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Why are mailing lists used when there are forums?

I have had to follow and interact with two mailing lists more closely. Both are technical and people with specialized skills are found on these lists.

I see no advantage at all with a mailing list compared to a forum.

It is difficult to search mailing list information (both in inbox and Google). It fills up your mail box. Email addresses even get searchable on Google. The formatting of the posts is difficult to read.

I refer to two way mailing lists where several of the members ask and also reply to each other's questions/topics. (Just receiving mail from one source is not confusing in itself.)

Can someone please tell me the advantages of mailing lists?

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Mailing lists and forums make different things easier or harder, so there's no global "right" choice. Which to use depends on what you're trying to use it for.

Advantages of mailing lists:

  • Push, not pull: if you don't want to rely on your users to visit your forum and look for updates, email still gets the word out.

  • Knowing what's new: With an email list, new stuff shows up in your inbox (marked as new). On a forum, especially a multi-topic one with threaded comments, it's not as easy to see what's new.

  • Uses existing tools: Everybody knows how to use his own email client. Every web forum does things a little differently. There's a cost to the users in learning a new platform.

  • Uses existing tools #2: Whatever workflows users have for managing messages (flag for followup), replying (to the group or to an individual sender), archiving (particularly if they want to save only a small subset of the messages), procmail rules... are available for the mailing-list messages too.

  • Uses existing tools #3: Users have already chosen and/or customized tools based on their individual needs. A forum might present a very different user interface, one that might not work well for some of your users (for example, due to accessibility considerations). They can either spend time trying to fix it (if customization is possible), deal with it, or leave. Those aren't great choices.

  • Supports casual participation: A pattern I have seen on many mailing lists over the decades is that a relatively small proportion of the members do most of the talking. The rest are just listening, occasionally speaking up. With email it's easy to do that; if those same people had to go to a forum to track the conversation, most below a certain threshold of caring would just drop out instead. In my experience most public communities would prefer to have the lurkers, though some might prefer that they leave.

If most people only need to see a small subset of the material, and particularly if the community is active, a mailing list can be bad -- you fill up people's inboxes with stuff they mostly don't care about, but have to dig through for those few important messages. And discussion on email lists can get bloated quickly if people don't understand why including the whole chain in each message is a bad idea. But for some communities and some types of content, mailing lists will serve you much better than forums.

  • Thank you for your answer. It is correct and well written. I still don't really understand why people use mailing lists, though. But unfortunately that question would more lead to discussions on how to compare the importance of the different reasons you mention. – ycc_swe Jul 21 '16 at 23:50
  • Glad I could help. You might find other interesting questions on the two tags on your question. The size, expected volume, and expected "inter-connectedness" (threading versus one-shot messages) probably affect the decision as well, and if we don't already have questions about that you could ask them. There are probably heuristics for how many messages times people per unit time work on a mailing list (above which things break down), for example. – Monica Cellio Jul 22 '16 at 0:36

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