Email tip: Just because you get answers when you misuse a mailing list doesn’t doesn’t mean you should continue to misuse it

A few years ago, there was a question on a mailing list for topic X, but the question was about unrelated topic Y. The question was nevertheless answered by the people on the topic X mailing list out of the kindness of their hearts (above and beyond the heart-sourced kindness that powers most mailing lists in the first place). I pointed out that the question really had nothing to do with topic X, and consequently the Y-Users list was a better place for the question.

The person responded,

Yes, I know, but X-Users always provides a quick reply and a quick solution.

In other words, the person was sending questions to the X-Users mailing list knowing full well that the question was not appropriate for the mailing list, but just relying on the fact that the members of the X-Users list are kind-hearted people who will help out even if the topic lies outside their area.

I pointed out, "You can call 9-1-1 to get driving directions quickly, but it's probably not the right things to do."

Comments (11)
  1. John says:

    You mean Microsoft’s mailing lists don’t have a team of people writing backward compatibility shims for specific users?

  2. benjamin says:

    I like how people that do this apparently aren’t familiar with the concept of tragedy of the commons. If they keep asking questions in a newsgroup that’s generally kind-hearted, all it’s going to do is burn out the participants and make them less likely to answer questions of all types in the future.

  3. Art says:

    Several years back we were writing custom controls right and left and we’d just switched to using ATL.  On one particularly complex control we faced an odd problem that we just couldn’t solve.  ATL was in flux and changing, documentation was still sparce, and searches of the KB, Internet, Usenet, and listservs turned up nothing. No one else was mentioning the problem, much less the solution.

    I subscribed to the controls list, provided details, and asked for help there. None came as the list was nearly dead by then, so all I got from the few diehards remaining was a recommendation to ask on the ATL list because it wasn’t a known or believed control problem.

    I subscribed to the ATL list, provided details, and asked if anyone had any suggestions.  Within minutes half a dozen people jumped my case telling me that wasn’t the proper list and to go to the controls list.  Knowing all lists have such smucks, I replied, explaining nicely that I had been on the control’s list, that they’d told me I needed to come there, and that this wasn’t specifically a control issue but an ATL issue.

    Within an hour I was attacked again, multiple times, and told it’s off topic and to stay off the list.  Then I was berated by others for replying in the first place and the moderator told me to drop it or be banned, in not so nice terms. I’d written three posts, one presenting the problem, the one answering, and a final one explaining why I believed it to be an ATL issue.

    Anyway, we couldn’t solve the problem or the quirky behavior it caused but fortunately we had another opportunity and moved on.  It was a couple years later before enough others had experienced the quirks that someone more skilled investigated and discovered it to be a deep but subtle flaw in ATL which had to be fixed in the next major release.

    So, sometimes the ones misusing the mailing lists aren’t the ignorant newbies.

    An interesting aside… the resumes of two of those wankers eventually crossed my department manager’s desk.  Both of them were dropped from consideration soley on the basis of their behavior in the lists.  Had either of them been hired they would’ve nearly doubled their salary.

  4. Ray Trent says:

    That reminds me, how do I wait for an event in a thread that has to keep processing Windows messages?


  5. Miral says:

    I’m unconvinced that 911 would actually give you driving directions.  Unless perhaps you were trying to get to a hospital or police station.  Or Hades.  ;)

  6. Dirk D says:

    Mostly disagree. Obviously what is right and wrong here is situational –

    Say the subject of the list was MS Exchange, and the question was about linux. One of the members of the exchange list happened to be a linux user at home, and asnwered. In this case, the person should realize she got lucky and not make the Exchange list their go to spot for future linux questions.

    On the other hand, supposing we’re talking about internal mailing lists for a large company. Say someone asks their question on the appropriate list, and gets back nothing useful, because the people on it are lazy or have their heads up their asses. On the other hand, the question asker knows another group within the company that has their s**t together, and doesn’t mind replying when they know the answer.

    If you ask me, she should definitely keep going back to the useful, helpful people. If following "official channels" is futile, you can and should use alternatives.

    For instance, when I have trouble with a Microsoft technology, sure, I could call an 800 number, and maybe if I’m lucky get an answer hours and headaches later. On the other hand, I never do – I google and find the other frustrated user or users that hit the same problem and blogged about how they got around it.

    Lastly, I think the "calling 911 for driving directions" is a rather poor and extreme analogy for asking questions on an electronic mailing list.

  7. Anonymous Coward says:

    >Ray Trent

    asm { jmp -2 }

    Hey, don’t give me that! It does exactly what you asked for. It waits for the event. Indefinitely, even after it is triggered. No, it doesn’t process messages, but you only asked for something that waited in a thread that has to process messages, not for something that waits while processing messages, so it’s still within specification. :-)

  8. Vilx- says:

    … and that’s why they have invented internet forums today. Way superior to the classical mailing lists. :)

  9. Aaron G says:

    Unfortunately, the type of person who behaves this way (and it’s usually a cross-post, not just a wrong-area-post) is precisely the type of person whom you simply can’t get through to.  Not with a blog post, not with a bludgeon.

    The corollary is also true: if someone posts something off-topic or inappropriate or just against the rules, and even one person chooses to answer it sincerely, the bar has officially been lowered and it encourages not only the same person, but other people to abuse the list in the future.

    Although there will always be people who do it anyway, disregarding any history, so I wonder if it’s worse to have 50 off-topic answered questions or 10 off-topic unanswered questions and 2 or 3 flame wars.

  10. I can receive my e-mail fine, but when I go into an e-mail, read it, then X out to go back to my inbox the e-mail that I was just reading disappears.  I look in my deleted e-mails and it is not there either.  It just disappears and I do not know where it goes.  I thought when exiting out of an e-mail and returning to your inbox then that e-mail stays there until deleted.  Need help please!

  11. To Valery says:

    Valery, start by turning off your machine.  Forever.

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