This paper compares and contrasts newsgroups and a mailing list discussing a similar class of topics. The newsgroups are comp.lang.java.help and comp.lang.java.programmer. The mailing list is firstname.lastname@example.org. There are many newsgroups and mailing lists that discuss java topics. The reason I chose these groups and this list is because they provide a forum to discuss similar and in many cases the exact same problems.
Over the past year, the mailing list has averaged 819 postings/month, ranging from 41 to 1310/month. The news groups receive significantly more postings. It is difficult to compare exact numbers between the groups and the list, for the groups are segmented into more categories (java.advocacy, java.announce, java.beans, java.cobra, java.databases, java.gui, java.help, java.machine, java.programmer, java.security, java.softwaretools). The postings on programmer and help groups each alone surpass those on this mailing list.
The groups and list have many similarities. Firstly, they discuss similar aspects of java with respect to development, new products, evaluation of virtual machines, browsers, etc. They are also both organized so that they may be read in a thread-like fashion. The mailing list not only sends messages to subscribers, but also has an archived format similar to that in newsgroups. The audience for both these discussions ranges from student to professional programmers. (This assumption was based on domain names.) This is not surprising due to the nature of the content.
There are also significant differences between the groups and the list. Firstly, there is far more traffic on the news groups than on the mailing list. When threads do catch on, the threads as well as the responses tend to be longer in the mailing list than on the newsgroup.
Also, despite the appearance that the audience is similar among the groups and the list, there is little overlap of distinct members. That is, although some members post to both java.help, java.programmers, as well as advanced-java, they are few. In many of the cases where this does happen, they are more likely to get a response from the mailing list.
The newsgroup also tends to receive more 'outside' postings. For example, postings that advertise classes, job postings, and certification exams. There is relatively little backlash from such postings.
Another major difference is that the list makes a point of describing what types of questions it intends to address: ``This list is for discussing the development of full-blown applications written in Java (as opposed to applets). It is not an appropriate place to ask beginner's questions.'' In fact, one of the few sources of bitterness on the list arises when beginner's questions are asked or when advertisements are made.
Recently, someone asked the list a question that someone considered to be at a beginner level. The response they received was:While this is certainly a tough question for you, it is not an advanced question. Please post your questions to a more appropriate list, or take the time to reseach and solve the problem on your own. The ability to solve problems without being overly dependent on asking others is one skill separating good from average developers. The link to the FAQ for this very list is on the page: http://MetaDigest.XCF.Berkeley.EDU/archive/advanced-java/ This also has archives you can search. They could be a goldmine! It also has the List Description, which is: ....
Noting that this beginner's question added unwanted traffic to the list, a new thread started discussing the tactfulness of the response and how to deal with beginners' questions in the future.
Member B responded to the above message: \It is presumptuous to answer *a* question with the accusation that a person is being "overly dependent". Maybe this is the first question the person has asked? Maybe this person has already researched the question for days, and has simply been looking in the wrong places? Other people should be considered an excellent resource for solving a problem, because they can assume what you mean, they can provide educated guesses, they can recommend other sources... something that books and search engines cannot do.
Member A:.. . This list is a democracy. Someone once said, "The price of democracy is eternal vigilance."
Member B:It is? When did we vote on making you content monitor?
After several interchanges, Member A, suggested the beginners' disclaimer be:This is not an advanced question. In order to be courteous to others and increase your personal understanding of Java, please avail yourself of the other resources that you have available to you (including the resources listed below) before you post to this group.
The public remarks about this gradually decreased, yet there was no firm acceptance.
Conversely, the news groups freely answer questions of all levels. Many times the posters refer to themselves as 'newbies'.
Overall, neither the mailing list nor the news group have many 'arguments'. They almost never occur due to a chosen solution to a programming question. There is a certain level of respect associated with members' abilities and suggestions, and although there are critiques of certain methods, they are not discounted. If there is a thread involving an in depth critique, it sometimes migrates to the domain of private mail.
The list has a moderator, whose duty is not to screen postings, but to preserve some sense of order in the list. It is rare that they have to impose their powers onto the list. Again, in this list, many of the complaints are handled privately. (This is known because it has surfaced at rare intervals). Many times, when inappropriate questions are asked, there seems to be a mutual agreement to ignore them.
The technical questions that arise on both the list and the groups are sporadic. They are posted when suggestions are needed. Sometimes they are answered privately or not at all, in which case a thread is not started. If a thread begins, it usually ends when it is determined whether or not a solution is possible. In both the list and the groups, approximately two or three people participate in a thread. Greetings are rare in responses. Code is almost always copied in the replies with documentation where appropriate. The messages primarily ask or answer a question, and don't waste many words.
Familiar names appear more frequently on the mailing list, and as such, people tend to be more familiar with each other. This is further compounded by the fact that messages get sent to the members when they are posted as opposed to the newsgroups where you see them only when you set out to. Therefore, the list seens to be more tightly knit that the newsgroups. I do not know the exact number of people on the mailing list. The number of participants in the discussions appears to be smaller, however, there may be many more listenters or others who only frequent the archives.
The personality of the posters is inferred through the tone, accuracy, complexity, and signature or domain address in their messages. Readers are likely to remember who gives reliable, detailed responses and will increase the reputation level of the member in their model of the person.
As the list has evolved, certain members have emerged as monitors as seen earlier with the example of the response to a question. I have not seen this as frequently in the newsgroups.
Both forums are excellent resources for problems - people use them both for different reasons. Some users see them as goal-oriented. That is, they go there only for the answer to a particular problem. Some listen frequently to further their own understanding and to keep up with the new announcements. Others like to help. With both, it is a battle to keep up with all the postings encountered per day. Despite the numbers, the mailing list appears to have more unity. Perhaps it is because people chose to be a member of this group, it may be a difference in population within the group, or because the messages arrive through a more direct channel.