I'd like to build an online community for my son's elementary school. It's hard for parents to communicate right now. I'd like to have an easy-to-use online place where a parent can post a question: "What was the math assignment today?" or "Can we change how we do picture day?"

The key thing is that it has to be easy. Most parents are disengaged, and no one is going to sign up for Discord or Reddit. Plus, I'd like to keep the community limited to just parents and teachers. No one wants to have to their comments about their kid indexed by Google.

So, what's the best model here?

I really like the idea of an email-first messaging model because everyone has email and messages will just get delivered to you, rather than having to go to a website and log in just to see what's new. Plus, everyone gets email on their phone.

The downside to having a plain mailing list is that I also want a site that is searchable and organized by topic/grade. Past conversations are important. "Is Mrs. Jones a hard grader?" or "Why did everyone quit the soccer team last year?" is knowledge that should not be lost. Parents that are new to the school or to a grade should be able to see what past parents have said. We need searchable threads like in a forum.

I have looked at forum software and haven't found anything that handles email well. In particular, it would be good to have a system where people can control how they get notified: every message individually, a daily or weekly digest, or just web access.

They should also be able to subscribe or unsubscribe themselves to sub-forums: 1st grade, 2nd grade, after-school sports, the French trip, etc.

So, how do I set this up?

1 Answer 1


Much as I personally prefer email, it has a number of issues for regular users.

An ad-hoc mailing list with all the recipients in the To: or Cc: header degrades very poorly. If somebody changes their address, you are forever stuck with the old address in some threads. (Inexplicably, many people use their work email for private stuff, and then when they change jobs you get this.)

Also, people have different tolerances for following up on email threads with tangential or private topics. Some will hate receiving email which is of no interest to them, and others will struggle to keep the right people in a breakout thread.

A proper mailing list (like [email protected]) requires some overhead, and people who are not familiar with listservs tend to have trouble with the user interface, even though a modern Mailman or similar is really not very complicated to understand and use. This lets users join and depart or change their email address at their leisure, as all you ever use is the mailing list's address. A modern mailing list might also have a web-based submission form where you can write a message to the list in your browser, and an index of recent threads which you can also visit in your browser, both password-protected (which probably creates another problem for users who don't know how to use a password manager, but well, duh).

There are some free mailing list providers out there, but they might not have the longevity you look for (Yahoo Groups was popular for the longest time, but they closed shop a couple of years ago). I looked at paid mailing lists for a topic but in the end didn't follow through, so I don't have experience with those. If somebody in the group is at a university, they probably already have a listserv of some sort where they can create a list for your group.

What to use instead is, I would argue, primarily a question of what you can get people to agree on. Facebook is, regrettably, ubiquitous, and so these days very often the go-to solution for informal community building, regardless of what you might think of their policies and user interface.

Where I live, Whatsapp is quite popular, and so many ad-hoc groups like the ones you describe live there. In other geographies, you might find that e.g. Telegram, Slack, or Discord are in wide enough use that you can persuade the ones who are not already users to join.

Creating subgroups for different topics would be nice, but that only really makes sense if the group is constantly active. For the Whatsapp groups I'm in, creating a breakout group for a separate topic has rarely been useful or necessary. There are bursts around one or two topical discussions, and those who don't care probably mute the app for a couple of days while it's going on, then long sequences of complete radio silence.

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