Email Lists and Message Boards: Together at Last?

There has been a fascinating discussion occurring at the “Communities of Practice�? Yahoo! Group about the various aspects, advantages and disadvantages of email lists vs. message boards. It inspired me to post here.

Before I go further, I want to provide some quick information on what these two resources are and how they work:

Email List or “Listserv�?: These enable people to have group discussions in email. The system usually provides a single email address that everyone uses. When a message is sent to that address, it goes to the inboxes of everyone involved. When someone replies to that message, everyone receives the replies. Everyone gets all the messages pushed to them in email and a web site is not usually involved.

Message Board, Bulletin Board or BBS: These enable people to have electronic discussions on a web site. The system allows users to post messages that appear on the site. Other members see the message and can reply using the same site. Most systems provide "forums" that the organize various topics. Email notifications are sometimes offered, but are not a key component. The web site pulls participants into the system.

I believe that online community platforms in the future must have components of both message boards and email lists. This is particularly true for communities that are focused on novice users. Here is an example:

In email lists, the use of email is implied. Members realize that emails will come from the group. However, as a member of a message board, email is not implied- members are expected to proactively visit the site in the future.

I believe that message boards for novice users should imply email notifications just like an email list. This combines the push of an email list with the pull of a message board. By converging the value of a message board’s archives with the implied email notifications of an email list, novice users have more choices and may be more likely to participate.

In this example, a novice user of a message board would not have to proactively seek out information in the future. By simply becoming a member, they have discussions pushed to them with minimal effort and retain the ability to visit the website to search the archives. Of course, easy unsubscription instructions should always be available.

Likewise, I think email lists can benefit from the easy organization of message boards, which often contain separate "forums" that organize the discussions. Instead being forced to receive all related information from a single email list that is all or nothing, a novice user could receive emails from various forums to start and then unsubscribe from forums of little interest. A digest of messages from each forum can be particularly useful.

Of course, this is not one size fits all. Since I focus on introducing new users to online communication in organizations, I feel strongly that the integration of email subscriptions in web-based online communities is essential. It puts the value of the discussion where new users are most likely to find them- their inbox.