Here’s a “survival guide” that we use to help our colleagues make sense of our busy Open Development mailing lists.
To send or not to send
TS1. Before asking a question, search the list archives (and issue trackers, etc.) as the answer might already be in there.
TS2. Keep noise low – consider how many people will receive your message. If you’re just saying “thank you” to one or two persons, do it off-list.
TS3. Does your message really belong in an email? If it’s information that’s supposed to last and that you expect future coworkers to know, a wiki, website or blog post is a much better place. Just send the URL of that wiki/website page in email then. Writing more than 3-4 paragraphs is often a sign of something that does not belong in email. And email is where information goes to die!
TS4. Do not cross-post. If you really think other lists might be interested, let them know about your message by sending them its URL, but do not copy the message itself. Cross-posting tends to create split discussions that are impossible to follow.
TS5. Don’t be shy – if a mailing list exists it is meant to be used, so any on-topic question with a sensible subject line is welcome, assuming you do your homework as explained in this guide.
Starting new discussion threads
ST0. To start a new topic, do not reply to an existing message – use the “new message” function of your email client to create a new discussion thread.
ST1. When starting a new discussion thread, include at least one [TAG] in the subject line that points to the product, technology or topic that your message is about.
ST2. The goal of the subject line is to help people decide if they want or need to read your message. If that’s not sufficient, use your first phrase as a summary to clarify. On busy lists, spending time on crafting a good subject line avoids wasting other people’s time, and gives you much better chances to get an answer.
ST3. One question/topic per thread please, it’s much easier to follow, helps people notice your question and makes much more sense in the archives later.
Writing your message
WR1. The shorter your message or reply, the more likely people are to read it.
WR2. Speak in URLs – if something has an URL or unique identifier, point to it. Don’t say “the about page on the new website” or “the memory problem”, but rather http://www.example.com/about and SLING-9362 if the latter is a well-known shortcut to the URL of the actual issue in your tracker. This helps avoid misunderstandings, as well as creating valuable archives with a rich Web of links.
WR3. If you’re describing a bug, include all the necessary information to reproduce the problem, while being as concise as you can: what did you do, what did you expect, what did you get, what was your environment.
WR4. No large attachments or stack traces: open a bug with that info or put it somewhere where people can download it and include only the URL in your message.
WR5. Be direct, ask the root question instead of a derived one. If you need to buy food at 4AM, for example, and you think Burrito Unlimited might be open, asking where can I buy food now is more likely to provide a helpful response that asking where the nearest Burrito Unlimited is. Also known as an “XY problem” where you ask Y but what you really need is X.
Replying and quoting
RQ1. Quote sparingly and precisely. Opinions differ on this, but the lazy top-quoting that’s unfortunately the norm depending on which email client you use tends to make discussions shallow, as it’s impossible to know precisely what people are replying to. So many years later, Usenet quoting still rules on busy lists and/or for complex discussions.
RQ2. Give sufficient context for people to follow your thoughts. Closely related to precise quoting.
RQ3. Remember WR1 – the more concise message usually wins.
Here are some tips for coping with many emails from multiple high-traffic lists. The goal is to give you the option to quickly skim over the lists traffic to find the few threads that are actually relevant to you.
F1. Have a folder for each list, and a filtering rule that moves the relevant messages there.
F2. To make sure you quickly see responses to threads you take part in, have a special rule for emails/threads that include you. This is a rule that you can have across all your emails: it could be a special “to me” folder, or a different inbox.
F3. To filter out the topics that interest you, set up a rule based on keywords in the subject. Same for people.
This works especially well if people consistently use the ST1 subject line tags mentioned above.