Reply to All – Or Reply to Sender?

In response to my ‘2 Posts Per Day = A Restriction on Free Speech?‘ post, Andy Roberts posted another complaint about how E-Democracy.Org forums use “reply to sender” as opposed to “reply to group.” This resulted in an exchange between Andy Roberts and Steve clift – which ended up on Andy’s Blog.

“The fear of accident is a red herring which discloses a predisposition towards privacy rather than openness”


“Thousands of youth in newham have MySpace and facebook accounts, but are in my opinion extremely unlikely to adopt the practice of denying spontaneity and consciousy complying with counter intuitive instructions to try and make a seriously uncool medium work for social groups. Is it deliberate policy to disenfranchise them in order not to embarrass the occasional big wig who doesn’t know what he’s doing?”

I’d like to comment on this myself. I have a couple of points to make.

I’ll start with Andy’s assumption that the “reply to sender” default is somehow counter intuitive. I’d like to argue that for many listserve novices, that the opposite is true. Whenever our forums have experimented with setting our forums as “reply to group,” we’ve always seem to get messages from participants that were intended to be private but ended up posted to the entire group. Sometimes these are personally embarassing and often they are disruptive to the existing discussion. The kinds of things that we’ve seen, look something like this:

    “Hey Bob. Great to hear from you, we really ought to meet for coffee”
    “Colleen. I just wanted to let you know, that I’m quietly considering a run for city council, what do you think?” (after 400 people read this message, the consideration was no longer quiet)
    “Can you believe Judy’s post. What an idiot!”
    “Peter, did you get the note about the staff meeting next Tuesday. We’re really hoping that you can make it.”
    “Tim, I can’t figure out how to send a message to the Issues Forum. Can you help?”

Many of our users are signing up for their very first listserve and are still struggling to get the hang of how it works. Many still don’t understand what a listserve is. Having their first message to the entire forum, be an accidental post that they thought was private – is not a very good way of welcoming them into the world of digital democracy.

To these users, the “reply to group” option is far from intuitive. In fact, I would argue that the “reply to group” option is something that many of us have learned over years of online participation (yet, I’m still burned by it once or twice a year) and is biased in favor of those who are internet savy, like the young MySpace users that Andy references above.

At E-Democracy.Org, we are somewhat fixated on email listserve capabilities, because it is the lowest common denominator in terms of internet tools. Anyone who has made it onto the internet probably has some experience with email. However, many of our users don’t even know what a listserve is, when they sign up for our forums. What they know, is that they are looking for a place to talk about issues that are important to them. They often learn how the forum works through their participation.

We seldom get complaints about this setting from our internet newbies. Rather, most all of the complaints we get are from long term listserve users, who are upset about having to change habits that they have developed over many years of internet use.

Finally, I’d like to point out – that comparing a local Issues Forum to most other online groups is difficult. The biggest difference, and probably the most critical, is that by design participants in a local Issues Forum often share nothing in common, except that they live in the same city/area and have an interest in public discussion. Many folks in our forums are there for the express purpose of debating, discrediting, and/or defeating their political opponents. Its partially our goal to support this kind of discussion (along with the more cooperative kind), yet at the same time, keep it civil. This creates a very different culture or climate than one finds on other listserves where folks have joined to discuss some common interest, skill, or even occupation.

Some things that seem very intuitive in other forums are less so in a local Issues Forum, given the goals and nature of the forum. For example – it is not our goal to encourage as much discussion as possible. Rather, we intentially put up barriers to participation – that are strategically designed to improve the quality of the discussion and promote diversity in the forum (even at potential expense of quantity). Some of these “barriers” are more effective than others. Almost all of them, including the “reply to sender” setting, have their opponents.

I frequently talk to people about why they do or do not participate in local Issues Forums – and despite the complaints mentioned by Andy, it almost always comes down to:

1) The quality of the discussion
2) Does the discussion matter?
Are decision makers paying attention?
3) The diversity of the participants

All of our Issues Forum policies ought to be evaluated against these goals.

I’d challenge Andy or anyone else to provide examples of other online forums using the more traditional approaches that Andy defends, that have been as successful at attracting and holding the attention of local decision makers, politically diverse members of the community, and local media – over a sustained period of time.

I’ll close by saying, that all of this is as much art as it is science. I find the debate very healthy and welcome the opportunity to talk (or blog) about these issues.

Any comments?

NOTE: This is not my personal blog, although I am the most active poster on it. Rather, its intended as the official E-Democracy.Org blog (with some of my personal opinions in it).

One thought on “Reply to All – Or Reply to Sender?”

  1. What we need here is an option to be settable by each group member to set the default response-list. Beginners certainly prefer the safer option, and thus no end of flamewars can be prevented at source. However, its always good to help pompous pricks fall on their arses IMO. Helping people is good kharma :-). More experienced users will probably prefer the ‘reply All’ option for all the good reasons that Andy has stated. But there are some folks, no matter how experienced they get, can’t help but seem to keep putting their feets in their mouths and so should but often dont remain in Beginner mode. Hope this makes sense, need to get some shuteye soon.

    cheers, Ian

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