Why use Discourse instead of a email mailing list?

Continuing the discussion from Discourse vs. email – Pros & Cons:

Comments welcome!

When should we use Discourse instead of plain email or a mailing list?

Discourse excels at group conversations. Email is still great for 1-to-1 and 1-to-a-few exchanges. But when these conversations attract even more people and go on for a extended period of time, email chains become increasingly unwieldy. Mailing lists were invented to remedy these issues, but it was a bit like trying to build better horse carriages as opposed to inventing cars.

There are still some valid use cases for mailing lists, but we firmly believe Discourse is the better tool more often than not, because…


Discourse makes it easy to link to and from different topics. The participants of a topic that’s been linked to will receive a notification about an incoming link. Furthermore, every topic maintains a clean list of all incoming links.

Lastly, while Discourse works great for internal communities, it was designed first and foremost for public discussion. And on the world wide web, links let you be part of the conversation & knowledge network at large:

The World Wide Web (abbreviated WWW or the Web) is an information space where documents and other web resources are identified by Uniform Resource Locators (URLs), interlinked by hypertext links, and can be accessed via the Internet.

Lower bar to entry

Choose whichever onboarding process works best for your community:

  • Social logins (Google+, Facebook, Twitter, GitHub etc.)
  • Single Sign-On with your organisation’s custom login provider
  • Invitation links
  • Whitelisting of company emails.

Moderation controls

Prevent spam and bad behaviour with crowd-powered moderation flags.

Reduce generic comments

Think of all the times you’ve muttered “mhm” or merely nodded your head in agreement. While disagreement usually benefits from elaboration, agreement just requires clear acknowledgement. Discourse attempts to discourage “me too” comments with Likes so you can nod your head in virtual space without risking neck injury.


Once you’ve sent an email, there’s no going back. Your typos are forever recorded in history, and the only way to correct a particularly bad mistake is to send yet another email.

Thankfully Discourse, like most other modern communication platforms, allows editing. Post edits are clearly called out and readers can even look back at previous revisions to clear up any confusion that may arise.

Regulate the firehose

If your organisation requires more than one mailing list, you know you’re in trouble. Joining individual mailing lists is a pain, and figuring out which are essential, sort-of-essential and non-essential reading takes a long time to figure out.

Try instead:

  • Categories with granular tracking controls

  • A dedicated Unread page for topics you’re following, and a New page for brand new topics you’ve never seen before.

  • A Top page for newcomers to sift through the most popular discussions for the past year/quarter/month/week, on the site as a whole or in specific categories.

Search friendly archive that prevents repetition

Discourse keeps an exhaustive archive of all conversations. A clever algorithm uses that archive to suggest similar posts to a user who’s drafting a topic that might be better off as a continuation of existing discussions.

All of this content is also highly searchable by humans:


Searching through content of multiple mailing lists is rarely an option; even getting to search through a single mailing list is a rare luxury. Usually you’ll have to make due with a public archive and some clever Googling.

Discourse supports full text search with a great variety of custom variables. Do a quick inline search or use our Advanced Search to pin down who said what when.

World wide web

As mentioned, Discourse excels in public spaces. Search engines see Discourse topics in an easily crawlable format. The multitude of outgoing and incoming links on a forum makes for excellent SEO juice.

Discourse can be used as a mailing list

With properly configured incoming mail, Discourse can be used just like a mailing list. If you’ll be interacting with Discourse exclusively by email, consider enabling Mailing list mode in your personal preferences, provided it’s enabled on your forum.


How do I import my mailing list?

Migrate a mailing list to Discourse (mbox, Listserv, Google Groups, etc)

Isn’t a forum community rather excessive for an early stage project?

It absolutely is! We openly recommend against starting a community with Discourse until you’ve built up the critical mass needed for a brand new community to be successful. But in the meantime, the option isn’t usually “start a mailing list”. Practically every collaboration tool today comes equipped with some type of messaging board (see GitHub, Kickstarter, Deviantart etc.).

We highly recommend engaging with the people where they’re already at before trying to convince a core following to follow you to a space of your own. Not all platforms will let you export your discussion data (they should!) but usually you can get away with some copy & paste magic to take your key takeaways with you.

My organisation manages multiple mailing lists. Can they be imported incrementally?

Yes. You’ll have to import the list into a blank Discourse instance first, but once that’s done you can export that list as a category to be imported into a live Discourse instance.

Mailing list pros

  • Can run on modest hardware
  • Works well when everyone needs to see everything.
  • Firmly established workflow for most IT professionals

Further Reading

Last edited by @JammyDodger 2024-05-25T07:22:18Z

Check documentPerform check on document:

Another mailing list pro is: all mailing lists end up in one mailbox.

Depending on the user’s workflow, they may read them all in one place or filter them out to various labels or folders.

Discourse may have several related mailing-list equivalents in one place, but that’s generally just from one company.

If I’m interested in horse-riding and leap seconds and 13th-century Dutch art history, I’d probably rather fire up one email client in the morning (which I do anyway) than have to visit umpteen separate Discourse instances hosted on various websites.

I think what might be useful would be something like Usenet: a decentralised one-stop shop for all sorts of content, so the horse riders, leap-second buffs, and art history lovers could all be at the same place – they would then simply choose which categories to watch and which ones to ignore.

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The new app for mobile does something similar to this in that all it really does is show the new/unread counts for each of your Discourse forums. Not sure if there is a web portal that does something similar? The stack exchange group of sites ended up having one notification box didn’t they which helped me picking up on posts across multiple system but I don’t think it had a shared front end portal.

Does Discourse have an RSS feed? I use Inoreader these days and it would be handy to have my various Discourse feeds in there as well.

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This just works for hosted forums, right? So that would only partially help if one is also interested in Discourse forums that are self-hosted by other users/companies/groups/etc.

Counts and basic functionality is fine, push notifications are omitted

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Indeed, but discourse will email you posts if you want it to.

Many pages do. Try appending “.rss” to a URL eg.

Why use Discourse instead of a email mailing list?

Discourse Meta - Latest topics


Also things such as categories, e.g. https://meta.discourse.org/c/faq.rss


A mailing list like google group has many good propertities.

If you want to make discourse compete the Mail list. You need at least these propertities:

For open groups:

  • The group can be managed by many people. Like anyone can add or delete themselves all by themselves.

  • So The group names must be presented somewhere.

  • The discussion should be emailed to the email box, at least optional. And, I believe the mail should be from the sender, not from noreply.discourse.org or other public mail box.

  • People can choose to post to someone in the list, or post to the group.

  • Some of the good topics should be presented to Discourse, while some should just be a notification or other short messages that should NOT be presented to the discourse.

###For private Groups, there should be one or a few managers.

  • How should we present there private groups? How should the Manager manage the groups? All big problems.

Discourse is not so mature to replace mail-lists.

I think we should devote great effort to solves all these problems first. Now is not the time for marketing.

Doesn’t Discourse allow that too, but with even greater granularity?

I don’t understand what you mean by this.

Like we do?

I can’t say I agree with that one. This is how broken, messy email chains happen.

Could you explain further? What is “the group” in this case?

Also don’t understand this one.

Just require logins? What’s the big problem?


@erlend_sh this is a really good article and covers some of the points I often have to make to people when I’m explaining why they need a forum as opposed to several mailing lists. I work primarily in the National Health Service in the UK, where email is used for everything (unless a fax machine can be used), and therefore people are literally drowning in emails, when there are so much better ways of handling and sharing information such as (but not limited to) Discourse forums. Most of the user-land resistance comes from a primal fear that you will increase that email volume. My contention is that if you know everything is archived on the forum you can simply delete the notifications or switch them off.

One killer feature of fora over mailing lists that you missed out is the access to ALL of the messaging history that you get when you join a forum. With older style ‘listserver’ mailing lists you only have whatever history you’ve saved in your email client.

This messaging history may well contain the answer to your question, so you can search, find your answer, and you don’t even need to post your n00b question. (If you had posted that n00b question on the mailing list, people would bark back at you ‘THAT question again? Wasn’t that answered just a few weeks ago?’ anyway, so if you can find the existing post it’s an advantage)

Admittedly, with some ‘mailing lists’ such as Google Groups you can search the messaging history to a degree, but this isn’t they way most people normally interact with the forum, so I think fewer people than you think would know/bother to do this.



Thanks for pointing that out. I added a paragraph under “Search friendly archive that prevents repetition” including a showcase of our “Similar topic” JIT notification. Let me know if you have something to add to that.


Though on certain discourse forums this will still happen to you :wink: The difference is, of course, that on discourse you have a chance of avoiding it, provided you know the right search terms.

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Over on the CAMRA Discourse forums, an attempt has been made to placate those very familiar and happy with mailing lists by saying you can make Discourse work like a mailing list.

Personally I feel this is a mistake as said members will never learn about the advantages of working in the much richer web interface.

For me the biggest plus of a forum is that I can edit my reply after posting. I’m crap at proof-reading before hand so often spot a typo.

And isn’t the story from Colin in the (UK) national health service a common one?

Sure, but there’s always the “extra features” of the web interface that will always be there, drawing people back and tempting them to check out the web UI. I’ve seen many people, originally “stubborn” and refusing to use the web, eventually switch over because the overall UX was so much better. Maybe not everyone, but it definitely happens. (Plus, I’m a big believer in the “meet people where they are” philosophy of building community.)


I would also add few more advantages of Discourse that I don’t think were mentioned:

  • very comprehensive usage statistics reporting interface
  • intuitive and engaging user feedback system with “likes” and “solutions” that attracts more participation
  • plugins for integrations with external products (YouTube, GitHub) that help connect communities and further engage users
  • effective moderation/spam filtering engine

I wrote a short guide to using Discourse via email at LibreHosters. Did I miss something?


This isn’t really a difference between a working mailing list and a working forum, but in practice I have found that ensuring deliverability of emails from mailing lists on a shared server is hard work. Deliverability of email notifications seems easier with Discourse, using Mailgun, and it’s not such a potential problem anyway as people visit the forum online rather than rely entirely on receiving the email. This is just my personal experience.


Yeah no kidding cc @tshenry @simon email deliverability is an extremely difficult problem.


If you’re requiring users to log in to access some content, post or use certain features, then Discourse doesn’t really eliminate the email deliverability problems, it just makes them less frequent, because you still have to be able to deliver SOME email to users to get them set up or to update passwords.

And my experience (30+ years as an email administrator) is that if you only have to deal with email delivery issues infrequently, you might not even notice when things change. (And they will change frequently, for example when ISPs modify their ground rules.)

High volume lists do create other categories of problems, as does allowing replies or topic creation by email.