6.1 Simple Text: Mail Lists and Discussion Groups

In this day of video, audio, mashups and all kinds of advanced media forms, we sometimes forget the value of plain old text. That can be a mistake, because text is easy to take in and, for most people, easier to create than linear media like videos.

You don’t even have to be a blogger to use text to great effect in communities of all kinds. Even a simple email list can be a great way to keep people in touch, and to pass around valuable information. If you can pull people to your blog, it’s great for disseminating ideas, but often you’ll get more attention by posting a brief message to an appropriate mailing list already frequented by the people you want to reach.

There are thousands and thousands of mail lists, message boards and other kinds of systems of this sort. They exist for conversation and to provide information, and they can be amazingly valuable. They’re designed for easy participation. Some allow anonymous posting; others require a sign-up with a valid email address in order to deter bad behavior. Although some go even further and require each mail to be checked by a moderator, this kind of gatekeeping is rarely used anymore because it holds up discussion.

Of course, it’s fine to lurk in the background, reading without posting; in fact, a general rule on forums is that you should read for at least a couple of days before you add your voice, to get a sense of the culture and what’s acceptable to post. Ultimately, you’ll get the most out of these forums by joining in. The more you know about a topic, the more you can help others understand it, too. No matter who you are, you know more than enough about something to be a valuable participant.

Forums and mail lists are also simple to create yourself. It’s especially easy at big Internet sites like Google Groups and Yahoo! Groups. If you don’t already have an account, just create one. Then create a group, and you’re off to the races.

The limits of running a group or mail list via Google or Yahoo! become fairly obvious once you’ve spent enough time there. You can move up to more sophisticated forum software—there are literally dozens of products and services to choose from—but going this route does add several layers of complexity.

I’ve been on mail lists and forums of various kinds for years. Some are just entertaining, but others have serious value as community information providers. For example, our former neighborhood in a northern-California city—a few square blocks with several hundred homes—was served by a community website that offered basic information about the area. But the more valuable online information source was a Yahoo! Groups message board where residents discussed local news. One day, someone posted a message saying that the tap water had gotten cloudy. Someone else noticed the same thing. Not too many hours later, we found out the scoop: According to a resident who called the city utilities department, repairs to the system were causing the cloudiness, but it was not at all dangerous to anyone’s health; the poster of this message also linked to a page on the city’s website explaining the situation.

This incident was not nearly important enough to have been of interest to the (formerly) big daily newspaper in Silicon Valley, my old employer. As far as I know it didn’t even make the weekly serving our town. But it was real, serious news in our neighborhood, as were other messages over the years letting folks know about local break-ins and vandalism.[1]

[1]Information created at the “hyper-local” level, as some call the geography, takes a contrarian twist from the old adage, “It’s not news when dog bites man, but it is news when man bites dog.” That’s true enough if the news provider is a big-city paper or TV station. But “dog bites man” is definitely news if it happens on your street, more so if the dog bit your next-door neighbor—and especially if it was your dog.

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