Testing the path from mailing lists to Wikimedia Space

Originally published at: https://space.wmflabs.org/2019/10/29/testing-the-path-from-mailing-lists-to-wikimedia-space/

Mail Coaches on the Road: the Louth-London Royal Mail progressing at Speed by Charles Cooper Henderson Public Domain

In the Wikimedia Space vision, the mailing lists still active today have evolved into forum categories fully operational via email. In that future, everyone benefits from the integration of these mailing lists to Space, and users still preferring email-based interaction lose nothing. Today, this vision is just an idea for discussion. A technically solid idea that emerged from the discussions about the future of Mailman in Wikimedia and more than two years piloting Discourse.

The path to fully discuss, agree upon, and eventually implement this vision is expected to be long, and perhaps alternative visions arise as we go. However, the distance is nothing; it is only the first step that costs (thanks Wikiquote!). Here is a proposal for a first step.

Mirroring mailing lists

We can mirror mailing lists in Space. This means that each post sent to the mailing list is automatically replicated in a category specific for that mailing list in the Space forum. The mailing list itself isn’t affected by this mirroring. If we want to cease mirroring, we can delete the category without a trace.

Why mirroring? The first condition for a meaningful conversation is to have a common understanding about the benefits of this proposal. These benefits are explained below, but reading about them cannot compare to experiencing them directly. By mirroring mailing lists in Space we can let users of these mailing lists experience the benefits by themselves.

Benefits of mirroring a mailing list:

  • See how it works without altering the mailing list and without committing to anything.
  • Search posts of one mailing list within its category, or find posts of any mailing list in the search results of general search queries.
  • Tag topics.
  • 💙 posts to show support and appreciation.
  • Watch a mailing list category and receive web or email notifications for each post.
  • Watch or mute specific topics.
  • Silence specific senders.
  • See basic stats for each topic (reads, hearts, replies).
  • Mailing list senders with an account in Space get their mirrored posts automatically authored by them, and they receive the corresponding trust level points.
  • Mailing list admins can be recognized as moderators of the corresponding forum category.

Are there any mailing lists willing to test this mirroring? The Space admins are ready to start.

Emulating mailing lists

Mailing list mirrors are read-only. In order to support use cases like creating new topics or replying via email, we need to fully emulate a mailing list in Space, without relying on an external mailing list. As a first step, we could create a category whose purpose would be testing mailing list emulation. This category would be muted by default, so only users who have changed their settings to watch it would notice it.

Benefits of emulating a mailing list:

  • All the benefits from mirroring a mailing list.
  • Off-topic posts can be moved to the appropriate category.
  • Topics can be split or merged.
  • Topics can be closed.
  • Posts can be edited or removed.
  • Common guidelines, code of conduct and moderation standards with the rest of Space.
  • One Discourse instance can deal more efficiently with spam and vandalism than dozens of separate mailing lists, both automatically and manually.

As said, email-based users shouldn’t miss any feature compared to our existing mailing lists. This is a hypothesis that needs testing, though.

Any volunteers willing to test mailing list emulation? One possibility would be to start with a category devoted to… testing and discussing mailing list emulation, muted by default not to bother the rest of Space users.

5 Likes

I have sent an invitation to the list of mailing list admins.

Feel free to distribute this invitation further among mailing list users (or tell me where I could send invites).

Hi Quim,

To what extent are the advantages that you mention dependent on people using Discourse rather than the mailing list? Am I correct that it would basically split the audience into a group that watches the emails on their preferred email client, and a group that watches through Discourse? Or would responses through Discourse also be posted to the mailing list somehow?

L.

1 Like

I’m not sure I understand your first question. To clarify:

  • In the mailing list mirroring, email users continue doing their thing exactly as before, and Space users have an easy way to follow the list. If they want to participate, they have to join the list.

  • In the mailing list emulation there is no “pure” (Mailman) mailing list. Everyone can read and post exactly the same messages, via web or email.

EDIT: There is a real and close example of how mailing list mirroring looks like. We mirrored mediawiki-l during some months at https://discourse-mediawiki.wmflabs.org/c/mailing-list-mirrors/mediawiki-l, to learn and test.

Copying here my answers to questions asked at ListAdmins with the best of my knowledge:

Why change?

This is in fact the most interesting question. It is tempting to think that if mailing list users declare they are happy with mailing lists, then there is nothing to discuss. However, we have to think (and to Risker’s point) that mailing list users who aren’t happy just go elsewhere, or don’t even join a mailing list, usually relying on commercial social media products completely outside of the Wikimedia movement and its values.

Here we are trying to propose a Space for discussion, collaboration and support that can bring (back) together those who are still using mailing lists AND those who are having their Wikimedia conversations in Facebook, Telegram, etc.

Private mailing lists

Yes, private mailing lists can be mirrored or emulated, and access permissions can be granted more or less like in Mailman. Space admins can create a group (corresponding to a mailing list) and assign the mailing list admins as owners, then the owners can invite & unsubscribe users. And then a private category can be created to host the messages, with access permissions restricted to members of that group.

Space administrators have access to all content, just like they have access to all the content in the site. And just like with Mailman (I guess) SRE and whoever has access to the servers have the technical possibility to access to the content too, which is not encrypted in the database.

Replying from Discourse to mailing list mirrors

Not possible. Mailing list mirrors are read-only. If posting from Discourse is wanted, then you want mailing list emulation (which means leaving your current Mailman mailing list behind).

Editable archives

The content of mailing list mirrors is not supposed to be edited. However, Space admins have edit permissions that can be exercised if something HAS to be edited. They can also delete messages archived.

In the case of mailing list emulation, regular permissions apply and authors can edit their own posts within a time frame that can be defined in the site preferences. Moderators and administrators can edit past messages too.

Guidelines specific to a certain mailing list / category

Totally negotiable for private, invitation-only categories/mailing lists where people join for a specific task, in a specific role, and the content is not even visible for the Space community. Common sense prevails. If a category wants to set additional guidelines for themselves on top of the general guidelines, they probably can as long as the whole is consistent.

If a group e.g. ArbCom has special needs that might conflict with a literal reading of the guidelines (e.g. investigate users that have been reported in a project) common sense keeps prevailing, trust matters, and an official and legitimate activity in one Wikimedia channel should be able to operate under the same premises in Wikimedia Space.

Mailing lists without archives

An equivalent of this functionality is currently not supported in Discourse. We could commission the development of a plugin that would delete posts from the web UI and the database after they have been distributed via email. When asked, Discourse maintainers said it wouldn’t be difficult to write such plugin, it is just not a priority for them.

“What we’d lose (user experience)”

https://meta.wikimedia.org/wiki/Discourse#What_we’d_lose_(user_experience) lists some points as potential disadvantages of Discourse over Mailman (fun fact, the archived email containing this question has a broken link). :smirk:

  • Problems with email rendering? The promise is to offer no functionality loss to Mailman users. We want to test mailing list mirroring and emulations precisely to get a first impression about problems in real use if any (and file bugs accordingly).

  • Email forwarding? Same thing, let’s test and see what are the problems if any.

  • Problems subscribing. OK, there is room for improvement indeed, both for making easier to understand how subscribing works (the subscription itself is easy, clicking a button) and for implementing mailing list mode per category. Again, testing just helps understanding the actual impact of this problem (which can be compared with the problems that users face the first time they learn about mailing lists, which also brings a learning curve).

Other points are listed in that section but I don’t believe they are relevant, or actual “losses”.

1 Like

Re: Private mailing lists

As the person most responsible for Cloud Services hosting and terms of use enforcement, please do not implement any actually private discussions while Space is still hosted inside Cloud VPS projects. The Cloud VPS environment is not considered secure for collection or retention of truly private data such as might be discussed on a tightly controlled members-only mailing list.

Yes @BDavis_WMF, your comment makes me realize that I hadn’t stressed this point, which is completely assumed in this topic.

This proposal is about testing, and a private mailing list with sensitive information wouldn’t be a good candidate for these first tests even if Space would be in production and not in Cloud VPS.

We can still test private mailing list mirroring, for instance taking any public mailing list and mirroring privately to test access control without compromising anything.

We can also test private mailing list emulation by having non-confidential chit chat in a private setting to test access control, again without compromising anything.

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I’ll sign up wikispore.

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Thank you @Tgr!

There are other two candidates being discussed with the admins / within the lists. As soon as they confirm, we will open the corresponding mirrors.

(looking forward to a blogpost as well :D )