Mailing list features


I have got a hard time getting my head around the mailing list features of Discourse. I have read the FAQ, the Features list, a series of posts on the forum including this one and can’t figure out how it works.


I work at a small NGO, we have been using mailing lists (Mailman) and are considering switching to Discourse.

Our NGO work on environmental issues, we have :

  • a public mailing list, discussion@, where people can discuss about non-specific topics ;
  • a series of public mailings list, topic specific (ie. green-energy@) ;
  • a series of private mailings list ;
  • a public “mailing list” that we use as newsletter (no one can post/answer except our bot).

Note: in this context, private = non public, accessible (read, write) only to people that we have specifically authorized.


  • would it be possible to transpose this behaviour to Discourse ?
  • can people “subscribe” to specific categories/tags and interact by email exclusively (receive the content of every new post in a chosen category/tag, answer it, create a new topic,…) ?
  • is it possible to create private/invisible categories/tags (see above for definition of “private”) ?
  • is it possible to hide users form the /users page or from the editor (suggestions following a “@”) ?
  • is it possible to disable the /users page as a whole ?
  • is it possible to register without a nickname ?

Thank you in advance for your help :slight_smile:


This is what I have set up so far and it seems to work for us.

Right now our forum is private, we replaced our technical distribution list with Discourse. I have a category with a sub-category by product/feature. I have additional sub-categories for our competitive and tools discussions. These are all private categories restricted to employees. I will have an almost identical set on the public side when that opens up.

The choice of sub-forums was done so that SMEs could watch just their sub-categories if that’s what they wanted to do. For product owners, I required them to subscribe to their sub-categories. For our field they typically use mailing list mode so they see all the sub-categories.

I was originally confused about how mailing list mode worked as well, hence my feature request which turned out to be a misunderstanding.

Some of your requests I’m not sure about, but if you were to join my community as a user today it’s totally empty, employees see their forums, and admins of course see it all.

When I turn on the public side the public will only see the public categories and sub-categories.

Not sure about hiding users, but the rest is working for us.



Thank you for your answer @awlogan :slight_smile:

It is really hard to understand what are the actual features and how they work. The lack of documentation doesn’t help with this regard (I’ve stumbled upon “learn Discourse” and searched - via Google and the built-in search engine - and still can’t figure out most of the mailing-list functionalities).

@codinghorror: correct me if I’m wrong but I’ve got the feeling that discourse wasn’t thought of as a mailing list replacement from the beginning, then the mailing-list features arrived and there has been no effort so far to gather documentation about it. I can’t find the quotes back but there are a series of them in the line of “Discourse is a web-based discussion platform”. Despite my searches, I’m still unable to assess whether Discourse is a viable mailing list replacement.

What we want to achieve is offer non tech-savvy people a way to take part to the discussions that have been taking place in our mailing lists (mailman powered) so far. Discourse seemed to be a good pick because of the great web interface, functionalities and the mobile support but these were my main questions when I started looking into Discourse, I still can’t figure out the answer :

  • could Discourse work as a mailing list with a forum-like web interface ?
  • or, alternatively, could Discourse work as a forum with complete mailing-list functionalities ?

You are definitely not alone. I think there are two main reasons why it still takes some effort to figure out if and how to use Discourse as a mailing-list replacement:

  1. this feature is still very much under development
  2. although discourse can in many circumstances replace a classic mailing list, it requires a different mode of thinking, first on the part of the admin and then on the part of the users. Perhaps the most evident example is this: if you/your users believe it is a good thing (or it is for whatever reason required) that everyone receives every message (as is the case on mailing list) then Discourse is probably perhaps not the right way to go (unless you force every user into mailinglist mode, but what would be the point?)

So, in order to avoid frustration, I think the best way to approach the subject (and ultimately to answer the questions in the OP) is to

a) try to get an idea of the current state of discussion regarding email features in Discourse by reading as many email related topics as possible (even the ones that don’t appear to be about mailing lists in particular because my impression is that it is difficult to separate “mailing list emails” from other emails sent by discourse.
b) be open to rethink your approach to email lists, otherwise you will probably dismiss Discourse as unsuitable too soon. In the end, you may have to dismiss it anyway if your users won’t tag along, but that is something different than not even you seeing the benefits.

Here are some topics that I found useful in that respect (I don’t claim this list to be comprehensive in any way):

I think it was especially the latter two topics that I found particularly enlightening and which give some indications as to what might be possible in the future. In brief, if I remember correctly, the tenor was that there should be some form of category based (rather than universal) mailing list mode and my impression is that that will be the closest you can get to classic mailing lists (if that is what you want). Of course, you can have that already now, but only if you see the whole forum as your mailinglist.


Are mailing lists passé or à la mode?

Just today, I got an email from which says that mailing lists are resurgent.

There has quite literally been a newsletter revolution over the past few years. Email, while almost left for dead a few years ago, is back as one of, if not the best, ways to build and communicate with an audience.

There is clear tension between the Discourse position that mailing lists are outdated and the desire of many users and communities to continue to use email-only communication.

Are mailing lists resurgent? Is this relevant here?

Newsletters are not mailinglists.


They are using a mailing list to send out a newsletter. They use a mailing list manager. How do you know the difference? Is there a narrow definition, for example, that says all interaction must be by email? Is it that all recipients have access to the list?

Of course you can technically call the database that stores all the recipients of your newsletter a “mailinglist” but what’s the point? To start with, professional newsletters are usually not distributed using a mailing list software like mailman or sympa. Newsletter software has features like personalization of the newsletter’s content based on user settings (i.e. every recipient gets a different email) or tracking if emails were open and links clicked, both of which make no sense in mailinglists.

But, questions of definitions aside, my point was merely that just because every blogger is trying to get your email so they can send you all that useful information they have for you, doesn’t mean that mailinglists are celebrating a revival.

If you want to question whether they are dead in the first place, that’s an entirely different thing.

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I agree, a newsletter is not a mailing list.

That is not our position, either…


Thanks for the clarity. Apologies for my confusion.

You can probably tell I’ve yet to get my head around this.