Discourse vs. email -- Pros & Cons

I hope I selected the right category for my discussion.

Here it is: I want to introduce Discourse at work.

I work in scientific research and I feel Discourse can help us organize things better.

Before I do, I want to be prepared for inevitable questions about the “use case” for Discourse.

Questions such as (but not limited to):

  1. Why do we need Discourse? We are using email right now and that keeps people informed.

  2. What advantages can we expect from using Discourse? What does it bring that we do not have right now?

  3. Doesn’t this introduce redundancy? Like people discussing things in Discourse that are really meant for email and vice versa?

If you have arguments for the one over the other then I would be happy to hear them from you.



I think the answer is “It depends on how your organisation is using email”.

One of the advantages of a platform like Discourse is that it provides what you might call “discretionary pull”, meaning that individual users can choose to pay attention to the full range of topics and categories on Discourse, with as much or as little notification as they see fit. Email is, in comparison, an explicit push technology.

I think of Discourse as sort of halfway between Email and Chat, but how useful it will turn out to be will depend on the discipline of your users, and what other central information storage mechanism you use.

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Thanks, Andrew.

I can think of a possible Pro for Discourse: by cleverly organizing categories into “fields op interest” you get a much better separation and overview of topics.

Modern mail clients let you organize topics into folders and/or tag them.

But I suspect that a well layed-out list of categories, targeted towards your audience, give a much better and cleaner look and user experience.

I think the key point is the discretionary aspect:

  • With an email system the user has to guess that there might be someone who has information that they might be interested in, then contact that person and ask to be included in the to: list. If it turns out that that information source isn’t what they are interested in, then they need to ask to be removed from the to: list.

  • With Discourse, the end user can see what is going on in the system, and make an informed decision about what categories and topics are available (and to which they have access), and chooses to follow them, or not, and can change that at any time they choose.

Excellent point!

This goes especially for scientific research, where students and researchers need to follow several interdisciplinary fields related to their current research.

This is a definite Pro for Discourse.

I went through a similar thing, trying to convince my fellow scouting leaders to use Discourse. We were (and still are mostly for now) using e-mail for group-wide communication, leader teams usually use a WhatsApp group or something like that for small talk.

My strongest motivations were:

  • Archive-ability (excuse my english)
    Lots of information simply got lost over the years. Trying to find minutes from meetings held a few years ago? Might as well give up. Lots of resources for (new) contributors are all over the place and nobody has everything, let alone the newest version. Add a search function and life has never been this great.

  • Contact management
    People come and go in scouting groups, there are always some people missing out on an e-mail being sent. I can imagine this is less of an issue in a company or research group setting, and if you use mailing lists or something similar it’ll be a non-issue. Another pro of Discourse is that new people can find discussions from before their time easily.

  • Flexible private messaging
    It’s easy to quickly set up a private discussion with certain people or groups, no need to look up addresses or whatnot.

  • Discussion tools
    Polls, wikis, media integration, uploads and whatnot are simple things in Discourse and a lot harder to implement properly using e-mail.

As far as your point 3 goes, do you really need e-mail? In my ideal world we’d use Discourse for everything and only e-mail when communicating to the outside (members, parents etc.)

Good luck!


Thanks, steef. This makes an interesting read.

I particularly like the point you made in Contact management – new people can find discussions from before their time easily.

That is important in scientific research. Once the budget has dried up, people are gone in an instant. Discourse will then prove to be valuable source of information.

Thanks again!

I’ll write a more extensive reply to this in a bit, as this is a common question we ought to have a canonical answer for. In the meantime:

Not quite sure what you mean by that. Could you write up a little scenario that exemplifies this problem?

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Sure, Erland.

In our research facility, people are accustomed to inform each other by mail.
We use a couple of mailinglists to sent the same message to multiple recipients.
That’s our primary means of communication.
People respond to email quickly, and are implicitely expected to do so.

It is possible that management objects to Discourse, because it would defer attention from email to Discourse. Also, it introduces the question when to write an email and when to post in Discourse.
I am not saying management will object, but I need to be prepared with solid arguments to counter them in case they do.

That’s the object of this discussion, to anticipate objections and gather as much arguments as possible.
I want to present a “use case” for our facility that leaves one question open: “can we afford NOT to choose Discourse?”

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You can simply have those lists post to Discourse categories and (depending on preferences and such) they’ll get an email.

The ability to have access to old archives in a readable format seems pretty compelling. New people can quickly find old reports, announcements, and discussions all in the very same interface that new ones exist. Finding an old discussion in an email archive is nightmarish.

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Absolutely, Jay.

I have been impressed with Discourse’s search function from day one.

I am not sure if I understand what you mean. Are you referring to Discourse’s ability to post and reply from email?

Right. And Discourse can act a lot like a mailing list, so people who are afraid of using the web could continue to treat it like a mailing list.

Right. I am going to look deeper into Discourse’s post/reply from email features.

Thanks Jay!

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Simply mention to management that they won’t have to spend more money on an email archiving system, or expand the SAN/NAS so that everybody can keep their own private copy of the notes from a staff meeting in 2001 where it was discussed what kind of coffee machines should be purchased for the lounge.

You’ll still have the personal copy squirrels, but the sentient beings will soon realise that is a lot simpler to just trust the central repository.

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I like your view on this.

Perhaps I should change my approach. Instead of “defending” Discourse in the comparison Discourse vs. email, I should focus on Discourse being the logical progression from email. That is a far more ambitious approach.
That will certainly get their attention. I need to emphasize what email cannot do, and Discourse excels at “natively”.

I shared some thoughts on this subject here:


Just what I needed – thanks, David!

I would be emphasizing the difference in workflow for a discussion in either medium.

There is a fundamental difference between emails that do not require any further interaction other than reading the email - or deciding not to read it because of the title and who it came from - and emails that lead to further interaction.

As soon as you start a discussion with email, the interface becomes very cumbersome:

  • Discourse retains the benefits of asynchronous communications while allowing the appropriation of many benefits from more synchronous/immediate communications such as text chat.
  • Discussion continuity in emails is assisted by appending the contents of previous emails to the current response. But this is a massive duplication of data. I don’t mean massive in the sense of very large, but the frequent accumulation of small duplications which is rather like death by a thousand cuts.
  • Email doesn’t really work if there are more than two people talking at the same time. So collaboration is restricted by the limitation of the email interface. Think about this example: when you have more than two people in the conversation, how do you work out what each person is responding to? You normally have to read the start of the appended message to see where they were in the conversation - most of us do this without even thinking about it but it remains another small cut. I can think of many email discussions where confusion has reigned when any of us assumed that others were a) up-to-the-moment and b) had read all other responses.
  • Email doesn’t have features to handle mutating discussions. When there are changes in context, content, subject or recipients there is no easy way to see what has happened. Each change creates a disjunction. For example, a change in topic should be signalled by a change in the email subject line. But if that happens then most email clients, which only allow an email to be in one conversation, will create a new “conversation” using that new subject.

Interesting observations, Mark.

I certainly experience the lack of features in email to handle mutating discussions.

For instance, people tend to use my latest reply to them to start a whole new topic. Of which the topic itself has nothing to do with my latest reply. Subject and message are now completely out of sync. It is as if they use my latest reply as a bookmark for my email address.

Now try to find back the true content of that specific mail a year from now. That gives a hole new experience of the word “hell”.


Thanks for all the insightful comments thus far. I’ve tried to distill the arguments presented into a canonical topic:

Let’s continue this discussion there. I’m entirely open to additions.