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 mail.

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 and vim, 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 detail.

Slrn annoyances

Slrn has a number of annoyances which I have yet to overcome. Here are some I have with the current version (0.9.8).
Mark Stosberg