Carpe & Helpme: A Survey

There are at least 258 public mailing lists serviced by Olin’s Mailman system. Included in this vast number of lists for a student body of under 400 is everything from classes to clubs, politics to Pokémon. Yet, a huge portion of the students’ inboxes are taken by just two mailing lists: carpediem and helpme. Given these lists’ powerful place in our daily lives, a survey was sent out in June to subscribers of these lists in an attempt to define public opinion and guidelines about them, and our email system in general.

The quantitative portion of the survey, where respondants rated their agreement with statements on a scale of 1 to 10, seemed to show that users were dissatisfied with the existing use of carpediem and helpme. Although they sometimes felt like they could not contribute to the lists, almost all users felt invested in the lists’ success. The sheer number of emails was percieved to be too much across the board. Despite these feelings and apparent mood of annoyance, most respondents thought that emails should be sent to the lists that currently receive them.

The free-response sections of the survey revealed two extreme opinions. Some considered the two-list system undesirable; they suggested that we use other (existing) mailing lists for purposes currently taken by carpediem or helpme (e.g. askme for surveys, gluttony for free food). Those of the opposite opinion believe that the mass of mailing lists is daunting, and the task of choosing the “right” list for each email is tiresome. Most respondents fell somewhere in the middle of these extremes, expressing annoyance with some aspect of the existing system, but not seeing any reason to change.

Regardless, most everyone agreed on a few principles of good use. Chief among these is to always use high-quality email subjects. Vague subjects like “Going to X” or “Tutoring?” should be replaced with the clear “I’m going to X” or “I need a ModCon tutor.” Consider including a topic in square brackets, to let people know if your email is relevant to them before they read it. For example: “[Survey] Do you have a job?”

For any email where the response window is closed (i.e. helpmes), send a “Resolved:” email to the mailing list (easily done using a “Reply all” to the original email sent and appending “Solved” to the automatic “Re”). Also consider thanking the person that helped you, or including information that could be relevant to other people on the mailing list. While not required, additional information can be nice or useful to other users.

sept2013_carpeHelpmeSurvey

Only send All-students emails when the matter affects everybody (all-students includes cross-registered students and exchange students). Otherwise, send to each class individually, and to the exchange students. Keep in mind however, these are more official lists and should only be used for distributing information that everyone should know, like announcements, town hall meetings, and SAC events.

Finally, check the master “lists of lists” at lists.olin.edu and subscribe to ones that you want to be a part of. You may find new interests, clubs, or just people with a common goal. And then, before sending an email to ‘the big two,’ consider sending it to another mailing list first. You may find that your email gets to exactly the intended recipients. If it does not, you can always forward it to another list.

The email system and its mailing lists are the beating heart of Olin’s vibrant community. We—the students, faculty, and staff—determine what it means to us and how we use it. Some respondents to the survey seemed to think that they had no control over email culture, and that is simply not true. At a school where the students have great autonomy in their classes, their activities, and even their honor code, to think that a tool like email is out of our hands is fallacy. If you want something to change at Olin, Do Something! Maintaining or radically changing how we use a resource is up to us.