Email lists and forums are a great way to connect with people with similar interests, but they can seem scary to new participants, and saying the wrong thing can bring torrents of abuse raining down on you. Here’s the basics you should remember.
Picture by kevinsteele
Fundamentally, getting along with people on a mailing list (whether the topic is Google Wave development, Spandau Ballet or windsurfing) is a matter of common sense. Being pleasant, thinking before you post and having an idea of what the prevailing community norms are will get you a long way.
Nonetheless, to judge by the flame wars that regularly pop on Facebook groups and in email inboxes across the globe, those principles aren’t always followed. So here’s some suggestions to remember when you’re participating in a new mailing list or forum. I’m the first to acknowledge that some list members take perverse pleasure in attacking new participants, and some of those people can’t easily be mollified, but going in with the right approach makes it more likely that you’ll have a productive experience rather than a painful one.
Some of the rules outlined here are more specific to mailing lists than to forums, but the basic principles are useful for any form of group discussion. (Acknowledgements to Cat Allman and Leslie Hawthorn of Google, whose presentation on getting started in open source communities at Linux.conf.au 2010 sparked off this train of thought.)
Learn the rules and read the archives. Many forums or mailing lists will have an explicitly stated set of community rules; take the time to find them and read them. Asking for bootlegs on a mailing list that bars that behaviour will get you ridiculed or banned. It’s rare for mailing lists to encourage file attachments, and using them can be a major headache.
Whether there’s explicitly posted rules or not, take time to read through any archives of older discussions, to get a sense of the prevailing approach. Some lists encourage verbosity; others prefer terser discussions. Forums can be very picky about making sure a post is correctly categorised.
With forums, this process generally just means looking at earlier posts; many mailing lists maintain online archives you can read. If the mailing list you’ve joined doesn’t have archives, then wait until you’ve been subscribed for a week or more before posting, and read what comes in while you wait.
Also be sure to take note of the process for unsubscribing to a list. (Lists I’m on still regularly get ‘unsubscribe’ members sent to the entire list, even though the process for unsubscribing involves a different address which is easily located.)
Don’t rehash old issues. A particular advantage of reading group rules and older posts is that you’ll learn which subjects have been so thoroughly discussed that no-one wants to revisit them. Unless the group you’re joining is brand new, chances are that contentious topics have already been mulled over many times, and the chances of your having a fresh perspective are low.
Avoid “me-too” posts. It’s wonderful that you agree, but it’s rare that pointing this out adds much to the discussion. New information is always welcome; an echo chamber is often less pleasant.
Quote relevant text only in replies. By default, your mail client will probably include all the previous material in an email discussion. This is rarely helpful. Delete irrelevant material and focus on what you want to comment on. This makes for easier reading and takes up less space.
Take care with “out-of-office” replies. If you’ve set up an automated message to respond to email while you’re on holidays, it can bombard everyone else on the list whenever a new message appears. Temporarily unsubscribing may be a wiser move.
Not everybody will agree on everything. Some lists foster a culture of debate; others place a much higher emphasis on people getting along. But regardless of the prevailing culture, it’s healthy to recognise that differing views can’t always be reconciled. Often, you have to accept that someone else thinks differently and move on. If a list is constantly leaving you irritable because of these kinds of issues, the message is clear: take a break.
Lifehacker 101 is a weekly feature covering fundamental techniques that Lifehacker constantly refers to, explaining them step-by-step. Hey, we were all newbies once, right?