Over the last three or four years I've seen an increasing trend here at MS: complaints about off-topic discussions on DLs. A thread will start out on a DL and (since we're all human), at some point (if the thread is interesting and complex enough), someone will reply with a thought that veers off in a different direction, forks the original intent of the thread, and various people contribute on the new fork.
Many people's reaction to this is to complain - "This is off-topic and there are 50/500/1500 people on this DL, so stop including the DL on the reply all and just continue the conversation between the individuals." Now if the DL is say the Dog Lovers DL, and the topic veers off into a political debate, I get that. It's just so completely unrelated that it doesn't make sense. But isn't there a line somewhere? What about - to pick a (completely random) example (not at all plucked from real life) here - a bloggers DL? Here we have a group of people who are already defined by A) their interest in talking about things and very likely B) a broad range of topics about which they like to talk.
There are a variety of aspects to this issue, and here are my thoughts on some of them:
I started a DL a few years ago for a certain target audience, for a semi-social but still tangentially work-related topic. It started out with about 20 people on it and quickly grew to about 50 where it stayed for a while. It became a little community, we knew each others' names, kids' names, many of us knew each other in person, I would schedule monthly lunches, etc. As time passed, the DL grew and grew and grew; it was around 500 members the last time I checked. And over this time period it moved from this community feel to what I call a "Compile DL" (see below). Over that same time period I also stepped down as DL owner because I was getting too wrapped up in politics (yes! politics of a DL! I hadn't known that existed until I was an owner of a large DL) - from what exactly the DL description was (was it misleading? invited people to join who weren't the target audience?) to whether or not I would "police" the DL when the reply-alls got out of hand or if the discussion went completely off-topic to the display name of the DL. I wasn't willing to be the policer and didn't agree with the approach some members took on who should or shouldn't be involved in the DL, so I found someone else to take over and gradually removed myself from what had at one point been a nice friendly community. It's still to this day a useful DL as far as the information exchanged on it... but there are a lot of ways to get information these days.
I've seen a few solutions in place for managing these issues on DLs:
Overall, my reaction to seeing this happen time and time again on DL after DL is disappointment. I like internal DLs, I like having discussions about work or even non-work-related topics on these DLs. I like getting to know the people who participate in these DLs by reading their opinions and thoughts on a variety of issues. I like it when someone cracks a joke, even if there's no other content in their mail (of course, it's gotta be funny, but I'll still give credit to someone who tries :-). I feel like this movement away from "DL communities" is a step back and I am losing connections with other people.
I do participate in a variety of public community forums but it's just not the same - web boards are clunkier to use IMO than email, blog comments are OK but the technology's not there yet to completely replace this kind of information exchange, I just don't read newsgroups anymore as I don't want to keep yet another client with locally-cached state I need to manage and keep track of, etc. There's also something to be said for being able to make a base level of assumption about the rest of the community - a certain age, a certain level of professionalism, a certain level of technical knowledge, etc.
I've also ended up in a few situations where there's been a splinter of a few people from a DL that I keep in touch with in separate threads. So rather than sending something to the DL, we might fwd a thread from the DL to each other for further discussion. This is OK but obviously limited and only works if you manage to make those connections in the first place, so that you can know who is of a like mind that you'd want to splinter off with.
What about at other organizations? What's going on with internal DLs where you work? Are you seeing similar trends? How do you feel about the issues I described above?