I think the discussion has come up at least twice on every mailing list I'm on: Why don't we move this discussion to a web-based forum? When it came up for the umpteenth time on the Seattle Tech Startup list earlier this week, I jumped in with this comment:

Well, I really do my best to stay out of this type of "meta"
conversation, but I'm always puzzled that people don't know how to
manage their e-mail. Especially on a tech startup list.

I mean, seriously, what e-mail client can't direct mail meeting a simple
set of criteria to a separate email folder?

Harsh? Perhaps. But then I got to thinking about it -- why do I, and so many other competent, technical folks prefer the archaic mailing list format to an online forum? And especially why when part of my business involves creating online forums?

The answer is simple: quantity. I think that those of us who prefer mailing lists simply participate in more different communities.

The benefits of web-based forums

Sure, there's lots of reasons why web-based forums are great:

  • Conversations are grouped by topic
  • There is one place to go to see an entire history of the community
  • Forums are usually better-organized, easier to browse, easier to search
  • You can subscribe to some topics and not others, have a very granular control over what you pay attention to
  • Forums are "pull" -- you have to go to the site and "pull" the content down, instead of it being pushed to you and possibly interrupting your other activities

In contrast, mailing lists seem archaic, with lots of downsides:

  • More stuff to manage -- it all ends up in your inbox if you don't set up smart rules for dealing with it
  • Harder to find answers, archives are generally organized by date not topic
  • The same questions get asked over and over

Why people want forums

Forums are better for two groups of people: newcomers to a community, and communities where participants invest a lot of time on a daily basis.

If you're a newcomer, you can see all the past activity, and perhaps find your question already answered. You can ask a question without actually subscribing to a mailing list--the barrier to entry is much lower.

Conversely, if you're really invested in the topic, you probably also like having a forum. You can see all the new posts, you can easily answer questions, and you can do it on your schedule. For support groups, community associations, and other groups with people volunteering their time and resources, online forums can be very effective.

For a successful online community centered around a forum, there are some important conditions for success:

  • A sufficient number of experts/mentors/senior folks available who actively participate and can fulfill the main purpose for it being there
  • A strong moderator to keep out the spam (because with a lower barrier to entry, spam is an ever-present problem)
  • Enough "regular" participants to keep the conversation going

Why Forums suck

There's lots of reasons the very people you want to participate in your community might shy away from an online forum.

Forums demand a greater investment in each participant's time.

There's a lot of different software running forums, bulletin boards, and the like. They each have different options, a different way of using them, and different functionality. You need to learn the quirks of each individual forum. And while this is rarely that big a hurdle, it's a mental adjustment you have to make each time you go to another forum.

There's generally a lower signal-to-noise ratio

Because it's easier for newcomers to post to a forum, there's often less interesting stuff there to keep experienced people around. Which means there's generally more beginner posts/requests for help than people responding to them.

Spam can be a problem for both mailing lists and forums, but on forums it can be harder to stop. Spammers find online forums to be a more valuable target, because their goal is to add links to their site to the search engines, and the whole world can potentially see the spam. On a mailing list, spammers can only reach the people who subscribe--so generally there's not as big a spam payoff for the effort.

There are definitely some online forums where you will find solid technical help, extremely helpful people, and vibrant communities--but I would argue these forums have very strong leaders who prefer the online forum format, and have fostered and cultivated a thriving community. Without this type of leadership, or some overriding shared interest that keeps people coming back every day, forums tend to stagnate and die off.

Forums are Pull

In the web bubble, there was a lot of hype about "Push" technology. Basically, "push" are things that come to you, while "pull" are things you have to go visit. E-mail is push, web sites are pull. News feeds are push (once you've gone to your news aggregator).

With push, the content comes to you, you don't have to go out looking for it. With pull, you have to go seek it out.

Many, many technical people participate in multiple communities. At one point I was on upwards of 30 mailing lists, and all this traffic came into my e-mail without me having to seek it out. With a couple of e-mail management techniques (a separate e-mail address for list traffic and automatic routing of lists to their own folders), it's really simple to manage your time and not get overwhelmed by hundreds or thousands of incoming messages. It's a lot harder to regularly visit 30 different web sites to see what's new.

While you can subscribe to (most) forums via a news reader and RSS, you never quite know what you're going to get -- are you going to get new topics, or just new posts on topics you've subscribed to? With e-mail, you get everything, and can then sort and filter as desired.

And because you have exactly the same interface for all your mailing lists -- your e-mail program -- it's easy to learn how to search, sort, and filter messages to find things of interest.

Why your mailing list won't switch to a forum

The bottom line is that in spite of all the flaws of mailing lists, it's much easier for people to participate in many communities at once when they all come to one place -- email.

You will find lots of differences of opinion, but in the open source world, a huge number of competent developers hang out on mailing lists, and simply do not have time to participate in forums. If you want to reach them, you go to where they are. And lots of other communities grow under similar circumstances.

How to make your forum succeed

Ok. I mentioned before that we create forums as part of our business. We do that and lots more, because we can--it's easy to plug these things into Drupal and make them work on a technical level. That doesn't mean they will succeed!

If you're going to add a forum to your site, be aware of the limitations--and the necessity of establishing and leading a discussion until it gets off the ground. Do not expect it to run itself--if you do it right and get some good conversation going, it may take on a life of its own--but it's going to take a lot of work on your part to get it there. Remember that the people who may have the most to offer your community might find it too much work to participate--figure out what you can offer to keep them coming back!


So what do you think? Did I miss any major point here? Do you have the same observations, or see things differently? Leave a comment below!

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Comments (14)

Tech-savvy information consumers want a choice in how they consume information - they want to consume it on their terms not the terms set by the producer of that information.

They want to consume it in their favorite application where *they* can define the rules for filtering and organizing the information. They don't want to have to interact with 20 different forum engines, each requiring them to login, each with its own foibles, weaknesses, limitations, ...

If their application of choice is also their email client then they are even happier because that's one less application to mess with and it's the one they are most familiar with and the one in which they are most efficient. Furthermore, when it's their email client they can also easily repurpose any message and forward it to their team, friends, or anyone else regardless as to whether they are a forum member.

10 Mar, 2010

I had this same conversation with a client in January! Said almost exactly what you are saying about Forums; so we now use a mailing list that archives nicely into a forum style format.

11 Mar, 2010

I see your points, but I think they are largely based on a somewhat antiquated view of forums. For example, our Q&A sites allow you to be notified of questions/answers by email/twitter/RSS so you can choose. You can also choose who or what topics you are interested in if you want to filter it.

Email does not provide any sense of community. You know little to nothing about the person asking/answering. If they use a work email you might be able to hunt that down, but that's a pain.

If I want to see archived stuff it's easy in Q&A and it's structured enough to include a lot of free commentary without my having to read everything to find the actual answers I'm looking for.

Different things work for different groups of course, but I'd refer the sense of community, the structure and the options to see and get the data in the way I want it. You can check out www.yousaidit.com if you're interested in seeing what I'm talking about.

That said, I should know better than to try talking to a listserv advocate because in my experience they love them and don't want to switch. I respect that and see the value of email as the platform.

11 Mar, 2010


I disagree that email doesn't provide a sense of community--I feel the opposite. With e-mail, I get to know people because I see what they write. A forum I have to go out and explicitly visit. And while you may have really great forum software, it's still different than other forum software...

The key point is definitely that different things work for different groups, totally agree there.

But with an email list, I have complete control over the interface and how I search, sort, filter and read--it goes into an interface of my choosing. With a forum, that's not always the case--every forum software is different, and I have no control over your forum!

I definitely agree that forum software (can) have a lot of benefits and a lot of improvements over mailing list software. It's just not as convenient... and that's a big problem.

11 Mar, 2010

I agree that the forum software is less convenient, but with so much more efficiency in navigating the web through browser improvements, along with the proof of facebook effectiveness, I think we are underestimating the desire of people to access pages on their own, and how used to it they are.

08 Jul, 2010

I think forums are a really great way to go, they really add a community spirit. good moderators are important though :-)A lsit does work well when you have a very small group. Horses for courses I guess.

13 Feb, 2011

I don't know how much CO2 is produced by downloading an email, but I am sure communities using mailing list all over the world must contribute much to the high C living.

What we absent is a protocol, or we have already had one: google's wave contribution. However, good things need time to be got used to.

04 Mar, 2011

Do you have an idea of how much energy consuming Javascript is used by web pages filtering and sorting your gmail or yahoo, which I suspect it to be? I got hooked on gmail and it is now ruining my forum experience. Now I have to transfer gigabytes of gmail into my mail client and filtering it all is a bitch. It just pegs my computer CPU at a 100%. I will have to drop all my filters and recreate them again or else it will never end.

08 Feb, 2013
Mark D Worthen PsyD

This is the best article I've seen explaining the differences and pros/cons of email discussion lists vs. online forums. I've tried explaining all this to higher-ups in my organization, to no avail.

They killed the email discussion list; started a new and better way to communicate! forum; ... and then closed it down after a year because of lack of activity.

Thanks for taking the time to explain it so well.


28 Jan, 2013

We use both e-mail list and Forum for our site. The email list we used for promotions, sales or discounts and the forum we used to communicated with our customer. But follow the tracking conversion we found that Forum work better than email list.

13 May, 2013

I would say forum as mailing list it out of date technique :P

27 Aug, 2013

Hi, we use both mailing list and forum using mail4group.com and its workin pretty good. After adding all users to our email group we
can send emails and communicate together way faster. Also there are some useful features for larger groups. here's more details:



16 Apr, 2014

I have a client who is a member of a listserv. This particular listserv receives several hundred to a thousand or more messages per day. This is all going into his Microsoft exchange mailbox. Where the average user at this organization has a 1 - 2 GB mailbox his is over 20 GB because he always wants to keep the old messages for reference. I think when you are getting into this kind of volume a forum makes a lot more sense to keep the messages organized and keep it from affecting the mail system for those receiving the messages.

06 Aug, 2014

Hey John,
Thanks for putting together this discussion on Mailing List or Forum.It is a great read. I particularly find your thoughts on why people want forums interesting.
Keep up these insightful posts.


09 Apr, 2018