you need enough people present and returning to keep them from being ghost towns.

Google+ is trying to make local work (local/nearby is one of the circles / filters for viewing public posts) but I don't think plus, or that feature, are heavily used by non-geeks.
posted by zippy at 12:12 PM on March 27, 2012

I run two mailing lists for my friends, one of which dates back to 2005.
Ever since the advent of facebook ubiquity, the mailing list volume has gone from hundreds of messages a day (in a group of about 30 people), down to less than that a month, on average.

posted by namewithoutwords at 12:16 PM on March 27, 2012

I am on several non-tech mailing lists. Some of these exist because when they were started, "better" venues didn't exist. Others exist because of what Jessamyn refered to as the low barrier to entry--Even technical incompetents can use e-mail and it comes to them without them having to do anything.

As to how to get people on them, if this is where discussions they want to be part of will be going on, they'll request to join (once they find out about it.)
posted by Obscure Reference at 12:18 PM on March 27, 2012

Just adding myself to the list of folks who use non-tech mailing lists. In my case, it's for work (well-loved librarian mailing lists) and non-work (for those of us working against a highly contentious energy issue in upstate New York). The ease of use factor for reading and replying on these lists is a major benefit - I'd estimate that 25% of our list refuses to use Facebook because they're uncertain of what they'll end up sharing purely by accident.
posted by brackish.line at 12:34 PM on March 27, 2012

I am part of three active mailing lists - one for neighborhood stuff, one work-related, and one a support group. A Facebook group or web forum could possibly supplant the neighborhood discussion for me, but work-related and support-group-related stuff I would absolutely not talk about on Facebook, or likely any other web forum. Email's the only forum I can think of where you would get me to have these conversations.
posted by Stacey at 1:44 PM on March 27, 2012

I'm part of a few fairly active email lists. You could check out how hnet, yepdc, and carl Brandon society use their listservs
posted by spunweb at 1:47 PM on March 27, 2012

It depends on your audience. An older and/or tech oriented audience is much more likely to use a listserv because they have in the past and are comfortable with it. An younger or tech-phobic audience might not be into it. Also if your prime audience is people who get hundreds of emails a day (like executives) then it might not be the best option because they don't have a lot of extra time to devote to email and daily digets will likely get unread.

I would look into any discussion solution besides Facebook. I admit I have, at best, a semi-rational bias against it, but it's pretty awful for discussion because it has no threaded discussions and administrator control is very coarse.
posted by Ookseer at 2:24 PM on March 27, 2012

I guess it depends on what is being discussed, the message frequency and the number of people. Email listservs, or just a lot of replying-to-all back and forth, works well for low numbers and low volumes. Same thing with Facebook, if the project is not private.

Scaling up to a google group of some kind if the email solution is too big, or a full-on forum on some webhost. (boardhost?) I think they can be set up to email people at different granularities, so people won't forget to check the website for updates.

The only caveat with that is that if various threads start getting long, a moderator of some kind needs to step in and create new threads that summarize previous discussion and splits or focuses further topics. Each thread ending up something like a parliamentary meeting, and the new one starts with the minutes of the previous. Sort of like "OK, we've decided on San Antonio for the 2014 conference. Now we need to discuss lodging options: [...]"
posted by gjc at 2:45 PM on March 27, 2012

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