Temporary Mailing Lists

I’m sure everyone has had the problem of sending an email to a few people, then a conversation starts, and you realise you should have included a load of other people, and you try and CC them in, but they don’t have the earlier messages, and people from the original set keep replying to the earlier messages, and the new people fall off again…

How about an ad-hoc mailing list server? This is how it would work:

  • When you send out an initial message to a group, CC it to and set Reply-To to random-string@templist.example.com. This could be automated by a Thunderbird add-on which created a button “Make A Group Message”.
  • The templist server gets a copy of the message, and sets up a mailing list of all the participants apart from itself, with the name “random-string”.
  • Anyone who replies replies to the list; the server sends the message out to the subscribers, with Reply-To set back to the list.
  • If any of the participants need to add a new person, they CC them in on their next reply.
  • The mailing list software notices the new person, adds them to the list, and sends them backdated copies of all the previous messages for that list. The effect is just as if they had been CCed from the beginning, but their mail was delayed.
  • Once the conversation finishes, after a period of a week or two, the templist server destroys the list and deletes all the messages.


16 thoughts on “Temporary Mailing Lists

  1. I think google wave was supposed to address this problem.

    My problem with wave was I never found how to integrate it with my normal e-mail.

  2. mmm, I think that could work. I’m not sure I’d like the list to be deleted though; inevitably someone will resurrect an old list by replying to one of it’s messages long after everyone’s moved on. Of course, that means you have to remember which addresses are taken, or at least handle that in your UI…

  3. db48x: generating a unique string is not hard. I would choose e.g. “gerv-2010-10-11-legal” for my email to some legal folks. And I only have to remember I’ve used it for the rest of that day.

    Another option would be to have a “startlist@templists.example.com” email address – you just send your email off there, and put the names of the people to explode it to into the first line of the message. It would generate a unique name, extract the email addresses, and send off the first list message with appropriate Reply-To.

  4. Firstly, security: at a minimum, such a system would need to have an active opt-in system for people added to the list via cc.

    And on a more basic level, and unlike a typical mailing list, the proposed list would have to display (in the To: header) the names of all the recipients, otherwise the recipients wouldn’t know whether someone else needed to be CCed or not!

  5. rosbif: What do you mean, security? I can CC you on a discussion at any time; why is it “less secure” if I do it with this mechanism? Or are you thinking that people might be able to peek into the conversation uninvited? That’s why the random-string is random; although we’d put in checks so a potential eavesdropper would need to know both the random string and the email address of someone already on the thread. And, of course, the participants would get the message binding the new person in, so they’d all know it had happened.

    Yes, the templist software would put everyone in the “To” line (with itself first, so that it was obvious in MUAs that templist was being used), but set Reply-To to be the templist address.

  6. Ludovic: Do “Reply All” instead of “Reply”, thereby replying to all the people _and_ the list, and then remove the list address and the person you want to remove. Optionally, generate a new list name for the smaller group and add that on instead.

    Brodie: is the software which runs freeml open source?

  7. This is exactly how private, ad-hoc group chats work on Google Talk: you generate a UUID, join a chat room named “private-chat-@groupchat.google.com”, and invite a bunch of participants. (Ad-hoc group chats on the rest of XMPP work similarly: you ask the server for a unique identifier.)

    I’d love a Thunderbird extension that did the same thing.

  8. interesting idea, gerv. i’d like to follow the discussion, but apparently weblogs.m.o doesn’t do comment rss feeds. who should i contact to see if that can be implemented? just page2rss-d this for now.

  9. Nice thinking… There have been many occasions where I have needed something like this but just ended up creating a whole new list… I look forward to someone creating such a service… with open source code to run on lots of servers if possible… but I would also be willing to pay a small price for the usage of a service if absolutely needed.

  10. Re: freeml
    I have no idea. The service is run as part of a for-profit company, and they don’t publicize what the software is that they are using. I would expect that it is built on top of free software though.

  11. I think this would fall foul of http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/CAN-SPAM without at least a means to let people remove themselves.

    It soulds like a mail-driven front-end to creating an ad hoc mailing list in Mailman and adding subscribers. (Newly Cc’d can use Mailman to browse old messages instead of receiving all the previous e-mails.) Mailman doesn’t support that, but you can create a Mailman list from the command line so it seems a doable hack.

  12. skierpage: there could be a self-“blacklisting” mechanism (“I never want to hear about this conversation again”), sure.

    Leho: mozineadmin at mozillazine.org. But the blogs are built on top of Movable Type – I guess this would need an MT upgrade. And they are really in maintenance mode at the moment.

  13. The ad-hoc mailing list is cool. But you never know when a discussion stop and restart. There are some ongoing discussions I have with friends which last for years but at a very irregular pace and sometimes with 6 months of inactivity.

    The last year and a half I have been confronted to a similar issue:

    1. It costs to create a mailing list (admin work, email addresses, etc.)
    2. Archives are good, specifically in a work context. It helps rebuild context for people who are late in the discussion. It helps remembering some decisions.
    3. People do not know how to use dynamic folders for managing their emails. (Unfortunately) (All my mails of the last 20 years are in dated space folder with dynamic folders created for the current needs)
    4. People do not know how to unsubscribe a mailing-list, but they know how to cc someone.
    5. Some mails really belongs to more than one context, and it is a struggle for some people to know where to send them.

    Some thoughts about a possible system (all issues not solved)

    1. So I was wondering about a system where each mail has a unique id (already the case) and is saved online with its own archive.
    2. The mail before being sent to the recipients has its header modified with a Archived-At: containing the URI of this specific mail.
    3. It could have another header X-Thread-Archive-at: with the list or content of all emails in this thread.
    4. The ACLs are dynamically set on each Web individual archive depending on who has been copied to this email.
    5. The ACLs are inclusive for any new persons who is being added to the thread, including previous messages.
    6. There is a possibility to tag and/or do positive bias filtering on emails the same way we do with spam, in a working context we would have a kind of shared vocabulary of contexts dynamically created. So the mails would be showing in dynamic contextual views.

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