Best practices for setting up mailing lists

See also Mailing Lists at CSAIL, especially the "for List Administrators and Moderators" section.

(Please check back soon as this page is being actively written. In particular, there will shortly be some information about various different kinds of use-cases for mailing lists, such as announcement list, contact list, public discussion list, etc., and appropriate configurations for them.)

This page describes TIG's advice for setting up mailing lists. As with our other "Best practices" pages, these rules are generally not set in stone, but they're guidelines that we hope will save you (and us) time and trouble down the road.

Choosing a name

Choosing a name for your list is a balance between picking something short and convenient, and picking something that uniquely identifies your list. A name that's too generic, such as announcements or bugs is bad, because there may be many lists hosted at CSAIL, for different groups of people, for which those names would be appropriate. Try to think of a name that will distinguish your list from other lists. It is a big win if the name makes it clear what group the list is for or what group runs it, so if you're in the Distributed Candymaking Group and you're starting a list for users of your new caramel 3D-printer, dcg-caramel-printer-users (or dcg-caramel or dcg-3dprinter if that seems too long) might be a good choice.

Setting list owners and/or moderators

When you create a new mailing list at CSAIL, you (specifically, your CSAIL email address) are automatically added as a list owner unless you specify a different list owner. If it's a temporary list for a particular short-term purpose, having just one list owner may be OK, but if you expect for the list to be around for a while or for a lot of people to depend on it, you should add additional list owners and/or moderators. Among other reasons, that will make the list more robust if you happen to have some temporary problems with your email delivery. Also, it gives us (TIG) more people to contact down the road if we have questions about the list. (For instance, if we notice that a list owner's email address starts bouncing, and we can't easily find a current address for that person, we will remove them as an owner or moderator of the list. And if we remove the last owner or moderator for a list and we can't figure out who's responsible for the list, we will remove the list, since it's important for a list to have responsible list admins so that it doesn't get taken over as a vehicle for spam. This is important even for moderated lists, since a spammer could spoof email as a list member or guess a list moderator password. And it's very important for lists with public list archives, since if a spammer can get spam links onto the list those links go into the archives on the web, and then CSAIL is serving spam.)

Therefore, if you expect your list to be around for a while and to be of interest to more than a small handful of people, we recommend that you add some other moderators and/or list owners. (You'll need to give them the passwords they need by hand. And note that they'll all get automated list mail; it's important that they read or at least skim subject lines for that mail, since that's the point of having multiple contacts for a list, but you'll probably want to coordinate list administration among yourselves.)

Setting the list description and info paragraphs

Our web form for creating a new list lets you specify a short description for your list. You'll want to choose a brief phrase describing the list (such as "Planning for 2015" or "Thursday grad-student volleyball games" or "Contact list for $GROUPNAME software releases") here. This should be pretty short, but try to phrase it so it will make sense to people outside your group and your target audience, since it will show up alongside descriptions of other lists.

Once your list is created, you'll also want to add a more elaborate explanation of what the list is for, who it serves, and how long it's expected to be around in the info field on the "General Options" administrative page of your list at

The info field is a good place for you to let us know what research group at CSAIL the list is for. (That would be a good place to mention a PI's name, for instance, even if the PI doesn't want to be listed as a list owner or moderator.) Also, if the list is for an organization that has its own web pages, the info field is a good place to provide a link to them. It's good to mention there how long the list is expected to be in operation, too.

Not all lists are publicly visible, and you can hide your list from the public index (so people have to know the name of the list in advance to subscribe), but it's important to provide a description when creating your list and set the info field in the web admin UI even if you hide the list, because that's the first place where we in TIG will look for information about a list. (It's also useful for your subscribers.)

List archives

When you create a list at CSAIL, the form lets you choose whether the list is archived, and if so whether the archive is public (visible to anybody in the world) or private (theoretically only visible to list members or administrators, using their passwords). If you get this wrong when creating the list, you can change it via the list admin web UI after the list is created (but ideally before any messages are posted to the list, since that will create the archives).

Please think carefully about your potential list subscribers' privacy (if they can post to the list) before making list archives public! If you do that, you should make it very clear to your list posters that archives are public, so they don't send mail to the list with information they don't want made public (such as a private email address, or a rant about somebody in the field but not on the list).

If something makes its way onto a list with archives (public or not) that shouldn't be there, contact TIG at as soon as possible and we can scrub it from the archives.

(For lists with private archives, in theory list members will need their passwords to view the archives, but since these are insecure passwords and hard to remember, it's very likely that some list members will change them to easily guessable passwords, or that some subscriber's email account will be cracked and an attacker will be able to get their list password. So even private archives are not terribly secure.)

-- JaySekora - 09 Jan 2017
Topic revision: 09 Jan 2017, JaySekora

MIT Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory


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