There are hundreds of messaging apps out there these days. Slack is one that has recently become popular for business communications as has Microsoft Teams. Discord is another one that’s become popular with gamers and other consumer communities. These are all, at their very basic level, just “type message, press send” programs. There’s nothing particularly special about that and we’ve been doing it for decades on the internet.
Unfortunately, those consumer-friendly products are designed with an “enshittification” style business model. Enshittification is a new word described here: The ‘Enshittification’ of TikTok | WIRED or here: Pluralistic: Tiktok’s enshittification. Basically enshittification consists of a usually centralized product following these phases:
First, they are good to their users; then they abuse their users to make things better for their business customers; finally, they abuse those business customers to claw back all the value for themselves. Then, they die.
How to avoid enshittification
Step one: don’t use products that are obviously designed for enshittification. Step two: stand on the shoulders of giants and learn from those smarter than you.
Some of the most intelligent development and career community groups on the internet have been using something better than Slack, Teams, and Discord for, in some cases, many decades. Email list servers or discussion servers have a lot of advantages for community collaboration… especially in a world where big tech corporations are constantly trying to enslave users into their centralized proprietary systems for the purposes of profit.
Almost everything you use on the Internet was developed using email list servers for collaboration
A lot of open source projects use mailing lists for group collaboration.
That’s what we used at Adobe, Macromedia, etc. in the old days even for NDA projects. I still use listservs with some friends groups and we use them in the design firm with clients and client vendors to better organize cross company communications. A lot of universities, political, and business field communities still use them too. The advantage is you can use any client you want, any federated email server you want, and every consumer internet-connected device ever sold already has a client app built in. Joining is often a matter of sending an email using the address you want subscribed. A disadvantage is that if the list publishes archives publicly, then any bot can get your email address, so it’s best to create an alias specific to the list server.
- The W3C (World Wide Web Consortium) uses them: Mailing Lists – W3C
- The IETF (Internet Engineering Task Force) uses them: IETF | IETF mailing lists
- ICANN (Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers) uses them: mm.icann.org Mailing Lists and Mailing Lists (icann.org)
- The Open Source Initiative uses them: Mailing Lists – Open Source Initiative
- Linux kernel developers use them: lists.linux.dev — subspace.kernel.org documentation
- Debian developers use them: Debian — Mailing Lists
- Ubuntu developers use them: Ubuntu Mailing Lists
- Oracle uses them: oss.oracle.com Mailing Lists
- WordPress developers use them: Mailing Lists « WordPress Codex
- Apache uses them: Mailing Lists (apache.org)
- Python.org uses them: Python Special Interest Groups | Python.org
- PHP.net uses them: PHP: Mailing Lists
- MariaDB developers use them: MariaDB Users & Developers – MariaDB Knowledge Base
- NGINX developers use them: mailman.nginx.org Mailing Lists
- Fedora developers use them: Available lists – Fedora Mailing-Lists (fedoraproject.org)
- Open Suse uses them: Available lists – openSUSE Mailing Lists
- Arch Linux uses them: List Index – lists.archlinux.org
- Gnu.org uses them: lists.gnu.org
- Postfix developers use them: Postfix Mailing Lists
- Dovecot uses them: Dovecot | Mailing Lists
- Sendmail uses them (invite only) in addition to newsgroups: Sendmail Sentrion Open Source – Open Source Email Server | Proofpoint
- Internet Systems Consortium uses them (BIND is the most popular DNS server): lists.isc.org Mailing Lists
- Chromium uses them: Discussion Groups (chromium.org) and Technical Discussion Groups (chromium.org) (The open source browser tech that powers Google Chrome, Microsoft Edge, Brave, Vivaldi, Opera, etc.)
- Mozilla Firefox used them: Legacy Mailing Lists (mozilla.org) but switched to a Discourse-based forum, which has just about the same features as regular email list servers. See: How do I use Discourse via email? – Meta / FAQs – Mozilla Discourse
- SOGo groupware server uses them: Support (sogo.nu)
- Xorg Foundation uses them: XorgMailingLists
Even the Android operating system is built using email list servers for group communication! That’s right, the smartphone operating system used by 3 billion people is created by using email. Not Google Chat, not Google Allo, not Google Hangouts, not Google Spaces, not Google Talk, not Google’s RCS/Messages… email. Here you can find a list of the different email list server topics used by the Android Open Source Project: Android community and contacts | Android Open Source Project. Those do use Google Groups though, which is Google’s email list server.
Apple also uses some open-source projects that are developed using email mailing lists as well.
- Webkit powers Apple’s Safari web browser: webkit-dev Info Page
- Apache is included in macOS and macOS server: Mailing Lists (apache.org)
- Kubernetes uses Discourse which is more of a web forum with email discussion list capabilities.
Other intellectual communities
Plenty of other academic, scientific, legal, and local communities use them too. Here’s a small sample:
- Mailing Lists | HMS IT (harvard.edu)
- mailman.yale.edu Mailing Lists
- Scientist Professional Advisory Committee (psc.gov)
- Subscribe to SEGD’s Listserve | SEGD
- DC Bar – Communities Connect LISTSERV Frequently Asked Questions
- Listservs | UNC School of Government
- lists.islandlabs.org Mailing Lists
- Lilug Info Page
- main@CusterObservatoryMembers.groups.io | Home
- ListServ – ElderCounsel
- Local Government Lawyers (lglawyers) | UNC School of Government
- Science E-mail Listservs (newyorkscienceteacher.com)
- Info | email@example.com – sciencelistserv.org
- NSTA Email List Server | NSTA
- Listserv® for Science-oriented Students. (apa.org)
- Listservs (email discussion groups) – Library and Information Science Research Guide – Guides at The Catholic University of America (cua.edu)
- Email Lists | sils.unc.edu
- Email Lists (Moira and Mailman) | Information Systems & Technology (mit.edu)
- lists.cs.princeton.edu Mailing Lists
- Listserv Mailing Lists | Columbia University Information Technology
- E-lists (Lyris) | IT@Cornell
- NASA EMAIL DISTRIBUTION LISTS (nasa.gov), & Mailing Lists (nasa.gov)
- Email Lists – AACN (theaacn.org)
- Software Freedom Day organizers
What is a List Server?
There is sometimes some confusion between a mailing list server and a collaborative mailing list server (LISTSERV – Wikipedia). You can use a list server for one-way mass communications like newsletters or marketing emails, but you can also use a list server for two way replies within a group. Sometimes these are also called distribution lists, discussion servers, or even email groups.
A collaborative list server or distribution list or discussion list basically has an email account which a list of email addresses are subscribed to. When someone sends a message to the list server’s email address, it simply resends that message to all of the other subscribers on the list. That’s the basic bit, and that’s exactly what other group messaging apps do. You send a message to it and it sends that message to everyone else. Simple!
Channels are the same as Lists
You can have multiple list server email addresses for different topics too. So I can subscribe to any number of list server addresses and group all of those chats however I want on the client side. In Slack or Discord or Teams, these would be analogous to “channels” or “teams”.
Most list servers also have a “digest” preference that sends you the whole conversation once per day or per week, or you can choose to get each message as they happen and sort them into client-side folders or categories as you see fit.
Why are Listservers better?
Why are the smartest people on the internet still using these? Well, there are lots of reasons.
- Longevity. Email personal communications isn’t going anywhere any time soon and it’s still growing after over 30 years of use. On the other hand, Microsoft has had a history of making new messaging things like this and then abandoning them. Slack is a newcomer in the tech space too, so they’re likely to build up a captive audience and then sell the company or change policies in order to increase profit. Discord is the same as Slack, but with even more privacy & trust problems (You should never use Discord and here’s why : r/privacy (reddit.com)). Google has the same problem as Microsoft with creating many new messaging systems and then abandoning them.
- Consistency. Many people are part of multiple communities or multiple job functions. Having a consistent yet robust interface for communicating with all of those is a huge advantage when it comes to cognitive function. Some studies have shown that having to switch between many apps causes cognitive decline and wasted time, which makes very little sense when all of those apps do the same basic thing of sending messages from one end to another.
- Self agency. With email list servers, a business or university or community can set up the system themselves and be completely independent of any centralized big tech companies changing policies on you and either pushing you over budget or forcing some other unethical policies onto your community. Of course, if you don’t want to self host, paid hosting from other providers is available too, and you can easily switch between self hosting and external hosting whenever the need arises. This is not true at all with proprietary systems like Slack, MS Teams, Discord, etc.
- Freedom of choice. With email, every user can choose their own email client program, management options, and workflow procedures. There are hundreds of options and you don’t have to force a single user interface or workflow onto everybody like you do with MS Teams, Slack, and Discord.
- Better search capabilities. With email list servers all of the messages that you receive after subscribing are fully searchable within whichever email program you use. Furthermore if archives of list server discussions are published on a website, any other search engine can also be used to find specific conversations. The client side email program search also has the advantage of working across multiple domains meaning not only can I search all messages for specific company projects but also other company projects and personal communications at the same time.
- Very robust & mature workflow integration and management capabilities. With email there is a huge ecosystem of software to enhance management capabilities with filtering, auto-sorting into folders, automatic replies based on keywords/senders, task management integration, appointment scheduling integration, follow-up reminders, employee activity tracking, etc. Email discussion list servers are no exception and can easily be integrated with any of the huge ecosystem of management programs.
- Data retention law compliance. If your company is splitting electronic conversations up among email, Slack, Teams, WhatsApp, Telegram, text messaging, iMessage, etc., it becomes awfully difficult to manage and comply with data retention laws or your company’s data retention policies. With email and list servers you can have everything easily archived from one system. All messages can be easily archived individually be all recipients as well. There’s no way for an admin to delete things from every individual’s system since the messages are genuinely delivered to the recipients instead of simply being viewed via a centralized cloud service.
You might already have the functionality.
Some email services like Microsoft 365 (Exchange Online) and Google’s Gmail already have this list server functionality ready to go. If you have an Exchange/Microsoft 365 account in Outlook, all you have to do to make one is, in Outlook x86, choose New Item > Group.
That will let you create a mailing list right there in your email program! Microsoft even adds Sharepoint integration automatically to include a shared file storage area and group calendar. Obviously this is dependent on paying Microsoft for the service though, so you may not have as much independence as you’ll want.
Spike is another email client/service that also makes creating list server groups/channels very easy. Spike also calls these “groups,” but as soon as you create one a new email list server account address is created that then handles all of the forwarding of content between list server subscribers. Spike will be including even more list server collaboration features soon as well. See: Combating the Proliferation of Communication Tools with All-in-One Next Gen App | Tech Times Again, this is a proprietary service like Microsoft’s, so you don’t have as much self-agency as you would with a self-hosted open-source system, but it is very easy.
Google has the Google Groups service which you can use for free to create email list server groups. This is actually what Chromium, Chromium OS, and Android developers use. It’s pretty easy to create as many groups as you want: Create a group & choose group settings – Google Groups Help
Simple group emailing and mailing list management – Simplelists is a list server hosting provider that will give you one group for free and let you pay a monthly fee for others.
LISTSERV Email List Management Software (lsoft.com) is another type of list server software that you can purchase with a one-time fee or a subscription with hosting. This one is a pretty expensive choice mainly for enterprise use.
Mailman3.com is a hosting service for the open-source Mailman3 suite. You can get unlimited custom discussion lists for €15/month.
If proprietary services that you can’t 100% control yourself aren’t your thing, there are plenty of open-source self-host-capable options as well. Here are some mailing list management programs that you can install on your own server or cloud-hosted server that you rent:
- GNU Mailman (includes nice Postorious web UI with public archive) This is what the web interface looks like.
- SmartList (code) (used by Debian project)
- mlmmj/mlmmj – mlmmj – Codeberg.org
- Postfix Configuration How-To for Sympa [Sympa mailing list server]
- discourse/INSTALL.md at main · discourse/discourse · GitHub
Old ones that haven’t been updated in forever:
GNU Mailman3 with Postorious and Hyperkitty looks like the nicest. All open-source, freedom for all users to choose their own client. If you want it to look like Signal, it should work with Delta Chat or Spike. It’ll work in the command line with Mutt or Emacs. People may want to learn how to set up server side email rules that sort the conversations into subfolders on certain non-conversational/chat UI clients though.
Discourse (not to be confused with the anti-freedom Discord) is something similar that leans more towards the web forum side, but also includes lots of email list server capabilities. You can pay for hosting or self-host the software for free as well.
If you have a WordPress site, you can add a distribution list function to that with a couple of nice plugin choices:
- Mailing Group Listserv – WordPress plugin | WordPress.org
- WP Mailster – WordPress plugin | WordPress.org
In the more consumer-friendly tech circles and social networks, you’ll probably never hear about email list servers being used as collaboration tools. That’s probably because big tech companies don’t want you to have the kind of freedom of choice that email-based discussion lists provide because they don’t make any money that way. You can’t really sell people something that they already have, right? It’s much better for a company who makes electronic text communication tools to enslave a large user base, charge them with subscription fees, or use their conversations to increase profit than it is to provide something that allows the community to have actual freedom and longevity.
- A Few Good Email Discussion List Tools (techimpact.org)
- Slack is increasing its prices and making big changes to its free plan – The Verge
- How to Handle a Crowd | Book by Anika Gupta | Official Publisher Page | Simon & Schuster (simonandschuster.com)
Lead image Courtesy of SOHO consortium. SOHO is a project of international cooperation between ESA and NASA.