How To Read a High-Volume Mail List

June 27, 2010

Over the years I have joined and left a number of high-volume mail lists and I've finally come up with a set of guidelines that help me to consume the entries that interest me while not getting lost in the sea of entries offered.

By high-volume I mean something like the Android Developers Google Group. Yesterday this mail list generated 207 messages in my inbox. Two-hundred-and-seven. If you don't cull that flow frequently and effectively you'll have 800 or thousand messages waiting for you.

So in no particular order here are the things I do to pare the list down.

No replies - no read

Unfortunately many posting to these technical mailing lists go unanswered. Either the subject isn't descriptive enough, or the message itself is lacking in specificity. Lots of these are along the lines of "I'm getting an error, please help." Only without proper spelling, grammar, or punctuation.

As I am a beginner at Android development I skip the unanswered messages as there is nothing there for me to learn.

Only replies are from original poster - no read

There are some posters who repeated refresh their original posting. A majority of these are people who keep pestering the group wanting to know why no one is answering their particular question. A few are people considerate enough to post a solution that they found elsewhere. I tend to skip these largely due to the increasing shrill "why aren't you answering my question" replies.

Reply thread includes message from that "one guy" - no read

All mailing lists (at least all technical mailing lists) have a guy who snipes at everyone and everything. They complain about top-posting, or repeating the entire message instead of just the portion being responded to. Often then deride the original poster for not having availed themselves of Google or online forums or tea leaves or something. These "get-off-my-lawn" types do occasionally answer a question, but I tend to skip threads with a response from them as the holier-than-thou attitude gets old fast.

Messages include responses from the two or three gurus on the list - read

A good mailing list will include a maven or two, and perhaps a guru. These people take the time to answer questions completely, often siting sources or reference material. I learn a lot from these threads and enjoy reading them. Bonus points for a thread that attracts more than one guru provided answer.

The topic intrigues me - read

A well-written subject line can be enough to entice me to open the thread and follow it to its conclusion. Sometimes even if "that guy" is a responder. And as I run into my own issues, finding a thread that addresses it is always welcome.

When all else fails, mark all as read

These guidelines help me to triage the torrent of incoming messages from high activity groups. Even with a fairly ruthless application of these rules I sometimes end up declaring email bankruptcy and marking all the messages as read so I can start over.

Author's profile picture

Mark H. Nichols

I am a husband, cellist, code prole, nerd, technologist, and all around good guy living and working in fly-over country. You should follow me on Twitter.