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Mailing list etiquette

In one of my too many moments of weakness [1], I agreed to help moderate the mailing list for the ACM SIGCSE Special Interest Group in Computer Science Education, one of my primary professional societies. It’s generally not too much of a burden. But I do try to take my moderation and management jobs seriously. On the management side, I do my best to help people who need to be added to the list or have their information updated. On the moderation side, I reject spam, I reject conference announcements that are not relevant to the membership, and I reject messages that don’t meet our posting criteria.

I try to be polite when rejecting messages. Most people understand.
Some who quote too much material don’t even notice that they’ve quoted so much, because modern email readers hide the quoted material in a reply [2]. I often get messages of the form Thanks; I had not realized I had quoted so much. I’ve also had at least one person claim that I seemed to be an automatic program, rather than a human being [3].

Today I dealt with an email message that was at the far extreme of senselessness. To explain, I’ll need to give a bit of back story.

For a number of years, the Association of Computing Machinery has included a very useful benefit for student members: Access to the O’Reilly Books Safari Bookshelf. While it may not have s been complete access, it has given them a wide variety of books.

Sensible faculty members started asking students to buy student memberships and then chose books from Safari for their class texts. Since a student ACM membership is only $19, it’s a pretty good deal [4].

Unfortunately, this year the ACM decided to discontinue that benefit for student members. I’m not sure why. But it generated some interesting discussion on the listserv. First, someone posted that they were disappointed that the program was discontinued. Next, some people expressed confusion, since they had not heard anything; others expressed solidarity since they used ACM Safari books for their own classes. Someone asked how the original poster had learned; that poster passed along the letter their student had received from ACM.

About a week later, someone posted a followup that indicated solidarity and disappointment. It was a nice letter. Among other things, the poster noted, I just recommended to my department to consider switching to using books within the ACM learning center so we could reduce textbook costs for students. It quoted the original message, so I should have asked for them to trim and repost [5]. But I let it through, partially because there had been a week or so since the original post.

Soon thereafter, I received a followup message to moderate. It read as follows.

I was thinking of doing same but, alas…

After that was everything else from the previous message.

  • The fifty-one words that made up the body of the most recent post.
  • The twelve lines of signature in that post.
  • The six words that the original poster used to introduce the message from ACM.
  • The seven lines of mail header from the message from ACM.
  • The one hundred and fifty-five words of the message from ACM.
  • A sixty-one word quoted message asking the original poster to share the message from ACM.
  • A one hundred and three word disclaimer from the eight-word poster.

Do the eight words add anything to that? Not enough to let it pass through to more than a thousand people. This case is one of the few times that I did not even bother telling the sender I was rejecting their message [6].

Remember! Think before you post. Here are some questions to ask yourself. Is your comment helpful? Do people need all the quoted text? Will people who read your message in a text-only mail reader be able to see it? Will people who have the message read aloud to them be able to hear it, or have you concealed text by putting it in images? And how will those people feel about having to hear all the quoted material and your annoying signature? Will the message reflect well or poorly on you and your institution?

Wouldn’t the world be nicer if everyone asked themselves similar questions before posting [7]?

[1] The newly appointed Samuel A. Rebelsky advisory committee is supposed to help with that problem.

[2] Why don’t you want to see what’s in the message you are sending? I’m not sure.

[3] They work at Google. They are almost certainly more accustomed to AI programs responding to their email than I am.

[4] I should have paid more attention to that deal for my students!

[5] As moderator, I can accept or reject. I cannot edit.

[6] If that’s a problem, I’m happy to have someone fire me.

[7] Wouldn’t the world be nicer if I asked myself similar questions before sending email or posting musings? I should work on that.

Version 1.0 of 2017-05-30.