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Managing an email discussion group (or a forum)

Some do's and don'ts for subscribers

7:23 pm on May 6, 2005 (gmt 0)

10+ Year Member

Some years ago I ran a large listserv discussion group (email-based rather than forum-based). We had more than 600 subscribers from many countries, and the group sustained a very high level of professional discussion for a number of years.

I developed an introductory list of "do's and don'ts" for new subscribers, and I thought it might be a helpful thing to post here for people who are developing email-based discussion groups as well as web forums. The general principles apply everywhere. The text below was part of the message that was sent to all new subscribers, and then (very importantly) an abbreviated version with just the main points was sent on the first of every month to all subscribers. That helped to keep things under control when they were drifting, and it also encouraged lurkers to contribute.

If you're developing a professional discussion group of some sort, these might be helpful guidelines to use.

Network Etiquette

Computer networks are social environments, and they function best when people follow certain guidelines of polite behavior. While some network discussion groups are unmoderated--that is, all messages sent to the group's address are immediately and automatically forwarded to all members of the group--ours is a moderated group. This means that all messages sent to the group's address are forwarded to the list owner for approval before they are passed on to the group as a whole. The advantage of a moderated group is that it allows the list owner to filter out a certain amount of "noise" (error messages, commercial advertising, personal messages sent to the group as a whole, off-topic posts, and the like) which would otherwise clutter up subscribers' mailboxes. The disadvantage of a moderated group is that it makes communication a bit less instantaneous, and creates more work for the list owner. The following guidelines will help to minimize the amount of extraneous noise in our (or any) network discussion group, and will help to keep the quality of messages high.

Do use informative subject headers. People who subscribe to several discussion groups may have 50 or more messages in their mailboxes each morning, and a message with a subject line like "An idea" or "New question" may well get deleted by such people without even being read. Informative subject lines like "Idea on stratigraphy" or "Question on language geography" are more helpful.

Do post messages that are clear, substantive, and topical. While many network discussion groups encourage casual conversation, our group exists to promote scholarly interchange among professionals, and because our group is so large we must consciously strive to keep our "signal-to-noise ratio" as high as possible. This is not a USENET group; do not feel as though you need reply to every message that comes your way just to keep the discussion going. When appropriate, reply to messages privately (see below). General messages about how to use e-mail, messages arguing political issues, and all forms of commercial advertising will be rejected by the moderator.

Do format your messages with care. Well-formatted messages, with a minimum of typographical errors and with block-style paragraphs separated by spaces, are easier to read on a computer screen and are more likely to elicit useful responses. Remember that all messages posted to the group are logged and may be retrieved at any time by our members, and that while this certainly does not constitute "publication," it does give posted messages a degree of permanence that is not found in casual conversation. It is a good idea to type carriage returns at the end of each line (as though you were using a typewriter), and to limit the length of your lines to 80 characters since most mailing systems place an 80-character limit on the length of lines. The inclusion of citations to published material, where appropriate, will also make your posts more useful to other members.

Do sign your messages with your name and e-mail address. Different e-mail systems work differently, and while most preserve the name of the original sender in the message header, some do not. If you do not put your name and e-mail address at the bottom of your messages, some users may not be able to determine who sent the message: they will only see the group name as the source in the message header.

Do quote selectively from previous messages in a reply. If you are replying to a previously posted message, do include an extract or restatement of the question so that people reading your message will be able to follow the thread of the discussion. Active groups may have two or three threads going simultaneously, and without such guidance it is easy for readers to get lost. Some e-mail systems allow you to include the entire text of a prior message in your reply; try not to do this unless the original message is a short one, because it wastes network space and makes it difficult for people receiving messages in digest mode to keep track of the discussions.

Don't send private e-mail to the group as a whole. If you have private correspondence to carry on with a member of the group try not to do it via the group itself, but conduct it through personal e-mail. If you want to know the phone number of someone who just posted a message, for example, don't send your request to the group as a whole, but rather to the person's own e-mail address which you should be able to determine from the header of the message or from a signature block at the end of the message. If you send the message "Hey, Joe, what's your phone number" to the group address, that personal message may be distributed to the entire group and may clutter up the mailboxes of hundreds of subscribers all around the world. This won't cause the collapse of civilization, but it can be a bit annoying.

Don't flame. "Flaming" is network jargon for "using abusive or intemperate language." Flaming is not acceptable behavior in this group. Discussion of controversial questions is welcome, but members with strong personal disagreements should pursue them through private e-mail rather than in public before the group as a whole. The organizers reserve the right to exclude disruptive persons from the group. If someone does post an impolite or conspicuously uninformed message, the best strategy is always either to ignore it or to reply to the poster privately.

If you are new to the group, do observe for a while before posting your first message. This will give you a sense of the general tone of the group and of the kinds of messages that normally appear. New members are invited to introduce themselves to the group by posting a message describing their background and the nature of their interests.

1:17 am on May 7, 2005 (gmt 0)

WebmasterWorld Administrator rogerd is a WebmasterWorld Top Contributor of All Time 10+ Year Member

Great guidelines, RJ. I'd add, "Do check the TOS of your forum", as some (like this one) may discourage posting email addresses or other identifying info.

These guidelines are a great starting point for just about any forum.


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