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Interacting in professional fora

There are a bunch of online communities – mailing lists, Slack channels, etc. – where “people who do email” interact.

Some of them are open to anyone to subscribe, some of them are semi-private and require an invitation, others are closed and only available by invitation and yet others are associated with trade associations and only open to their members.

Many of them include representatives from ISPs, ESPs, reputation providers and technical specialists. They also – especially the open lists – have participants with no particular role in the industry, but very strong opinions on what others should do.

They’re a useful place to keep up to date on current issues and industry trends, and to get help when you need it. But … quite a lot of people reduce their chance of getting timely help by the way they behave there. Don’t be like those people.

Some of the things you should and shouldn’t do are specific to mailing lists. Some are specific to professional fora. Some are specific to entreating others for help. Here, in no particular order, are some suggestions:

 

DO: Be friendly. Be patient. Be welcoming. Be considerate. Be respectful.

DO: Be careful in the words that you choose.

DON’T: Be a dick.

DON’T: Be wildly unprofessional. If you think sexist or racist behaviour isn’t wildly unprofessional, leave the email industry. Ditto for unwanted sexual attention, personal insults, sexualized language or imagery.

DON’T: Harass people. If someone wants you to stop, then stop.

 

 

DO: Follow the community norms. Different communities have different styles and traditions – try and pick up on what they are, and avoid violating them.

DO: Follow the community norms for replying to messages, quoting them and trimming threads. If you’re not sure what they are then snipping out parts that aren’t relevant and replying in-line isn’t likely to offend anyone.

DO: Follow the level of formality of the community. Some are very formal, and should be treated much the same as a business meeting. Others much less so, and blend professional discussion with blowing off steam, ranting about idiot clients and social banter between friends.

DO: Lurk on the list for a day or three before posting to get a feel for how the community works (unless there’s a “welcome to the new person” thread). If you’ve joined because you have an immediate emergency you’re looking for help on, say so and be polite – maybe even a little apologetic – about it. Maybe spend five minutes checking the list archives first.

DON’T: Lurk except when you have a problem. Interacting with others when you’re not asking for help builds up relationships and karma. If you only appear when you’re looking for help, people are less likely to be helpful.

 

 

DO: Be clear about what company or organization, you’re affiliated with. That might mean using a corporate email address, mentioning it in a sig file or in a “Hi, I’ve just joined the group” message. Or it might mean including the relevant company name when asking for help. If, for political reasons, you absolutely cannot admit to your affiliations it’s still useful to know that you work for an unnamed major US cable company or an email provider based in Switzerland – particularly when you’re offering help or advice where your insight is coming from your experience in that role.

DO: Remember that the vast majority of the people you’re interacting with aren’t being paid to be there. They’re sharing their time and expertise in return for benefiting from others. Try to both give and take.

DO: Remember that a representative from a large ISP probably doesn’t have answering your questions or helping with your problem in their job description.

 

 

DON’T: Aggressively demand help. Nobody owes you anything.

DO: Read responses carefully. Someone may not be able to publicly join the dots on an issue for you, but may point out which dots you might want to look at.

DO: Understand limits. If someone says “our lawyers say this is the process you must follow” then follow that process. And don’t push that person to do things that their lawyers say they can’t do.

DO: Be aware that you’re interacting with people, not company representatives. They almost certainly have opinions that don’t reflect those of their organizations.

DO: Remember that nobody owes you support. Be nice. And if someone doesn’t volunteer help or stops responding, don’t badger them.

 

 

DO: Follow the community style for how you present your message. But … in general, mostly plain text won’t offend anyone, heavy use of rich text will annoy some people.

DON’T: Rely on rich text for meaning. It may not be visible to some people or not visible when quoted. “Look at the log lines highlighted in yellow” isn’t a good approach.

DON’T: Warlord. There’s no need for long legal disclaimers on your mail. Nor for more than four lines of signature – we don’t need to know your life history. Graphics are cheesy, even if they’re your employers professionally drawn logo. Even colour can be distracting if it’s not used carefully.

 

DON’T: Assume that you’re the best representative of your organization to interact with a community. If you’re a senior manager and you have a smart employee who is actively working in the area – they may be a better rep than you are.

 

DO: Be aware of how public a community is. Does it have a public archive that’s indexed by Google? Is it open subscription? Be aware of how public things you say are.

DO: Be aware of what is expected from you in terms of information distribution. Can things you learn from the community be shared elsewhere? With attribution, or not? If you’re not sure, don’t share information unless the person providing it OKs that – it’s always OK to ask if you’re not sure. Terms you might see are Traffic Light Protocol or Chatham House Rule.

 

DO: Assume good faith.

 

DO: Provide relevant information when looking for help or asking “has anyone else seen this?”.

DO: Check unread mail to a list before posting. If someone else is already talking about an issue, join that thread rather than starting your own.

DO: Check the archives first, if you can. The answer to your problem might be in there. And if it’s not, including a mention of “this looks similar to what Yahoo was doing in October” signals that you’ve done a little work before asking for help and might trigger someone’s memory of what happened last time.

DO: Include relevant IP addresses and hostnames, if you’re asking about a delivery issue.

DO: Include exact error or rejection messages – “blocked at AOL” isn’t particularly useful, “554 RLY:B1” is much more so.

DO: Mention what sort of email it is, especially if you think the problems may be content related.

DON’T: Obfuscate.

DO: If you’re asking about a problem, say how long it’s been going on and what you’ve already tried to fix it.

DO: Respond promptly if someone asks for more details.

DON’T: Expect help if you’re not prepared to share data.

DON’T: Vanish once you resolve the problem. Share what you did, even if it’s just “it cleared up around 3pm”.

All long help threads should have a sticky globally-editable post at the top saying 'DEAR PEOPLE FROM THE FUTURE: Here's what we've figured out so far ...

DO: Be prepared to take conversations that only you and one other person, out of hundreds, are interested in to direct message or private email.

 

DO: Stick around and help others. Share what you know.

DON’T: Post off-topic stuff people aren’t going to be interested in. It’s great that your kid is selling girl scout cookies or you’re doing a charity 5k, but unless you’re absolutely sure that this is a good place to fundraise, it almost certainly isn’t.

DO: Keep conversation on a mailing list, on the mailing list. There’s no need to Cc everyone involved – they’re on the mailing list too.

 

DON’T: Email angry. If someone has made you mad, wait before responding.

1 comment

  1. Benjamin says

    > Share what you know.
    That part sometimes scares people, like “but that’s why I’m worth some money”.
    I’m a huge supporter (and actor) of sharing knowledge, by principle. If you know something that’s good, it will be good for others, and for the world.
    But also, sharing knowledge positions you as someone, well, knowledgeable, even an expert, sometimes. Furthermore, the information you “gave away” will still require time to be understood, assimilated and used by someone else, while you already have it in your skin. In other words: you’re still ahead of the others.
    And finally, that piece of information, others would have found it at some point anyway. Actually sometimes they would manage to find an even better one … that you’d be glad to know about!

    Knowledge is power, but sharing this knowledge is power too!

    Also, there are information that you can’t or shouldn’t share. If your legal dept’. says so. If the source of the info told you not to share it. If that would endanger something or someone. Etc.

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