Confusion between Reply To and Reply List in email responses

Hi Discourse Community —

[For context in this query, we are an open-source project using a Discourse-provided instance, for which we’re grateful.]

We’re running into a behavior that has been confusing for members of our community, and are looking for guidance or best practices for improving the situation. Specifically:

  • Email notifications sent by our Discourse instance display a From: address of [project]@discoursemail.com along with the Reply-To: address that correctly routes replies back to the original topic.

  • When recipients reply to such emails using “Reply” rather than “Reply To” (incorrectly believing that this will permit them to reply to the message’s original author, off-forum), they get the following message:

    We’re sorry, but your email message to ["[project]@discoursemail.com"] (titled Re: [Subject]) didn’t work.

    Do you use more than one email address? Did you reply from a different email
    address? Email replies require that you use the same email address when
    replying. Alternately, the Message-ID header in the email may have been
    modified.

    This leads them to believe that there is a problem with the email address from which they sent the address rather than the one to which they sent it. But then double-checking, they find it is their account address and reach out for help, wondering what went wrong.

This leads me to wonder whether:

  • there a way for us to configure the email address from which these mails are sent to be something more like noreply@discoursemail.com or something else that would look less like a plausibly valid email address?
  • Is there a way that we, or Discourse, could specialize the error messages for replies to the sending address to say something more like "You have replied to an email address that does not accept incoming mails. If you were trying to reply to a Discourse notification mail, please use the Reply-To: address or contact its author directly.

[I apologize if I’ve overlooked something before posting this. Though I’ve found other messages in meta.discourse.org asking similar questions, none have led me to answers. That said, it’s been challenging for me to come up with keywords that narrow the search results very well].

Thanks for any tips,
-Brad

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We’re looking into this and will get back to you soon!

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There isn’t a setting that I am aware of that can be used for this. Looking through my personal email inbox, it seems quite common for the From and Reply To fields to not match. I’m seeing examples of applications sending emails from a no-reply email address with the Reply To address set to the proper address for replies. Other applications seem to be handling it in the same way as Discourse is - with a real-looking From address, but with the expectation that the Reply To email address will be used for the reply.

Unless there is a site setting that I’m not aware of that lets you set the From address to noreply@<domain.com>, adding one seems like a reasonable feature request to me.

The email template that is being used by Discourse for these replies is the email_reject_bad_destination_address template. This email template is supposed to be listed in the site’s email templates section (found at Admin / Customize / Email.) When I search my site for that email template, I am not finding it. It looks to me like this is a bug that needs to be fixed. We need to add the template to the list found at discourse/email_templates_controller.rb at master · discourse/discourse · GitHub. This is a small change, so we should be able to get it done very soon.

For now, you can edit the email_reject_bad_destination_address template by going to your site’s Admin / Customize / Text section and entering the following text into the search box:

system_messages.email_reject_bad_destination_address.text_body_template

Click the “edit” button that’s displayed next to the search result that is returned to make your changes.

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So this is something they are doing manually, by typing or pasting it in themselves? That’s… quite odd.

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A badly behaved mailing list would have the reply to set to the list address, and a user who wanted instead to reply to the sender could change the address to the sender address, which was the address of the person who sent the message. I guess that behavior is so strong that people would not look at the address to see that it couldn’t possibly be that of the person who wrote the message.

For one mail-centric community I wrote a plugin that reveals the email address of the poster to make it possible to reply directly to the sender via email.

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Do you have any details about how people are doing this? Is their email client giving them the option to use the From address, or are they manually copying it into a new email?

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One data point, since I have seen this issue:

In Thunderbird (I’m running v78.7), I believe that it recognizes Discourse emails as coming from a mailing list and offers two reply buttons – Reply and Reply List.

Reply will create a reply going back to the “From” address (noreply@xyz.com)

Reply List will create a reply going back to the “Reply To” address (replies+01234@xyz.com)

I personally find it very easy to accidently hit the reply button instead of the reply list button.

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Hi all —

Thanks for the responses on this thread, and particularly to @simon for the notes about customizing the email responses. I will look into that more.

To @codinghorror and @simon 's questions:

I know that some of our team members who ran into this use Thunderbird, so were likely running into the behavior @Beakerton notes (and I know some old-school UNIX-based mailers do the same thing; I hadn’t actually realized that Outlook doesn’t make it easy to do so until writing this response). If it’s of interest, I can ask the other users whose mailers I’m uncertain of how they ran into this, though I expect it’s similar.

To @pfaffman’s point:

I think that could be the case. Or that if they are thinking about it, they may believe that something “magical” in Discourse is anonymizing the sender’s address but will make sure their response reaches them? (I realize that this isn’t the case, and understand the reasons why so am not suggesting I believe this should occur).

I think an advantage of customizing the “From:” address to something that looks less like a reasonable address as @simon notes here:

would dispel those illusions for those paying attention, or possibly just make it less surprising that things didn’t work if they go back and look at their sent message. But being able to customize the “bad destination address” message would probably get us 95% of the way there, so I will look into that more.

Thanks again,
-Brad

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I still have the From: header as noreply@example.com and was thinking of making it something more welcoming (partly in case people didn’t think replying would work). Noreply must either be a default or recommended setting.

But maybe the answer to both problems is in the first part of this sentence:

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Our experience is that this indeed happens to Thunderbird users.
Nowadays it’s the first question I ask when someone reports an incident like this, and the answer is always ‘yes’.

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Definitely a Thunderbird thing as we discovered and tested around mid January:

Reply - one message - goes to [noreply@forum.xxxxx.com](mailto:noreply@forum.xxxxx.com)

Reply-All - two messages - goes to both [noreply@forum.xxxxx.com](mailto:noreply@forum.cxxxx.com)
and [xxxxx.reply+a22deef75085bcafd42f8a99cf58e7cd@gmail.com](mailto:xxxxx.reply+a22deef75085bcafd42f8a99cf58e7cd@gmail.com)

Reply-to-List - one message - goes to
[xxxxx.reply+a22deef75085bcafd42f8a99cf58e7cd@gmail.com](mailto:xxxxx.reply+a22deef75085bcafd42f8a99cf58e7cd@gmail.com)

Turns out there is even an add-on for Thunderbird to fix this:

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Yeah I strongly view this as a design error in Thunderbird.

However I sympathize with your users who are simply trying to do the right thing. I think about the best you can do at the moment is to customize the error message so that it is specific to your community and puts the most common error remedy at the top of the response, something like:

We’re sorry, but your email message to ["[project]@discoursemail.com"] (titled Re: [Subject]) didn’t work.

If you are using Thunderbird as your email client, you must reply to the list; it is not possible to reply directly to users via email.

Do you use more than one email address? Did you reply from a different email address? Email replies require that you use the same email address when replying. Alternately, the Message-ID header in the email may have been modified.

Not that exact text, of course – whatever you think makes sense, listed near the top.

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I’ve updated our error message thanks to the tips in @simon’s message above and suspect that this will be sufficient to address the confusion that some in our community have felt. If there were a way to customize the “From:” address to something more like noreply@discoursemail.com that would be icing on the cake, but for now I think we’re in a much better place.

Thanks again for all the help here,
-Brad

PS — As long as we’re bagging on Thunderbird in this thread, I’ll mention that it’s still perplexing to our Thunderbird users that URLs from their HTML-formatted messages seem to get dropped on the floor by Discourse’s incoming mail processing filter, where it remains unclear to me whether this indicates a Thunderbird bug or a Discourse bug.

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Based on this feedback, we’re also going to improve the error message in general. It will look like this in current beta and future releases:

We're sorry, but your email message to %{destination} (titled %{former_title}) didn't work.

Here are some things to check:

  - Do you use more than one email address? Did you reply from a different email address than the one you originally used? Email replies require that you use the same email address when replying.

  - Did your email software properly use the Reply-To: email address when replying? Unfortunately, some email software incorrectly sends replies to the From: address, which won’t work.

  - Was the Message-ID header in the email modified? The Message-ID must be consistent and unchanged.

Need more help? Reach out to us via the Contact Us details at  %{base_url}/about
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But I can open my old discourse messages in Thunderbird without this problem. Only newer ones has this problem. I’ve described it in my post:

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I guess you’re right and the presence of the List-Post header understandably makes Thunderbird think it’s a mailing list email. Probably a Reply-To header would suffice.

The following is from RFC 2369 - The Use of URLs as Meta-Syntax for Core Mail List Commands and their Transport through Message Header Fields

3.4. List-Post

The List-Post field describes the method for posting to the list. This is typically the address of the list, but MAY be a moderator, or potentially some other form of submission. For the special case of a list that does not allow posting (e.g., an announcements list), the List-Post field may contain the special value “NO”.

Examples:

List-Post: mailto:list@host.com
List-Post: mailto:moderator@host.com (Postings are Moderated)
List-Post: mailto:moderator@host.com?subject=list%20posting
List-Post: NO (posting not allowed on this list)

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We don’t expose email addresses as that would be a privacy violation.

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I’m not an email expert so maybe wasn’t clear.

It seems that the emails have From:noreply@example.com and List-Post:replies+12345@example.com - I’m only basing this on this topic, not from having checked, so could well be wrong.

I wondered whether From:noreply@example.com and Reply-To:replies+12345@example.com would work without confusing Thunderbird.

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The email notification headers we’re providing are correct. The mismatch comes from the user’s mental model of what is happening …

this user David is emailing me directly

… versus what is actually happening.

the forum is notifying me of activity on a topic

My hope is that the improved email error message will help teach the user the difference. It is a challenge to move email-only users to a hybrid web forum solution. :e-mail:

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I understand that difference, but if you’re using Reply-To why also use List-Post?

I’m not saying it’s wrong - I just wonder. Purely based on this topic it seems to confuse Thunderbird and (if Reply-To works) to be unnecessary.

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