Managing Mailing Lists with slrn and GMANE
by Mark Stosberg
There has been a quiet evolution happening in the way people manage large volumes of mailing
traffic. There's a new player on the scene.
While the Usenet newsgroup system has lost popularity and relevancy over the years, mailing lists have become
a more common medium for group communication.
From a users perspective, the task of managing the information flow through either channel is much the same--
A large volume of messages flow through, only some portion of which will be interesting enough to read.
Meanwhile, the evolution of tools to manage this information has not kept up . News readers have remained
strong at managing large volumes of impersonal mail, but traditional mail readers have more of focus on direct
One solution here is to create a gateway between mailing lists and newsgroups, so mailing lists can be read as
if they were a newsgroup.
Several people developed personal-size solutions for this. These are tiny news servers
that can run on your personal network or workstation.
Another approach has caught on and is growing quickly in popularity. This is the
GMANE news service. Much in the spirit of open source, anyone can easily sign
up a new mailing list that they would like to be available as a newsgroup. In addition to being a simple gateway,
GMANE has features in place to reduce the amount of spam that flows through the system.
How I use GMANE
I now use GMANE to handle nearly all the mailing lists I read, about 30 in all. Before I
did this, I filtered all my list mail into folders. This was cumbersome to manage with Pine or Mutt
. It was
difficult to tell if there were new messages, which folders had new mail, and how many messages were new.
Additionally, it was slower that I liked to "catch up" on lists, by deleting most everything. In a folder that
has accumulated 10,000 messages, this can take quite a while. News readers work fundamentally differently. They
usually just download the headers
of messages to display the index view and only download the bodies of
messages when you need them.
The also tend to have good scoring systems, allowing new posts to be ranked according your preferences. This
could include a 'kill' score, a rank so low that messages are never even shown to you.
Looking at the main screen of a news reader, you get a summary of all the subscribed lists, with a count of
how many new messages are in each one. From there it's fast and easy to browse the groups and "catch up" when
your done. The catch up command marks all the messages as read, removing them from your view.
With a mailing list each message is typically delivered to you once. With a news reader, it's trivial to
access to the archives. I use this feature when subscribing to a new group.
I browse the last couple dozen thread titles before asking a question that
may just have been covered.
My news reader of choice: slrn
If your already aware that I'm a fan of mutt
, you would not be surprised that I went in search of
console-based news reader to manage reading my mailing lists and news groups.
The options here were slim, and I settled on slrn. Slrn works well, but
still has several annoyances remaining in its interface and feature set.
Like similar programs, slrn is configured by hand editing a configuration file. In this case, a copy of the
"slrnrc" file that's distributed is used as the base.
Favorite slrn features
So I like slrn for all of the general news reader features I describe above: It's
easy to see what's new, browse lists, score messages, and catch-up on lists. It's also quite convenient that it
runs in the console.
While I prefer mutt and vim over their graphical counterparts, I can't say the same thing about slrn. If being
console-based wasn't important to me, I'm sure I could find some graphical alternative that would meet my
needs. I've enjoyed using KDE's KNode
news reader in the past, although not enough to comment on it in
Slrn has a number of annoyances which I have yet to overcome. Here are some I have with
the current version (0.9.8).
- Newgroups names are cut off. Although there is plenty of room in the main screen to complete the news group
names, they are truncated at some arbitrary length. This confuses me because it seems so obviously broken but
yet it still isn't fixed. Who would want list names truncated when there is plenty of room to display
- Fetching old messages is unintuitive. Sometimes I'll have just a few messages visible in a news group, and
I want to load some older messages to provide more context. The only solution I've figured out for this is to
completely "catch up" on the list, at which point I'll be asked how many old messages I want to download when
re-entering the group.
- You can't add attachments. I didn't believe this was true at first because it seems so fundamental.
Instead, I have to work around this. I can post something on the net and give a URL to it. Or something can be
encoded, and then included in-line in the message, hoping people have a compatible decoder.
- Message decoding is not seamless. It seems that some important kinds of message decoding are not built-in.
So detaching and decoding attachments doesn't always "just work".
- Basic navigation is unintuitive. Slrn can provide a "split" view, showing some of the message index while
also displaying a message. In this mode, it needs to supply different keystrokes to moving up an down and in
the next as well as up and down in the document viewer. I still get confused about this and end navigating in
the wrong pane. It seems there should be a better way-- such as giving one pane "focus" and using the same up
and down keys in which ever pane has focus.