[Should edit this heavily. At some point. If time allows. It’s already somewhat on the long side of things...]
Been on hundreds of mailing-lists during the last thirteen years. Yes, literally.
All sorts of distribution lists, listservs, Yahoo! Groups, listprocs, Google Groups, majordomos, announcement lists, etc. Lists about community projects (ilesansfil.org, BiscuitChinois.net, AcadieUrbaine.net…), academic disciplines (linguist-list, Anthro-L, SEM-L…), open-source projects (BibDesk.sf.net, StrangebrewJava.sf.net…), commercial software (OmniOutliner-Users, EccoPro…), hobbies (MontreAlers.ca, SweetMarias.com…), communities (Causerie, MaliNet…), online stores (CalabashMusic.com, SAQ.com…). The list goes on and on.
Those who assume that “email is dead” probably give little consideration to mailing-lists. To them, mailing-lists may easily be replaced by Web-based forum- or blog-style comment systems. Yet, to me, and despite all the hype about what Tim O’Reilly calls “Web 2.0,” mailing-lists are one of the most interesting things happening online. Yes, even today. Maybe they’re not really here to stay but mailing-lists have yet to be replaced by “better” technology.
Mailing-lists are based on simple technology and vary greatly in the way such technology may be implemented on each list. Several announcement lists are quite similar in effect to XML-based syndication (RSS and Atom). You get a message anytime new content is added (for instance, on BorowitzReport.com or MarkFiore.com). Others are very interactive and dynamic, with dozens of people sending each other messages throughout the day (Members of Barleyment are part of one such list). In either case, a mailreader (Eudora, Thunderbird, Mail.app, Entourage, Outlook…) is a very convenient “aggregator” as list messages can be checked quite regularly, may be routed in different folders automatically or manually, are easy to label and archive, and use relatively little bandwidth or disk space (though my current mail folder weighs in at about 5GB and doesn’t include all of my mailing-list content for even the last five years).
On more interactive mailing-lists, using a mailreader is even more beneficial because mail editors are usually much more efficient than browser- or Web-based editors, especially when replying to somebody else’s comments. Furthermore, editing list posts in a mailreader makes it easy to archive and search their contents in a centralized place. On several occasions, looking through my list archives for my own submissions or those of others has been a very efficient way to find information and put it in its proper context.
Contrary to Web-based content, mailing-lists are not usually about getting larger audiences. While some list subscription numbers are rather impressive, many mailing-lists give more value to what happens on-list and off-list between listmembers than to the possibility of getting advertisement monies. As such, mailing-lists are much less likely to get hyped than Web-based “social” projects. Yet mailing-lists are often where important things are really happening online.
In some ways, mailing-lists are “push technology” done right (anybody remember the hype surrounding PointCast? Anybody believes PointCast had that much impact?).
Some mailing-lists (Humanist, HomeBrew Digest) have long histories and their archives are among the most valuable sources of online information.
Much mailing-list traffic is made of threads. Threads have lives of their own, often splitting in multiple subthreads and follow-ups. As such, they do look like comments on a Web forum or blog, but are quite possibly more fluid. This fluidity might imply a lower “signal to noise ratio” in some cases as off-topic messages multiply, but some of the more open mailing-lists greatly benefit from the “stream of consciousness” effect of having threads develop in different directions.
Many mailing-lists are really about building communities. Though blogs and “social networking” sites are seen as community-builders, mailing-lists are, in my humble opinion, more efficient ways to build stronger and longer-lasting online communities.
Although subscribing to a mailing-list is almost as easy a process as subscribing to an XML-based “feed” (RSS or Atom), becoming a listmember is often an easy way to fully integrate a community. It’s common practise, on many interactive mailing-lists, to introduce yourself as soon as you subscribe to a list or before you start posting queries. Responses to these introductions are typically welcoming and often generate interesting discussions. On some of the more personal mailing-lists, unsubscribing to a list may also be an interesting process as people’s parting words can be quite revealing.
Mailing-lists often emulate societies as group dynamics grow from the meeting of individual personalities. Contrary to blogs, mailing-lists are often based on large numbers of “authors” and “replies” have the same status as “posts.”
Members of mailing-lists often develop long-lasting relationships. This is especially obvious on the more personal lists where members will go to great lengths to visit each other. But even academic mailing-lists often give way to important collaborations between members. In some ways, listmembers know each other on a deeper level than comment writers on Web-based content.
Even more important than list posts, listmembers interact through private messages. Yes, like many might do on “social” sites. The difference here is in the transition from list to private communication which, though not strictly codified, often follows interesting lines. Because listmembers form a specific group (however open and large that group may be), those who interact through private messages already have the possibility to refer to a shared “history,” especially if both of them have been active members of the list for a significant amount of time. Similar processes have been happening on some IRC channels, chatrooms, MMPORPGs, and in some blogging communities but private interactions stemming from mailing-lists tend, in my experience, to be broader-reaching than other forms of online communication.
None of this is meant to say that mailing-lists are the only “cool” thing happening online. In fact, the claim is that mailing-lists are simply more useful than “cool.” The hope isn’t to have mailing-lists remain what they currently are, but for mailing-lists to transform and integrate into other online technologies. For instance, a few Web forum commenting systems send detailed notifications when new messages are added in a thread. This could be improved by allowing replies to these notification messages as an easy way to post Web comments. Mailreader could greatly improve their handling of mailing-lists as, to this day, none of them seems to even facilitate the distinction between a list address and a personal address. While some scripts exist to facilitate the creation of separate folders for different mailing-lists, mailing-list content often remains difficult to distinguish from private messages. List messages received in digest formats are “unpacked” by only a few mailreaders. Threaded mailreading (in Gmail, Mail.app, and Thunderbird) has improved over the years but is still imperfect. Mailing-list software has come a long way but much more could be done in terms of archiving and repurposing list content.