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Reflections on the use of IMC Mailing Lists


The IMC network depends upon mailing lists for communication and decision making due to the decentralized nature of our work and the geographic spread of the various Independent Media Centers. However, our use of the lists must be improved for us to form a network capable of challenging corporate new outlets and other institutions that perpetuate the hierarchical model of information sharing.


  • Obvious Problems: Email access limited to those with means, saboteur concerns, language issues. These are things to keep in the back of our minds though this piece does not really comment on them (with a slight exception regarding language issues).

  • Toward Effective Participatory Lists: A Good message is: (this section has a bulleted list with brief explanations of things people should do or avoid in order to make the lists accessible to a large audience). People who do not follow the guidelines should be encouraged by list members (off list) to do so.

  • Introductions: These are important to make the lists more productive as people will get to know each other better. Introductions should go beyond name and closest IMC. Introductions should also include some information that will help others to get to know you.

  • Facilitation: High traffic lists need facilitation to make summaries and ensure certain voices are not being ignored. Lists should develop clear description of what facilitator is supposed to do and have timelines for rotating the position.

  • Problem Areas
    • Use of criticism and sarcasm: This describes why email is ill suited to communication. It goes on to suggest ways in which we should communicate to avoid pushing people out of the lists.
    • Lurking - when people join the lists without participating. People should join lists to help the group. Those wishing to just watch should do so from the archives. Some lurkers are people that have subscribed to many lists and get burned out from all the messages. They should be encouraged to focus on fewer groups to actually participate.

the obvious limits of email

There are a number of obvious problems that come with using the Internet and more specifically email lists as a tool for organizing. I wanted to touch on them so we can keep them at least in the back of our minds.

  • Email Access: This is restricted to those with access to computers and more specifically those with computers and the available time, means, and expertise to use email.

  • Email allows for pseudo anonymity - with effort you can usually figure out what machine the mail came from but this tells you nothing about the sender. This is good for those who need to hide their identities. However this also makes it easy for imposters/saboteurs to take part in our conversations. This document does not deal with that unfortunate reality (at least not yet).

  • Language issues. Most of the discussions on email lists are in English and virtually all the discussions regarding network wide issues are primarily in English. There is crack translation team which does fantastic work but most list structure make their work difficult, if not impossible at the moment. This point will be discussed in greater depth below along with suggestions to make translation easier.

different lists

Email lists come in many different flavors. People need to understand that so they can make effective use of them. The IMC lists tend to be one of the following kinds

  • Announcement: The traffic is usually a couple of posts a week. There is no discussion - this list just distributes information to list subscribers.
  • Discussion: These lists have intensive traffic depending on the number of topics and interest in each topic. This document mainly deals with discussion lists. I would like to suggest that we further subgroup discussion lists into the following groups.
    • Process - Discussions are aimed toward achieving some sort of solution to a problem or making a decision. These lists are the general overarching lists on which final decisions are made. Some have suggested a better name of this list would be decision-making list. On the network level, these lists should be definitely be open.
    • Working Group - Discussions are whatever the group decides appropriate. These lists are for people that are very serious about the topic and want to discuss the nuts and bolts of the subject. These lists are more likely to disallow lurking and may be less open than process lists.
    • General Discussion - Lists that are geared more toward general discussion and not necessarily toward making specific decisions. A good example of this is the imc-strategies list in which people can brainstorm and discuss the future of the network. These lists may function in parallel with the process lists for those who want to really discuss. These lists probably have the highest amount of traffic.

toward effective participatory mailing lists

Email seems like an innocuous medium. It's just like a letter but faster - right? Wrong. Email is a communication medium to itself and should be treated as such. Email discussion groups cannot take the place of face-to-face meetings. You'll find few (if any) local IMCs that use email discussions in place of regular meetings. However, the nature of our global network means that we rely on email through lack of a better alternative. This is not to say that email is itself destructive rather that we should be careful when we use it and develop ways in which we can use it productively.

The following are suggestions for improving communications on each list.

a good message

  • Includes relevant subject line especially for threaded discussions (this especially helps in the lists archives which are a great way of browsing messages)
  • Is short! Remember that while it seems like email is a limitless medium (you can send 10 pages of text as fast as 10 words), it still has limits. The limits come from the attention span of the recipient and time they have to devote to email. Furthermore, remember that on many lists, people are attempting to translate for their group so IMCs that use different languages are not locked out of the discussion as they have been largely thus far in the network. So keep it short.
  • Only contains relevant quoted material. If you reply to a message, do not quote the whole email below you. Quote the portion you wish to reply to and include your reply below that. Longer messages are really annoying for those with a slow Internet connection.
  • Is on topic. And keep it short.
  • Is short! But if it is long, there is a summary at the top. When writing the summary, check to see if you can trim anything in the message itself. Discussion lists are not a place for elegant prose they are a place for quickly and efficiently communicating your thoughts. Long emails without summaries show contempt for those who do not speak English and for other people's time. Sometimes long emails are necessary to argue a fine point but include a summary!
  • Is never in all caps. THIS IS SHOUTING. If you want to EMPHASIZE something, then do it differently - many prefer to emphasize by use of asterisks around it. Putting an entire sentence in all CAPS is really annoying though one word in all caps will be forgiven by most.
  • Is not meant for one person that should be done off-list.
  • Is short! Some lists have hundreds of people of them. Writing long rambling messages is disrespectful and anti-democratic. It is akin to monopolizing the microphone at an event.
  • Avoids idioms and slang...they are language constructions that are hard to translate.
  • Is formatted to be easy on the eyes - paragraphs (and not too many!), spaces between them.
  • Ends with a person's name and the local IMC they are involved with or global lists they regularly participate on. This is helpful in terms of getting to know each other.

People who disregard the above items should be encouraged to adhere to them. The first step should be an off-list notification by another list member. Any such message should be friendly and thank the person for contributing but note that we do strongly encourage people to include summaries for the benefit of translators (for instance). The reason for it to be off-list is to avoid embarrassing the person, which could inhibit participation on the lists. This is a gentle reminder, not a rebuke. If many people are making the same mistakes, someone should post a note to the list encouraging people to following the guidelines in the interest of keeping the lists accessible to a larger audience.


Introductions are really important. They help to break the ice and make people more willing to work together. When people become more familiar with each other's online identities, it helps to cut down on problems arising especially from criticism and sarcasm (see below). Introductions should ideally include more than simply name and geographical location. To foster community, when doing intros I try to include what lists I am active on, what IMC I work with, some of my interests, and something interesting that is happening in my life. Things like a favorite film, book, or a recent book you read are all good for introductions so people can feel more like they know you - as well helping to build ties with people that have similar interests. For those who need to protect their identity by assuming false identities, we should encourage them to use the same pseudo identity across lists.


In my experience, lists that have any sort of regular traffic would benefit from having at least a light-handed facilitator. Thus far, few people have been willing to commit to what is essentially a demanding and yet unrewarding job. This is further compounded by the legitimate suspicions of many of us that facilitators could lead to abuses of power and/or an elite group. The following suggestions should allay those fears:

  • Transparency for decisions
  • Designated time limit and rotation
  • Ability to recall rogue facilitators
  • (IMHO, most importantly) a clear description of facilitator's job.

The facilitator's job should first and foremost be defined by the list and what list members want. However, some facilitator tasks exist independently of the nature of list. All facilitators (of at least global lists) should be responsible for list summaries of what is happening on their lists and mailing them to the imc-summaries list in an effort to keep all IMC activities transparent. They would also be responsible for mini-summaries for the list members' benefit during intensive discussions. SPAM killing would be another common function.

Perhaps most importantly and most difficult, the facilitator should be responsible for making sure certain groups or certain demographics are not dominating discussions. For instance, though I have not been involved in the discussion, I understand that women on some IMC lists feel that men's opinions are accorded more weight than women's opinions. A common facilitator job would then be to take whatever actions are necessary to make people aware of this imbalance and work toward correcting it.

Process lists will tend to need the most facilitation in the sense that there will be more discussions in need of summaries. Ideally there would be multiple facilitators who could decide how they want to divvy the necessary tasks.

problem areas

use of criticism and sarcasm

Email differs from face to face communication and phone communication by being totally text-based. It differs from a chat session (whether IRC, ICQ, AIM or whatever) by being asynchronous, i.e., not in real-time. Both of these things make email communication different.

First, email is text-based. This means we do not have a whole range of important non-verbal cues like posture and gestures (in face-to-face communication) or intonation, speed of speech, etc (in phone communication. Emoticons - the smileys like smile and ;-P (and etc, etc) are one way to include these kind of cues, but they do not fully replace the non-verbal cues we lose in email.

Second, email is not real-time. A chat session means you have the person right there, and can ask if they really meant something the way you took it. A chat session has both people focusing on communication.

Both of these factors get together to create some real problems when dealing with something that's difficult, like criticism. In other communications, there are ways to cushion criticism; but you cannot count on them to work for email. Another big problem can be sarcasm or other types of humor - we signal humor in non-verbal ways, which often don't work for email.

Add to this the fact that these lists are used by people who barely know each other and have probably never met face to face and you have the sad conclusion that any sort of criticism voiced over email will probably not be received positively.

A Solution for the Recipient:
For one thing, everyone who participates in mail lists must be less defensive when sitting at the keyboard than they would be in a face-to-face meeting. More often than not, the message that you take to be really offensive was not intended to be that offensive. And if it was intended to be that offensive, you should treat it like you would someone you don't know saying something offensive to you while walking down the street (you call that a hat?!?).

Ultimately, responding quickly to any offensive message will make the situation worse and lead to a flame war where people just try to insult each other overtly or subtly.

A Solution for the Sender:
If someone proposes an idea that you do not like or makes a comment that you disagree with, odds are that there is some common ground. So first state that "while I agree with you on\x85" Then you want to state what you disagree with and why. Even if you think that person is incredibly clueless, you should remember that they may have stated their position unclearly or hadn't thought of the full ramifications of what they suggested.

If you have ANY doubts in your mind whether something you have written could be too harsh, save it and wait to send it. After a few hours, or a night, reread it before making up your mind. You may decide to rephrase it. Either way, it is better that your message gets delayed a few hours than your message upsetting someone which results in them being less interested in strengthening the IMC movement.

Note Regarding the Criticism Section:
I have read a number of critiques regarding the nature of left-wing / radical movements to push middle class white values regarding how to communicate and avoiding conflict. I do not subscribe to the idea that conflict and passions should be left out in discussions and arguments though I believe they are more suited to face-to-face communication than over email lists.


Having looked at communication on the lists, I would like to touch on the issue of how one should view their relationship to the lists. People should ideally be joining lists to participate in the working group or discussion. IMHO (in my humble opinion) IMC lists should generally have open archives for full transparency. Then people who wish to just monitor discussions can do it by visiting archives rather than lurking (joining mail lists and not participating).

I personally get annoyed with lurkers and the following is more of a position piece than the preceding items. It seems to me that many lurkers are well-intentioned people who get bogged down on too many lists. The IMC network has many exciting projects that people want to get plugged into. However, people often join too many mail lists and then end up spending all their time reading emails. After clearing out their inboxes, they tend to be too tired (or just plain sick of staring at the monitor) to do anything. A daily (or weekly) burnout that is all too common. Too much email kills the spirit. To combat this, we need to encourage people to pick fewer areas to focus on. We can do this by expecting people who are involved on lists to contribute to the list. I realize this is quite a debatable point - but I would like to see it attempted to see what the effect is even if we ultimately decide the policy is not effective.

If nothing else, I strongly encourage lists to do regular roll calls to reacquaint people on the list and bring new comers up to speed. People who do not respond should be unsubscribed though they would of course be welcome to rejoin the list - and submit a roll call.

Indymedia is a Do-It-Yourself project. It rejects the passive media model promoted by the corporate networks whereby the viewer does not engage or participate in media. Lurking is a habit that reinforces the corporate model and is contrary to our mission.

So That's That

These are the suggestions I have come up with on the basis of my experiences with the IMC mailing lists. Comments, concerns, and criticisms encouraged please send them to christopher at

Thanks for reading!

Special thanks to deanna, slade, sheri, susan, and others who have already contributed to this.

-- ChristopherMitchell - 01 Apr 2002
Topic revision: r1 - 01 Apr 2002, ChristopherMitchell

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