I’m on a fairly active mailing list that I read diligently. Yet, I often
seem to be missing some of the messages. I frequently find conversations in
progress where I never saw the beginning. What’s going on?
Getting email delivered reliably is getting harder and harder. Mailing lists
are a particularly precarious position as more and more roadblocks are set up
to prevent spam.
But spam’s just the biggest reason. There are actually several other possibilities.
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I, too, am on several fairly active mailing lists, and experience this kind
of thing myself from time to time. Sometimes I’ve actually missed messages,
other times I simply get confused because I read the messages out of order.
Here are some of the possible problems that can lead to what we’re both
Spam Filters – spam filtering is the most frequent cause
for intermittent message loss. Since most spam filters look at the content of
messages in order to determine whether or not they are spam, one message to a
list may look just fine, and another could be too spam-like and be filtered
out. (“Spam-like” is quite arbitrary, by the way. It could be anything from too
many uses of the word “FREE”, to a quite benign mention of body parts. I’ve even had
messages filtered because the word “specialist” happens to contain the drug
name “cialis” within it. (specialist)
intermittent message loss.”
If you find the missing messages in a “junk mail” or “spam” folder, then
this is almost certainly what’s happening.
The most reliable solution is to “whitelist” the email address that the
mailing list is sent from. Whitelisting says “mail from this address is never
spam, so never filter it out.” Exactly HOW you whitelist will vary depending on
the spam filter solution you’re using. It may be a simple as adding that email
address to your address book, or you may need to take separate steps.
Other Spam “Solutions” – a recent phenomena seen primarily
on AOL is called “rate limiting”. That means that they’ll only accept so much
email from a particular source before arbitrarily discarding some for a while.
This would result in exactly the scenario you describe – some messages would
simply be missing. Similarly, some ISPs are blocking legitimate mail for various
spam-related reasons before it even gets to you.
It’s quite frustrating because it’s difficult to know that this is
happening, and when it does there’s no real solution other than complaining to
your ISP for not delivering the email you asked for.
Mailing List Problems – mailing list software is, by it’s
very nature, fairly complex, especially in this era of rampant spam. After
checking the spam related issues above, it does pay to check with other members
of the list, or the list administrators, to see if there is a global problem,
or if “it’s just you”.
Other Mail Confusion
There are other scenarios that can be confusing and make it seem like all messages aren’t
Reading out of order – this trips me up all the time,
particularly on moderated lists. What happens is this: a person sends a message
to the list, and some time later it is approved by a moderator and some time
after that it arrives in your inbox. Note that the time it was sent
and the time it was received can be very different due to the inherent
moderation delay. Now, on a list with several moderators, that delay can vary a
great deal from one message to the next – from a few minutes to perhaps a few hours.
What that means to you is that is you are reading the messages in the order
that you received them, that may not reflect the order in which they were sent.
Now, if you’re on top of your email and literally reading them as they come in,
you have no alternative, other than to let them collect. If you do let them
collect, if your mail program allows for it, sort your inbox by the “Send Date”
instead of the “Receive Date”, and things might make just a little more
There’s one gotcha here: the send date is sometimes wrong. We see it in spam
all the time, but the send date is set by the computer of the sender of the
message. If their computer’s date or time is set wrong, that wrong will still
be reflected as the send date of the message.
Direct Replies – on some lists if you reply to a message
and don’t pay attention, your reply will go to both the list,
and the individual who sent the message to the list in the first
place. If your list is moderated, the copy of your mail that goes to the list
will get that additional moderation delay, while the copy sent directly to the
individual will get sent immediately. If that person then replies to your reply
on-list, it’s possible for the list to get that reply before getting the
message that person is replying to.
Here’s an example: I get a message on my moderated mailing list from “Fred”.
I reply to that message, but I don’t notice that my reply goes directly to
Fred, and to the mailing list. The copy to the mailing list goes to a moderator
who is perhaps away from their computer for a bit. Fred replies to my mail –
but does so by sending his reply to the list. His mail goes to a different
moderator who approves it quickly, and it’s sent to list members. What list
members now see is Fred’s reply to my mail, which they haven’t seen because
it’s waiting with the first moderator. A while later that moderator returns,
approves my message, and then everyone sees it … though out of order.
The Internet – most people have come to rely on email as a
nearly instantaneous communication mechanism. Most of the time it is. But it’s
definitely not guaranteed to be that way. Various problems can cause temporary
outages that prevent email from being delivered immediately. Most of the time
you never notice these problems, because the email delivery system is designed
to handle them – depending on the type of problem, if email can’t be delivered
immediately, it can be held for delivery later. In fact, the email protocol
allows for email delivered within something like 4 days to be
considered acceptable. So if there is a temporary problem, it’s possible that
some but not all messages on or to a mailing list could be delayed minutes,
hours, or perhaps even days, before they are delivered.