Before I joined Mozilla, I was a fan and user (in that order) of Firefox and Thunderbird and would follow the project’s progress on mailing lists where designs were discussed and future plans proposed. Even though it was all over my head at the time, it proved to be a great way to learn about Open Source software. It was a place to watch people share and solve problems together, all around a common goal.
Mozilla has used Mailman to power its several hundred mailing lists for the last decade, chronicling conversations dating back to the days of Netscape. Since we first rolled out these Discussion Forums at Mozilla, the Web has changed and our userbase has expanded by several orders of magnitude. Now, we want to make sure our Forums are as approachable and engaging for new users as they have been for our veterans in years past. The discussion that takes place on these email lists of employees, volunteers and users is a big part of what makes Mozilla Mozilla–it is what got me involved, after all–and it is what will engage the next generation of Mozillians to learn to love Firefox and the Open Web.
We want to improve Mozilla’s Discussion Forums! Your help required!
Currently, the Forums are available via traditional e-mail (Mailman), NNTP (via our friends at GigaNews) and on the web (by Google Groups by way of GigaNews). Sending a message to any one of those three channels will automatically send to the other two, seamlessly. This arrangement has worked well, but it is not without its problems. Connectivity to Google Groups has been inconsistent in the past, which breaks the ability to post to the Mozilla lists from within a Browser.
According to a recent sampling, ~20% of messages and ~30% of posters come from the Web interface provided by Google Groups, along with some number of readers. Since Mailman itself does not (currently) directly support posting messages from the web, we remain dependent on Google Groups to provide us this functionality, and are at their mercy if things stop working. The ability to post via the web has been proposed for a possible future release of Mailman v3 (which is still in Beta), but does not yet appear to have made any progress. Is that development something Mozilla or the wider community could try to solve? Alternatively, maybe Mailman isn’t the solution to our needs any longer and we should look elsewhere.
There are a number of areas that could stand to improve with a fresh Discussion Forum system beyond lowering the barrier to entry of the three existing access methods (E-mail, NNTP, Web). We would also be keenly interested in improving moderation management, discoverability of interesting topics and simple UI interactions to encourage participation. An integrated solution to our Discussion Forum system could help us do just that, but we want to make the right decision on how and what to implement, which is where you (the reader) comes in. Your feedback on how you use and wish you could use Mozilla Mailing lists will help us in making them better.
There are a number of software offerings that can provide many of the above-mentioned features in addition to the e-mailing list options we have already come to depend on. Both Open Source self-hosted programs (Sympa, GroupServer) or as a service (Jive, Gmane) are worth serious consideration. It isn’t clear what drawbacks these software packages have at Mozilla’s scale, however. What is your experience with one of these options? Most large open source communities, like Apache or Ubuntu, either use just a Web forum or just an e-mail list but do not synchronize across the two, which Mozilla believes is a required feature for community involvement.
I’m hoping that the Community’s experience can help guide our decision making on how best to move forward. I know I would really benefit from hearing the opinions of both seasoned forum users and folks who have never seen a mail group in their lives (sometimes those opinions are the most valuable). So, if you’re interested in how to make communication better at Mozilla, please share your comments below.