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MIT aim to re-think the mailing list


The apparent demise of email has been on the cards now for an incredibly long time, with a whole raft of enterprise software vendors proclaiming that their systems offer an infinitely better way of communicating.

Alas, email has proven pretty dogged and refuses to go away, despite there obvious disadvantages.

A recent MIT project has set out to try and enhance the humble mailing list with many of the features that we’ve grown familiar with on various social networks.

The project, which they’ve called Murmur, is documented via a paper that the researchers behind the venture have recently published.

Redesigning email

“Email occupies a strange space between work and play, where it’s inherently more professional than something like Twitter, but will still include content that’s not directly work-related,” the authors say. “Even if you set guidelines for a mailing list, it can be difficult to get everyone on the same page, which leads to some users feeling inbox overload and others wishing there was more substantive discussion.”

In an attempt to provide a better alternative, the MIT team created an email experience that they believe is as customizable as our social media experiences.

For instance, respondents they spoke to suggested they would love to have meaningful conversations online, but were worried about starting them in case they were regarded as spammers.

On Murmur, these folks could test out their content with a small group of trusted friends, who could like the topic (or not).  Sufficient likes would then see it spread to a wider audience.  The aim is to make the whole email experience more facilitating for worthwhile conversations.

“Mailing lists have their roots in some of the world’s earliest conversations about key topics like programming and technology,” the authors say. “They remain an integral avenue for communications, and so I think it’s important that we make the necessary tweaks to keep them vital and relevant.”

Interruption fatigue

Another common complaint with email lists is that we receive far too many of them, with the frequent interruptions destroying our productivity.  The MIT team therefore built the capacity for people to select how many messages they’d like to receive, whilst also allowing users to mute particular topics or users.

“It’s interesting to revisit the idea of mailing lists and what is it about this antique tool that people can’t give up,” they say. “What’s great about the team’s system is that it’s still preserving the qualities of email that people find attractive, but also borrowing the features from social media that make it so successful.”

The approach taken by the Murmur team places control firmly in the hands of each user.  They regard their approach as differing from the more paternalistic approach taken by Google et al who use algorithms to better understand our mailbox.

Is Murmur the answer to all of our communication woes?  I suspect not, but it’s an interesting attempt to tackle what remains a very real problem in our working lives.

If you’d like to be kept in the loop about progress on the project, you can do so via the Murmur mailing list (and yes, they do appear to be using their own platform).

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