|Published by NetAction||Issue No. 44||November 1, 1998|
Email lists just may be the most useful technology tool available to Internet activists. Or, they can be an activist's biggest headache. The key to success is as much in knowing what NOT to do, as in knowing what TO do. Use an email list in accordance with the mostly unwritten rules of Netiquette, and you instantly reach hundreds, perhaps even thousands, of people around the world. But if you violate the rules of Netiquette, you're likely to get flamed, and your messages could wind up being filtered directly into the recipient's trash file. You also run the risk of having readers complain to your Internet Service Provider (ISP), which means your domain may be treated as spam and added to the Realtime Blackhole list (see http://maps.vix.com/rbl/).
As Election Day approaches, my "In Box" has been overflowing with multiple copies of activist political messages. Unfortunately, some of these communications are likely to generate more annoyance than activism. (See the tips for avoiding spam in Part 2 of NetAction's Virtual Activist web site, at: http://www.netaction.org/training/part2a.html.
I'm especially concerned about the growing number of "ad hoc" email lists that many grassroots activists have created by stringing together a long list of electronic addresses in the "TO" or "CC" field. In some cases, I've had to scroll through three or four screens worth of names to get to the message. This can be avoided if the sender lists all the electronic addresses in the "BCC" field so they are hidden from the recipients.
This has two advantages. First, whatever information is being forwarded appears at the top of the screen when the recipient opens the message -- so even a quick glance will convey information. This increases the likelihood that the message will actually get read, especially by people who get large numbers of email messages every day. Also, by keeping the recipients' email addresses private, the sender reduces the odds that those addresses will wind up in the hands of commercial spammers. Just as many people prefer an unlisted telephone number, many Internet users prefer not to disclose their email address. Finally, it means that if one of the recipients writes back to the sender, the message doesn't wind up going out to everyone who received the original message.
There also seems to be a growing problem of email list abuse among activists and organizations that use email list software, such as the Majordomo software NetAction uses to distribute this newsletter. For example, an increasing number of organizations seem to be subscribing people to such lists without their permission. The software can be used to set up one-way lists for distribution of newsletters and action alerts, or as discussion lists with two-way communication. (See the "Email Tools" section of the Virtual Activist site http://www.netaction.org/training/ for a discussion of the various types of lists that can be created.)
The problems I've observed have mostly been with one-way lists used to distribute newsletters and other types of communication. Some organizations aren't bothering to invite subscribers when they install this software and set up a new list. Instead, they make up a list by subscribing whatever email addresses they have on hand, then send out a message welcoming the new "subscribers" and informing them that they can unsubscribe if they don't wish to receive further communications. This "opt out" approach to list development is a bad idea because it puts the burden on the "subscriber" to remove themselves from a list they didn't ask to be on in the first place.
A better approach is to invite Internet users to subscribe to the new list by distributing an invitational message to lists and news groups on related topics, posting subscription information on your organization's web site, and including subscription information in any flyers and newsletters you distribute by snail mail or hand out at meetings.
Another problem I've observed with email list software is the posting of administrative requests to a list, rather than to the list owner. This is only a problem on unmoderated discussion lists, where all subscribers can post directly to the list. The most common administrative request that gets posted is a request to be unsubscribed, or to be subscribed at a different email address. This happens most often because the subscriber didn't save the directions for subscribing and unsubscribing which he or she received after joining the list.
List owners can help subscribers avoid this by routinely including brief directions on how to unsubscribe, or who to contact for help, as a standard item in every message, or by providing a URL that directs readers to a web site where this information is provided. (See the About NetAction Notes section of this newsletter for an example of this.) Of course,subscribers can avoid having to ask for help in unsubscribing by saving the list instructions for future reference whenever they subscribe to a new list.
Occasionally, I hear from people who want to unsubscribe from a list to which I've posted one of NetAction's newsletters. An Internet user can post to any unmoderated list to which he or she is subscribed. But being able to post to a list is not the same thing as controlling the list. Only the list's owner can remove a subscriber. So sending an unsubscribe request to the last person who posted a message, or to the entire list, isn't going to get you off the list, and it may annoy other readers. If you haven't saved the directions on how to unsubscribe, and you don't know who owns the list, you will need to look at the full message header to find this information.
On a related matter, NetAction is pleased to announce that we have received a grant from Pacific Telesis to support periodic updates to our Virtual Activist online training course. We welcome readers' suggestions for new topics to address, or links to include. Send comments to .
A new tool is available on the web for non-profit organizations that need a membership database to track contributions and donor demographics. The tool is ebase, a database template that any nonprofit organization can adopt to its needs. In addition to its database functions, ebase can be used to print envelopes and mailing labels and generate customized merge letters, including personalized email messages to subsets of the organization's membership list.
Copies can be downloaded from the web at: http://www.ebase.org/. Manuals and online help are also available. The data base was developed by Desktop Assistance with support from several foundations.
A word of caution: Before an organization can download the database, they must provide their IRS identification number, address and phone number, and a valid email address so the ebase developers can send you a secret URL and password for the real download. Some organizations may not be willing to provide all this information, since a valid email address is the only item that is truly needed.
NetAction tried contacting the ebase developers at the email address listed on the product announcement, to ask why they needed the requested information. The response was an automatic reply that repeated the product announcement. There was no email address or telephone number that got us in contact with a human being. Since we haven't tried the product, we can't provide a recommendation.
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