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Mailing Lists? How Antiquated

I subscribe to a mailing list which is supposed to stay on one topic: Mac OS X. On this list, as on almost any mailing list, there are people whose opinions and thoughts simply don't matter to me and threads that run amok and stray off-topic. Much like this Nick Denton article, the comments on this particularl mailing list are often simply the stuff I don't want to see.

One day, it struck me that the "blog" way of doing things - TrackBacks, comments, and so forth - is quite close to the ideal state. I haven't thought this all the way through, but here's my idea: mailing lists as we know them go bye bye, replaced by "subscriptions managers" that process RSS feeds.

In other words, imagine a "subscription manager" as a general mailing list. You sign up, giving your email address (or perhaps simply a username) and begin receiving "posts" (these could be via email). What's different is that the "mail server" or "subscription manager" is working with little RSS feeds (one for each user, I imagine). These RSS feeds are normally processed by the "mail server," but they could also be "aggregated" in something like NetNewsWire.

So all is well with your new mailing list. The "mail server" is converting posts to little RSS feeds and sending out emails to those who aren't aggregating their own information. Let's now suppose someone begins posting a bunch of crap. Subscribers would simply go to their "manage my subscription" page on the subscription manager's server (or do so via some desktop aggregator app's GUI) and "unsubscribe from" or "opt out of" that person's feed, optionally blocking any responses from other people's feeds generated by that person.

Because RSS feeds, unlike email, can contain extra information such as <response-to:> for example (I have no idea if this is valid XML, but pretend for a second that response-to: would contain a unique ID that identifies the thread and message being responded to), thus making it very easy for your "mail aggregator" (subscription manager) to leave you out of the loop when it comes to this person's posts. It could also allow you to easily block an entire thread, regardless of originator.

Now, I realize that this functionality is already available through client-side filters and goodness knows what other methods. However, it's not simple. It's not powerful. It doesn't leverage simple human readable markup for its processing. Mailing list archives are notoriously ugly and unwieldy. With an RSS Subscription Manager, the archiving is already done for you, with "backtracking" and "forward tracking" and threading and all sorts of other features that are somewhat more difficult (it seems) with a standard mailing list.

I am not one of those people who think XML is God's latest gift to computing. It's not. However, it has its purposes. Mac OS X .plist files as preferences files? RSS feeds for blogs? Awesome. This idea? I don't know. Perhaps I'm not making any sense. Perhaps this makes a lot of sense, but is impractical. I'm curious what others think, and I'm putting this idea out there.

5 Responses to "Mailing Lists? How Antiquated"

  1. Welcome to NNTP 🙂

  2. Newsgroups suck. Very rarely do I talk to people who use newsgroups, but everyone uses email. The people who do use newsgroups bitch and moan about how hard it is to kill a thread (it gets renamed, blah blah blah) or an individual (they change their name, whatever). It's not the same thing. And archiving? As pathetic or worse than a mailing list, and most people don't even know how to get to a newsgroup's archives.

  3. RSS and email

    Brent Simmons (of NetNewsWire fame) has an interesting post about the replacement of RSS for email mailing lists and even

  4. RSS and email(ing lists) links and references.

    Links and references I've collected based on discussions going on around the net that I've used to build on some thoughts started here on RSS, email, mailing lists and the future of all this stuff... I've been reading and thinking about a lot of what's...

  5. Jay,

    I don't think there's much of a difference between your suggestion and what is already posssible if you employ server-side filtering combined with a decent user interface for that filter. You can already make a server block mail from certain individuals or certain lists.

    And if you've ever used any regular filtering, you'll also notice how inadequate they are for actually getting rid of the spam. Spammers have become increasingly sophisticated. The spammer of today creates Yahoo groups accounts, subscribes to oodles of lists, spams them, and abandons the account again.

    The same could happen with RSS. The spammer would simply create a new RSS feed, have it "aggregated" to the list, and resume spamming. Try all spammer tactics you know. They'll also be possible with RSS feeds, if they're used for two-way communication 🙁


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