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Enjoying listserv chaos

Like many of you, I’m on a variety of electronic mailing lists (aka listservs [1]). Unlike some of you, I also have administrative responsibilities for a variety of electronic mailing lists [2]. Perhaps for the latter reason, I sometimes enjoy seeing what happens on mailing lists.

The other day, a variety of computer science professionals, including me, were placed on a mailing list called None of us asked to be on it. Now, you would expect computer science professionals to behave differently than normal human beings. And you’d be right in some ways. But you’d also be a bit wrong.

An amazing number of people replied to the list saying I did not ask to be added to the list. Please remove me. Others responded with please remove me, too. A few, like me, identified appropriate people at UCalgary in positions of power and asked them to remove us from the list [4], but also cc’d the list. Some emailed people and then sent a separate email to the list. Some noted that when they tried the unsubscribe button, they were told that their unsubscription [8] had to be approved. And then folks started chirping [9] in with comments like the following.

STOP! You guys are spamming everyone on this idiotic mailing list. Nobody asked to be on it, and there could be tens of thousands of us getting not just their spam, but every one of these messages you are sending.

I’m sure you have some mental model of harassing the list community that dumped you onto the list, unasked. But ALL of us were put on this list, unasked.

The variety of responses amuses me. You would think that as computing professionals, we would understand that it is inappropriate to respond to the whole list [11]. But no. I ended up with about seventy messages, most of which were unsubscribe me or me too.
I did like a message that went to a variety of addresses at UCalgary that read as follows.

Dear University of Calgary IT/abuse team,

it seems that someone is hosting a spamming mailing list on your domain. None of us asked or gave our permission to be registered.

Please take immediate, technical and disciplinary, action.

I think a few of us were considering trying to subscribe those same addresses at UCalgary to the list so that they could suffer through the same set of messages we were getting. However, someone figured out what was happening and shut it off [12].

The person who set up the annoying list is a graduate student in data privacy. I’m wondering if we were a research study, an attempt to make a point, or just the result of a professor giving inappropriate instructions to their graduate student. I guess we’ll never know.

Is there a moral to all of this? The obvious one is that you shouldn’t add people to a mailing list without their permission [14]. Another one is that it appears the computing professionals are no more clueful about mailing list etiquette than anyone else, although we are perhaps more aggressive in finding other people to annoy.

[1] So named for one of the early mailing list managers. It appears that listserv is a trademark, but I assume, like Xerox (for photocopying) and Kleenex (for facial tissue) it has become a generic term.

[2] I help manage the subscription lists for a variety of lists related to Grinnell CS (let’s see … csfaculty, csalumni, women-in-cs, perhaps a few others). I somehow ended up as co-manager of the SIGCSE mailing lists, which means that I get to approve (or reject) postings and add and remove members [3].

[3] Grinnell uses Lyris for its mailing list software. I’m not sure why. I’ll write an essay about it sometime. SIGCSE uses listserv software, which is more convenient. UCalgary seems to use Mailman which, in addition to being gendered, seems to have odd settings.

[4] Yes, it might make sense to use the Remove me link. Unfortunately, they don’t seem to have their Mailman software configured correctly. Hence, it is not easy to remove yourself from the list or even to tell how you are subscribed. In my case, one email address that they might be using led to what seemed to be the remove me button hanging. The other address led to a we’re sending you email; please click on the appropriate link in the mail you received message. But I never got email from them [5].

[5] I assume that by that point, Proofpointless had decided that UCalgary was a spammer [6,7].

[6] Proofpoint was not incorrect.

[7] Unfortunately, Proofpoint only filtered some of the email from that listserv.

[8] Is that a word?

[9] Chirping is not to be confused with Tweeting. Chirping in is a phrase that predates Twitter [10].

[10] Twitter is a registered trademark of Twitter. Tweet may also be a registered trademark of Twitter. As far as I know, neither term has reached the genericity of Xerox, Kleenex, or Listserv.

[11] Except, perhaps, as I did, by telling people the CIO of UCalgary is Jerome Beaudoin and that they should contact him directly.

[12] I can’t say whether or not someone else managed to put everyone on the mailing list. I’ll just note that at about the time I was tempted to do so, I found that the list had been disabled.

[14] A.k.a opt in, not opt out.

Version 1.0 of 2017-03-09.