Apply "mailing list mode" per category

@LeoMcA is also grappling with this issue on behalf of Mozilla. Would appreciate it if you could chime in with your perspective on this Leo.

I think the best solution to this is a combination of a better Watch workflow, and the addition of email tracking so that a post opened by email = a read post. (Alternatively, opt to not receive in-app notifications for messages you have received by mail).

Mailing list mode isn’t feasible on a large forum. That’s why you move to Discourse when your mailing list grows unsustainably large!

Past that tipping point, the superior workflow is to Watch the categories that you want to follow. In mailing list land (see Mozilla’s lists for example) the comparable workflow would be opt in to however many mailing lists you want/need to follow.

Strictly hypothetically speaking, maybe we’d be better off doing away with “mailing list mode” as this special different-from-the-rest mode, and replacing it with an easy way to “Watch all categories”, which can be granularly changed from there. This is probably in line with what @mcwumbly has in mind for “user saved filters”.

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I :heart_eyes_cat: this idea in a big way. One of our biggest challenges is empowering people in the community to know when other people have read their post. They also get massively overwhelmed arriving in the forum after a few month or years of mailing list mode to discover hundreds of notifications and don’t know where to start reading.

I :heart_eyes_cat: this idea too. It would work well in my community, methinks. People who like email can turn it on via their preferences, and then over time whittle it down by unsubscribing to topics and categories. As they move along, they’d then be able to tune it further via their preferences.

Taken together, these two ideas could go a long way to solving this problem.

I am not against experimenting with “gifs” for tracking read state, but support is often super uneven and it will sometimes result in “false” positives which can really annoy people. (how do we account for “google cache” pre-fetch and so on?). What about mail clients that download messages and allow you to look at them offline, they have to “pre-download” images. This is worm-can 101, which is a reason we stayed away from it in the past.

I am also unsure that under ideal circumstances this goes anywhere to solve this particular problem which is:

  • I have a stream of emails from #xyz category that land in my inbox
  • I ship said stream to a folder somewhere in my outlook
  • I read all the titles for the topics, I occasionally dip in to the topics but do not read everything, I use said folder as an offline archive and search.

When you watch a category you are making a strong commitment to read every single topic in the category.

When you want a live archive that you occasionally dip in to you don’t want to “watch” the category. Unless you use “mailing list mode” your notifications are all trashed and unusable, forcing you away from ever changing workflows and using the website.

I think “watching” a category and “mailing list mode” are 2 orthogonal, unrelated features. I don’t think it is correct to try and merge them.

@mcwumbly have you considered writing a KB on your Discourse about how to write outlook/gmail rules, then they can create outlook rules to delete/keep particular categories based on title, which leaves your users with a functional mailing list mode today.

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Just a stray thought. Might these members be better served by subscribing to RSS feeds instead of a mailing list?

I agree with this, which is in line with your suggestion above:

Ultimately, I question the utility at all of being able to “watch” a category. To simplify things, maybe this option should eventually replace category watching?

This is something I should definitely try to do. I think this is what @codinghorror was getting at in his initial reply and it definitely makes sense to start here. I’ll see how it goes!

Sure, and I apologise for the length of this post - this is an issue (or, as I see it, issues) which I’ve been grappling with for quite a while. I’ve tried to split the post up into sections to make it a bit more readable:


There are a number of problems and solutions raised in this thread, but as I see it the primary problem (at least from the original post) is that, for communities coming from a Mailman background (like Mozilla, and @rhyolight’s) “mailing list mode” doesn’t make sense as a name for the feature which exists in Discourse, and is very confusing.

For those users, I could see them thinking that you need to enable that option to enable all the mailing-list-parity goodness which is in Discourse by default. We know that you don’t, but how should a user?

It would make sense as a name if a Mailman list were analogous to an entire Discourse instance, but I see Mailman lists being analogous to Discourse categories. And there’s no feature in Mailman (or any other mailing list software that I know of) which allows you to subscribe to an entire Mailman instance worth of lists, you can only subscribe to individual lists.

As @erlend_sh says, the comparible flow in Discourse is watching categories:

So, as I see it, the true mailing list mode is this:

Because it turns delivery of emails from a mere notification method (which doesn’t need to be used when you’re active on the site, because you’ll receive notifications through you browser) into a ‘true’ mailing list where the web interface becomes more of an interactive archive.


The second main problem I see in this thread is a disconnect between posts you open in your email client, and the read status of posts (and their notificaitons) in the web interface.

However, I’m not sure this is a problem which can really be solved. I’m not sure if there’s any other software out there which has solved it. As @sam has said, email tracking is a pretty messy area to get into.

Might just adding a “clear unread notifications” button go some way to solve the problem of users being overwhelmed by a huge number of notifications if they watch categories to receive emails for them?


The rest of the problems and solutions, including users being overwhelmed by notifications, seem to me to stem from an inherent problem in Discourse: it doesn’t actually support categories being akin to Mailman lists, at least not everywhere.

On Mozilla’s Discourse instance, which is where this analogy definitely is true, a number of Discourse’s features are entirely useless to me:

  • The new tab: useless
  • because I don’t care about most of the categories on it.
  • The unread tab: pretty useless
  • because watched/tracked topics will only appear in it if clicked on
  • Muting categories: useless
  • because as an admin and developer of the instance I’m scared of preventing users from pinging me wherever
  • because we’re constantly adding new categories, and muting would require user intervention every time we did this
  • Tracking categories: useless
    • because topics within still appear nowhere other than the new tab, despite me having specified that I’m especially interested in them compared to everything else

On Mozilla’s instance I shouldn’t be assumed to be interested in every topic by default, but Discourse is designed in a way that assumes I am.

The only feature useful to me, on a category level, is watching and my notifications. Everything else is filled with things I have no interest in.

Now I realise that a lot of this section is irrelevant to mailing list mode itself, but I think the problems discussed in this thread stem from the same root. I would however be very happy for the @team to rip out this section of my post, put it in a new topic and continue the conversation there, because I think it’s a very important one to have.

Bringing things back to the direct problem at hand, I think a solution might be to add a user preference to send emails for tracked categories, also fixing the bug (as I see it) of topics within tracked categories not being added to unread unless clicked on. This way the user can receive emails either for their notifications, or for their notifications and unread tab, depending on what flow suits them best.


To summarise slightly:

  • “Mailing list mode” is a bad name and causes confusion, on Discourse instances like Mozilla’s
  • The true mailing list mode on those is “mail me even if I am active on the site”
  • Might a “clear unread notifications” button solve the problem of overwhelmed users?
  • And allowing users to receive emails for tracked categories (while fixing category tracking) also solve that problem?
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Ok i get that the hidden gif is not reliable and opens a can of worms unnecessarily.

Probably not, but Is it possible the answer to my question is to disable on screen notifications for anything that gets mailed out to the user with mailing list mode turned on? That way they’d only see the backlog of notifications like likes, badges etc etc when they log in. Perhaps they could also see some sort of message on screen reminding them that they have mailing list mode turned on and so are not going to get the full discourse experience.

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I agree, we should strongly consider changing this. “Mailing list” in general has become a confusing word. To many, it’s totally interchangeable with “newsletter”. In fact, the Wikipedia page on Mailing list sounds a whole lot more like a newsletter than a “mailing list [for discussion]”

One off-the-cuff suggestion: email_all_posts

Yep. It should be possible to set that as a default.

Possibly. The trick is to only show this to the users who need it. We all have our OCD traits, and a pretty common one is “clear unread”. I’m certainly prone to unnecessarily click that type of button just for an “easy fix”, but I’d much rather be forced to realise that I don’t have to. Maybe yet another power user setting is the solution? I’m not sure yet.

As long as we allow clearing of notifications, wouldn’t Watching suffice?

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I wonder if we just got it wrong to begin with assuming that the notification settings per-category would map cleanly to the notification settings per topic at all.

Consider, for example the “watching first post” setting.

My hypothesis is that a lot of the category-level settings are really there because it’s for users who don’t visit the site often, but do want to hear about some particular subsection of the forum.

In which case, I’d be willing to bet we could just eliminate the existing Tracking and Watching options for categories, whilst adding the “mailing list” mode per category. (regardless of what the name is).

So you’d end up still with 4 settings instead of the current 5:

  • mailing list mode / “email me every post but don’t notify me”
  • email me about the first post
  • normal
  • do not show this category in New or Latest

In addition, or perhaps as an alternative, I could see a preference (default on?) that says:

clear notifications that I’ve already been emailed about

This avoids the email tracking complexity while setting clear expectations.

A thought in relation to the existing notification settings (not sure if this should be a new topic…): The “muted” setting currently says: “You will never be notified of anything about this topic, and it will not appear in latest.” Since the other settings explicitly mention that “you will be notified if someone mentions your @name”, does this mean that users can turn off @mentions per topic (by muting it)? I’m not sure that’s a good idea. I’d like to be able to assume that a mention of a username will always result in the user being notified. As for indirect mentions (via mentioning a group of which the user is a member) I can see the point of turning that off but again not on a per topic basis but on a per group basis.

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Yeah, I think that is related to my post. Mute doesn’t really make sense for categories the same way it does for topics, IMHO. For categories, the thing I think people really want is just “do not show this category in New and Latest”

Edited my post above to reflect that…

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Being able to set this as a global default would be very useful for Mozilla.

I’m not sure you need to be sure, considering it already exists! (Which I discovered when looking for a place it would be sensible to place such a button)

Since neither of us knew it was there, maybe there’s a need to better expose it?

I’m not sure I agree with any of your hypothesis, at least as a reflection of the current state of Discourse. In terms of where we want to go, I definitely agree with the latter half but strongly disagree with the first half.

Not being able to only hear about a particular subsection of the forum, through the web interface, would completely break Discourse for use within Mozilla. I reckon it would completely break Discourse generally.

Eliminating Tracking wouldn’t be much of a loss, since it’s rather useless at the moment (although I would say a better option would be to make it work properly). But Watching is essential for receiving notifications. In fact, your proposal seems to eliminate notifications altogether.

This sounds like a good alternative to me.

I think I may have been unclear.

In the proposal, I’m only suggesting that these changes are made for categories not topics:

There would be no more global “mailing list” mode, only the category one, so there would no longer be any need to mute a category in combination with mailing list mode. You would just opt in to mailing list mode on the categories you want to.

Again, just to be clear, the suggestion isn’t to remove in-app notifications altogether. It’s only to eliminate them at the category-level.

Are you saying that you or other users on your site actually do rely on getting in-app notifications for each post in particular categories?

Yes, exactly that:

Without category-level watching, there would be no method of distinguishing topics in categories you’re interested in from those in categories you’re not, in the web interface.

I don’t think we want to move to emails being so decoupled from the “in-app” experience, hence why I proposed allowing users to be emailed for tracked topics (along with making tracking a category actually track the topics within, otherwise it’s a bit useless). This way users can choose whether email is just a push notification mechanism (and therefore only reflective of their in-app notifications), or whether it’s a mailing list mechanism (and therefore reflective of everything they’ve expressed an interest in on Discourse).

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Regarding this issue, curious to hear your thoughts on this other idea:

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This is EXACTLY the functionality I require for a community I’m trying to get moved to Discourse. I was coming here to post the same thing but it couldn’t have been said better, how can we get this working? :slight_smile:

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You would have to implement it :slight_smile: We would accept a PR that implements that feature behind a flag.

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Hmm I don’t know the first thing about Ruby, maybe I’ll see if I can pay someone to do that for me. Haha.

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I agree that there fundamental differences between the web interface and the email interface via mailing list mode but it should be possible to apply mailing list mode to only specific categories.

I’ll use the lists.samba.org mailing lists as an example of “GNU mailman” lists and what I would expect a migration to Discourse to work like if they decided to switch to using it in the future:

  1. Each list would become a category in Discourse
  2. Each category would function as an independent mailing list via mailing list mode.

The “GNU mailman” install at lists.samba.org shows 19 total lists.
Right now the only one I’m subscribed to is samba-announce which is a “Low volume list for Samba announcements” that includes announcements of when new releases of samba are released (which is why I’m subscribed to it).
If they switched to using Discourse then I would expect that mailing list mode works per-category to have the same type of mailing list experience I had before the switch to Discourse.

So in my opinion, the mailing list mode should be a per category feature instead of every message as core functionality to match the expectations of users including me that are used to the mailing list functionality provided by software like “GNU mailman”.

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What do you think of that @sam?