The news that Yahoo! were to close their YahooGroups service (Yahoo! to close mailing lists? | Notes from underground) has provoked a frantic search for alternatives, one of the most popular being Groups.io, which I believe was set up a few years ago when Yahoo! imported a new whizz-kid manager who totally misunderstood the medium, and messed the site up so as to make it unusable.Yahoo made a half-hearted attempt to repair the damage, but now seems to have given up entirely.
YahooGroups and GoogleGroups were the largest public mailing list servers on the Internet, and with YahooGroups closing some have suggested migrating to GoogleGroups, but many more have suggested using Facebook Groups instead. I think that is a very bad idea, and will try to explain that here, rather than having to retype the explanation every time anyone makes such a suggestion. Marshall McLuhan once wrote a book called Understanding Media, and though he never envisaged these media, it is still important to understand these media and what they are good for and, even more important, what they are not good for.
Facebook Groups versus Mailing lists
People who are relatively new to the Internet may not realise what mailing lists are, so I’ll try to explain that first.
A mailing list is run by a list server (sometimes called “listserv” for short). It works by e-mail. You send an e-mail to the list server, and the list server sends it on to all the people who have subscribed to that list. You can reply either to the list, or to the original sender. Off-topic replies are best sent privately, on-topic replies are best sent to the list, then all members of the list will see the replies, as they will show up in their e-mail inbox, to be read or deleted or saved as desired,
The main purpose of a mailing list is discussion. You can see what someone says, and respond to particular points, and others can respond to what you say.
Facebook Groups are not really suited for discussion. I know that people have tried to use them that way, but they are a very poor substitute for mailing lists. Facebook Groups are best suited for announcements and ephemera. Announce a book release, an article, or a blog post in a Facebook group for people who might be interested in knowing about it. Announce an event and publicise things — a church service, a lecture, an art exhibition, a play. They are OK for news items.
What Facebook Groups are not good for is discussion.
First of all, Facebook has an algorithm that limits what you see. It will show you only certain posts from certain groups and people. If people respond to it, it shows you only certain comments. It may notify you that “So and so commented on a post that you are following in X group”, but it doesn’t tell you the topic of the post. And if you do click on that, half the time you don’t see any comments from so and so, and you have to hunt up and down the page until you see a tiny faint line saying something like “5 more comments”. You click on that, but it has no comments from so and so. You go back and hunt up and down and eventually you find another faint little line somewhere on the page saying “See more comments”. In the midst of all that activity, Facebook of course is busy showing you ads and other stuff to distract you and in the end you forget whose comment you were looking for and what topic it was on.
And then, assuming that Facebook does show you the post, you don’t have time to read it now, and you think you’ll come back to it later. O fatal, fatal error! Because when you try to come back to it later, you’ll never find it again, and spend an hour searching for it, and in the mean time see lots of ads earning lots of lovely lolly for Facebook, and see other interesting things to click on. It’s like looking up words in a dictionary — you spot another interesting word, and look at that, and see an interesting word in its definition and look that up and then forget what word you were looking for when you started. Or, perhaps a more apt analogy, Facebook is like a taxi driver at an airport, who takes the newly arrived tourist on the longest possible route to his destination, pointing out all the scenic attractions, which happen to be not hills and lakes and forests, but billboards, hoardings and tourist trap shops.
So what happens with a mailing list? A message appears in my inbox. If I don’t have time to read it now, as soon as I close my inbox, my mail reader program (which computer nerds like to call a “client”, would that I could bill it!) sorts it into a folder with all other saved messages from that mailing list. I can go back to it in an hour’s time and read and reply to it. Of I can go tomorrow, or next week or next month or next year. If someone asks a question on a mailing list, and I find the answer in three months time, I can go back and give them the answer. Try doing that on Facebook and you’ll spend the next three months looking for it, wasting bandwidth and of course increasing their ad revenue. It usually takes about 30 seconds to find the message on my computer and it uses no Internet bandwidth.
So no, Facebook Groups are no substitute for mailing lists. They were designed to serve a different purpose, and they are good for that. Use the right tool for the job. You can open tin of peaches with a scewdriver and a rock if you don’t have a tin opener, but if a tin opener is available, why not use it?
A few years ago there was a newsgroup called rec.arts.books (a newsgroup is a little like a mailing list, but not quite — it works on linked news servers rather than a single mailing list server). It had interesting book discussions and reviews. Then someone had a bright idea — let’s move it to a Facebook Group where we can post pretty pictures. So they did, and about half of them moved to the Facebook Group, which they called, appropriately enough, The Prancing Half-Wits. It died, mainly for the reasons described above. Only about 20% of the people would see each post, specially chosen by Facebook’s algorithms, and even fewer saw the comments. And rec.arts.books limps along, because most of the creative and interesting people left for Facebook.