Discourse and Email Lists (like Google Groups)

Some reasons to consider using Discourse for you community instead of email lists

Discoverability of content is much easier in Discourse

Searching through email list discussions is tricky, especially those that began prior to you being added to the list. People generally do not consider emails as unique resources they can link to, so discovery by cross reference is minimal or non-existent.

In Discourse, you simply start by skimming topics. It is more natural to link to another post, so discovery of prior, related conversations is more likely. And the search functionality itself is also quite effective.

And when a new user arrives and starts a discussion that is related to an existing topic, it’s easy for an existing member to point them to it. Bi-directional links are created automatically when this happens, improving discoverability in the future.

Attention, Noise and Pull vs. Push Participation

Email lists can be noisy. They push emails to every subscriber’s inbox and force you must sift through it one way or another. This can lead to a couple unhealthy behaviors:

  1. People start ignoring or filtering messages to a particular list so they don’t actually pay as much attention
  2. People who want to start a wider discussion may feel discouraged from doing so, because they do not want to add to this noise.

On Discourse you pick and choose what you want to read.

Conversations you participate in are tracked automatically with an appropriate noise level based on your participation. If you read something long enough, it will be highlighted in your ‘unread’ list when new posts are made.

Notifications are sent only when you are mentioned, are replied to directly, or when you are explicitly “watching” a topic. And they will only be sent via email if you are not currently active on the site - otherwise, they will only appear within the application.

Discussions are open to a more diverse group of participants

First, messages to email lists only go to the members of that group. Then, sometimes it’s unclear whether you should reply all or just reply to the sender of the message. Other times it’s not clear whether another group should be cc’d or not. This means that people may miss out on a conversation they are interested in. It also means the group misses out on what people who are not on that list may have to add.

With Discourse, conversations are open to everyone regardless of which category they are posted in. At the same time, categories and tags allow the participants a way to gauge their interest as they skim through recent topics, or to dial the noise level up or down on particular categories of topics as they see fit.

When would email still be preferred?

Email lists do still serve a purpose, and moving more conversation to Discourse can make email lists even more effective by increasing their signal-to-noise ratio. If Discourse can reduce the noise on email lists, people won’t need to filter them as much and can pay attention to messages that have that level of urgency.

Email lists are best:

  1. When messages need to be sent to everyone, an email list is still a great place to do that.
  2. When a particular conversation would not have any potential benefit from being more open

Discourse does have built-in group functionality which could also serve these purposes. And there are plans to further improve the mailing list features of Discourse to make it a system that allows members who are more comfortable with email to participate in ways that they are used to.


Excellent writeup!

I would also add that, as a way to mitigate for this, bigger projects will create multiple separate mailing lists that you have to subscribe to:

I can never be bothered to immerse myself in these communities. The catch-up process is just too overwhelming, and it’s very difficult to regulate the information flow to my liking.


I agree completely @erlend_sh. Once a community starts to feel a need for multiple mailing lists, then you start having more of these other problems with fractured communications and the mental overhead of thinking about which list is the right one to address:

Canonical topic here: