Mailing Lists – How NOT To Do It

November 26th, 2008 by Potato

Wow, in this day and age I would have thought people had figured out the whole mailing list thing. Apparently not, as evidenced by an absolute fiasco by the EMC 2009 organizers.

What’s EMC 2009? I haven’t the faintest bloody idea. They mysteriously sent out a notice to a bunch of scientists (myself included) that they had added us to their mailing list. They sent the notice twice: the first time encoded in Greek. They never said who they were, where they had harvested our email addresses from, or what the mailing list they had just signed us up for was all about. I’ve never heard of them, and I have no idea what they’re selling.

People who make mailing lists should know better in this day and age.

I immediately shit-canned them, and unsubscribed. The webpage was broken, with no information at all, and it was a secure site with its own non-standard security certificate. Firefox threw a hissy fit about the security risks. I let it do its thing “this time only” to unsubscribe, but I could totally see how someone who was less net savvy would be faced with the message:

“Page load error: uses an invalid security certificate.
The certificate is not trusted because the issuer certificate is not trusted.”

and not know how to unsubscribe. Plus we’re sometimes told not to click on those links in spam messages because all it does is confirm that the address is live, which just invites more spam. So then, en mass, the people who were unwillingly signed up for this mailing list started to send messages to the list saying “unsubscribe” “get me off this” “how do I get off this?”, etc. That, of course, did not help matters, and by now people who get signed up for mailing lists should know better. Word is that the traffic of furious unsubscribe messages reached 50 per day, clogging the mailboxes of scientists all over the world, and finally the list admin who started this mess had to step in and shut down the mailing list. She sent a really snarky email too, even to people like me who had unsubscribed already (I unsubscribed, why am I getting more crap from you morons!) lambasting the sheep for sending stupid messages to the list that clearly were unproductive and not getting them unsubscribed. I don’t know why she’s getting all uppity: yes, the lusers were being moronic, but that’s what end users do, even scientists (especially old scientists). She’s the one that caused all the pain to begin with via the completely unsolicited mailing list. It’s like those telemarketers who call and then act all put out and snotty when you actually answer the phone, and you’re just like “hey bitch, you phoned me!”

So, Irene Karanasiou, for you, here are the rules:

  • Your first email to a mailing list informing people that they have been subscribed should be in the language you expect the list discussion to be conducted in. For safety, you should have unsubscribe options in English, encoded in standard Western/latin unicode at the bottom.
  • Your first email should include some sort of helpful introductory statement, indicating that you are a legit mailing list and not some spambot. Say who you are, spell out your cryptic acronyms, and above all else, say where it was you got the email address from (if the person ostensibly signed up themselves, say so, along with unsubscribe information in case they were added in error). Do not rely on a link to do this for you, especially if you haven’t actually put your website up yet. Doubly so if you have a “secure” website with your own non-standard security certificate.
  • You should have an email unsubscribe option, eg:, in addition to your web-based unsubscribe. In fact, the default should be that you need to reply/activate your subscription, otherwise you will not be added (i.e.: confirmed opt-in). Many mailing lists do that these days to prevent people from maliciously signing other people up for high-traffic lists.
  • Never, I repeat, never allow the default reply-to address to be the list itself. Make people manually type in the list address, with the reply-to as the author. Most of the time, people do not need to have their replies go to the group. This goes double — no make that one-hundred fold — for lists where signing up was not voluntary. You will always get some schmuck emailing the group at large to unsubscribe, especially if they never volunteered to be added.
  • And the last, great unwritten rule: never ever sign people up for an open discussion mailing list without their explicit consent. Ever! At most, send the unsolicited email saying that the list exists, invite them to join, then leave it at that!
  • Comments are closed.