The Heidelberg Writers Group

Why does my reply to the group mailing list go to the author, not the list?

Welcome to a sticky issue that has irked mailing-list administrators and list members alike for a very long time.

First of all, it is not an administrative oversight that the HWG mailing list is configured as it is (such that ordinary replies go to the author, not the list). On the contrary, it is a carefully considered choice. It is this administrator's view that such is the only correct choice to a conundrum that is all too little understood.

There is lots of external material on this bone of contention. I'll cite a couple of such later. First, though, let me give a summary that I hope is relatively unencumbered by technical jargon.

Let's not loose focus: it is acknowledged that the main purpose of a group mailing list is to facilitate communication among list members in a way practical and useful to them. When a fair number of list members have trouble in that they mistakenly email the lone sender when they intended to write the list, one understandable reaction might be: replies ought to go to the list. I want to exchange ideas with the list members, not just with a specific individual who wrote the list. In fact, the [insert some other list user knows about] list I'm on works just that way!

If you're nodding your head in agreement, please stop. If it were that easy, it'd be, well, easy. The problems are manifold. They start with how email programs are designed and include issues of safety, security, and privacy. I'll highlight only the most important, most obvious points here.

Email programs have different types of reply functionality. There are individual replies and group replies available in most any of them. More advanced programs have special added functionality, as well, such as dedicated list reply features. In any case, assuming your program is limited to replying to an individual sender or the entire group, it makes little sense to obviate that natural choice and externally force the "individual" reply to behave like a group reply.

For reasons of practicality, as well, things like out-of-office or vacation replies should not be reflected to the list. They will be, however, if the configuration of the list "overrides nature" and forces group replies. People ought not to be sending such auto-replies to list addresses, but it does happen (on badly configured lists, when users or mail administrators have invoked ill-thought-through blanket rules). If replies go to the group by default, then any one member's bad manners will annoy everyone.

For reasons of privacy and probity, as well, if a list administrator has tweaked his list to cause a normal reply to go to everyone, then a member who expects the traditional behavior in email can too easily reply with a remark he intended only for a private recipient. If that message is broadcast to the entire list, embarrassment may ensue.

Philosophically, a list should be as transparent as it can be. Just as you don't want (I don't think) postal inspectors crossing out addresses you write and inserting their own choice for where your letter should be delivered, you also don't want the list administrator to make a similar presumption. You are writing your email. You can and should control where it's going. Tradition – yes, newfangled email has its established traditions – insists that "reply" go to the writer. To address everyone, use "group reply" (or more advanced list features, if your program has them).

One minor problem about replying to "group" does arise, however: the typical email program then inserts both the list address and the original sender's address into the To-field. Now the party whose message you're responding to will get two copies of your reply. That, we grant, is annoying. The solution requires you as the sender to use some thought. (We continue to hope this small requirement does not render the entire strategy unworkable!) You should delete the individual address from the To-field; your recipient will get his copy with the list mail.1

In short, you as a reasonably intelligent, thoughtful contributor to a group discussion have a bit of responsibility to learn a modicum of the basic functionality of your email program — rather than forcing an imperfect, dangerous solution on the list out of some misapprehension of personal convenience.

Here, and here, are two links to external commentary that I found to be worthwhile on this topic. In a related vein, please also see this link; in particular, Section 2.4 therein.

1Or use an advanced mail program that understands lists and how to reply to them!

— D.R. [ver. 1.02]