Don’t email me

Why I insist on people to keep issues on the mailing list(s)

A recent twitter discussion I had with Andrei Neculau contributed to his blog post on this subject, basically arguing that I’m wrong but with many words and explanations.

It triggered me to write up my primary reasons for why I strongly object to handle open source issues, questions and patches privately (for free) in open source projects that I have a leading role in.

1. I spend a considerable amount of my spare time on open source projects. I devote some 15-20 unpaid hours a week for those communities. By emailing me and insisting on a PRIVATE conversation you’re suddenly yanking the mutex flag and you’re now requesting that I spend parts of this time on YOU ALONE and not the rest of the community. That’s selfish.

2. By insisting on a private conversation you FORCE me to repeat myself since ideas and questions are rarely unique or done for the first time. So you have a problem or a question that’s very similar to one I just responded to. And the next person will ask the same one tomorrow. By insisting on doing them in public already in the first email, already the second person can read it without me having to write it twice. And the third person who didn’t even realize he was interested in that topic will find out and read it as well (either now when the mail gets sent out or even years later when that user find the archived mailing list on the web). Private emails deny that ability. That’s selfish.

3. By emailing me privately and asking questions and help, you assume that I am the single best person to ask this question at this given time. What if I happen to be on vacation, be under a rough period at work or just not know the particular area of the project very good. I may be the leader or a public person of a project, but I may still not know much about feature X for operating system Z about which you ask. Ask on the list at once and you’ll reach the correct person. That’s more efficient.

4. By emailing me privately, you indirectly put a load on me to reply – or to get off as a rude person. Yes you’re friendly and you ask me nicely and yet even after you remind me after a few days I STILL DON’T RESPOND. Even if I just worked five 16-hour work days and you asked questions I don’t know the answer to… That’s inefficient and rude.

5. Using pull requests on github? That could’ve been good if github would’ve been better. Right now, posting a pull request will only send that to the few persons who are listed as “collaborators” for that repository – which may reach more than a single person so it still better than to a private person but on the mailing list there may be THOUSANDS of people that can read and comment and provide feedback on patches and issues. That’s inefficient and forces OTHERS to have to do the work instead and forward stuff to the list.

6. Yes, you can say that subscribing to an email list can be daunting and flood you with hundreds or thousands of emails per month – that’s completely true. But if you only wanted to send that single question or submit the single issue, then you can unsubscribe again quite soon and escape most of that load. Then YOU do the work instead of demanding someone else to do it for you. When you want to handle a SINGLE issue, it is much better load balancing if you do the extra work and the people who do tens or HUNDREDS of issues per month in the project do less work per issue.

7. You’re suggesting that I could forward the private question to the mailing list? Yes I can, but then I need to first ask for permission to do so (or be a jerk) and if the person who sent me the mail is going to send me another mail anyway, (s)he can just as well spend that time to send the first mail to the list instead of say YES to me and then make me do his or hers work. It’s just more efficient. Also, forwarded questions tend to end up so that replies and follow-up questions don’t find their way back to the original poster and that’s bad.

8. I propose and use different lists for different purposes to ease the problem with too many (uninteresting) emails.

12 Responses to “Don’t email me”

  1. Carl Winbäck Says:

    Very well put!

    My take-away from this post is that it’s all about effecient communication. I think you have made a solid case and I agree with all these points.

    Regarding #6: If one have a decent mail client, creating rules that will sort mailing list messages in separate folder is very easy and than it’s no big deal to subscribe even to high-volume lists. I use Gmail and it works really well in this regard.

  2. Andrei Neculau Says:

    Thanks for your reply.

    FWIW I believe this is a misunderstanding, and I explained briefly why at the bottom of my original post.

    Just a few extra pointers:

    5. Anyone can be notified of all GitHub issues IFF they watch a repo, instead of starring it. And even if it wasn’t like this, there are ~simple solutions IFTTT, Yahoo! Pipes, etc. “if X would’ve been better” doesn’t reason with me in 2013, for whatever information is online (i.e. public), but that’s just me.

    6.1. The “quite soon” is relative. If it means 2 weeks on the HTTP WG list, that’s ~150 “junk” emails. No thanks.

    6.2. Subscribing and unsubscribing is not at the tip of 1 click, so no – if you treasure your time you won’t consider doing and undoing, again and again.

    6.3. Am I really saying that I’d like the core group to do more work? Because I do not. To exemplify: since owning/watching a repo on Github is like subscribing to a mailing list, the amount of work is 100% the same. Am I missing something?

    7. “Email copyright” is indeed a can of worms, albeit talking hands on – opensource issues – IMHO this goes under being more catholic than the pope. But to stick to my point – I can only see it as nitpicking, albeit involuntarily. I didn’t argue “to do X”, but “to consider X”, and I have continued that paragraph with disadvantages for doing X, where X was not just forwarding private email, but also linking to a tweet or saying “I was in a bar last night, and a smartass said why don’t you do it like this? and now that I sobered up, I still think he has a good point”.

    8. That’s an alternative, yes, but it’s missing the point long term: “the contributors should choose the granularity of participation/notifications”, and not the owner. If you split a mailing list in 2, and then I want to contribute with 0.000001% to each of the two “domains”, then we’re back to square 1.

    Again, a misunderstanding. I can honestly hope you see it.

    Thank you.

  3. Daniel Stenberg Says:

    Andrei, I’m not necessarily saying that you’re wrong. I used this blog post to clarify my position and what I think is the (most) efficient way.

    I firmly believe that a mailing list is much easier and better than a hostile github “star a repo” approach. That’s what I personally want and use when I participate short-time in other projects. Of course a lot of this is about taste and preference and not what’s “best”.

    Recall that my initial tweet that you responded to was me reacting to private emails that I think should’ve been sent to the mailing list.

  4. kikito Says:

    The irony is that now that you have posted this online, you can answer every private request with “Please use the mailing list. Explanation: [this post's URL]“.

  5. JoachimS Says:

    One reason I see for people to send mail privately is that they are shy and don’t want to show how inept, clueless n00b they think they are.

    I’ve felt that way myself and have hesitated to jump into an established community with a (quite probably) simple question. This can be countered by (as you are Daniel) be gentle, welcome questions (again and again) and having a good FAQ that one in a friendly way can point to. I.e. not RTFM.

    One problem with a maillist is its searchabilty. I often end up on Stack Exchange simply because Google have indexed all questions there in a good way. Wikis are good too.

    But the main premise is spot on – private Q&A is bad for all of us in the long run. Loved the mutex.

  6. Anon Says:

    @Andrei:
    GMane lets you dip in and out of many mailing lists without having to subscribe.

  7. Jan Kotek Says:

    Had the same problem. I simply added statement to project readme that I might forward question to public lists. For private conversation I usually require donation.

  8. JoachimS Says:

    This discussion made it onto HN:

    https://news.ycombinator.com/item?id=6526098

    I guess the traffic here just spiked. ;-)

  9. Jonas B. Says:

    I don’t understand Andrei’s point. It seems like a five hundred word straw man.

    You don’t need to subscribe to a mailing list in order to post to it.

    Most people will keep you cc:d so you’d get notified of all replies, and only those replies that are relevant to your thread. That’s a courtesy, but if you are afraid to be left out just say “I’m not a subscriber so please cc me”, which is something a lot of people do every day on the heavier lists (such as the kernel list).

    Why should Daniel or anyone else act as his personal secretary and forward his mails to the relevant list(s)?

  10. Flappers Says:

    Well I wanted to put a constructive comment here, but I think I’ll just email it to you instead.

  11. Ant Bryan Says:

    amen.

    this seems to have started w/ HTTP2 involvement.

    there are legal reasons why things like IETF / standards work must be done in the open as well. http://www.ietf.org/about/note-well.html

    open standards ≠ open source!

  12. бацето Says:

    Very well said man, and very very true. Thank you for your work for the community.