The main weakness with email is its main strength. The wonderful thing about email is that every individual can have an email address and an inbox. The terrible thing about email is that a group can not have an email address or an inbox.
Email is an individual-centric medium. That makes it a great medium for one-to-one, and one-to-many communication, but a rather poor one for many-to-many communication. This creates a dilemma. Much of our work and learning takes place in groups, in discussions with multiple contributors, and multiple concurrent conversations. Email is the default medium that people use for online communication, but collaboration tools are often web-based, with poor support for email. At best, you can be notified by email of new posts, but you must visit the web interface to make your own post.
Of course, you can use reply-to-all for group collaboration. In this mode, each person who posts a reply-to-all member must maintain a copy of the membership list of the group.
GroupServer, Mailman, Google Groups and other Mailing List Managers set out to address this problem by providing an email address and an inbox for a group. The system has an entity for the group. That entitystores the membership list for the group, forwards messages to the members, and keeps an archive of those messages.
Here is an example. The NZ Open Government Ninjas is a group of 120-odd black-clad deadly warriors of the web who are working on Open Government projects. Anyone who considers themselves to meet this criterion can join the Ninjas.
Once you are a member of the Ninjas, you can email all the other Ninjas with a single email address firstname.lastname@example.org. The system takes care of sending the email to the group members. It also shows you email in an online inbox for the group. The default view for that online inbox is a list of Topics (emails with the same subject line). This view makes it easy to track multiple concurrent conversations.
An individual topic, for example the Open data workshop, 29 July topic, contains all the posts with the same subject line, arranged for reading in chronological order. You can also view all the last posts in full on a single page, or a summary of the latest posts. Finally, you can search the posts in the group’s inbox, or view files that have been posted to the group.
The group’s inbox stores the messages and files that belong to a group, in the same way that an individual’s inbox does so for an individual. This means that group members do not have to manage that content themselves, and that any member can visit and browse a single authoritative repository of the group’s content.
This simple step of giving the group the basic features of email, an email address and an inbox, enables group members to hold multiple concurrent conversations, using the client they are familiar with: email.