Recommendations for Uses of E-mail Lists by Activists

Pattern number within this pattern set: 
Katja Cronauer
Interdisciplinary Progr.-Univ. of British Columbia

Use of e-mail lists by social activists can facilitate or hinder long-term and short-term mobilisation of list subscribers. Depending on online behaviours and the contexts in which e-mail lists are used subscribers might be prompted to become (more) involved with activist groups or prevented from doing so.


While Internet technologies play a significant role in the current wave of globalisation-to facilitate the free movement of capital and corporations through the technological restructuring of financial transactions and working conditions-they are also increasingly used by anti-globalisation groups and other social activist groups. In 1999, for example, the Internet was used to organise protest activities surrounding the WTO (World Trade Organisation) summit in Seattle, USA. The success of these protests is often attributed to the use of the Internet and, in particular, electronic mailing lists. At the same time, turnouts to 'mass-protests' in Europe continued to remain at relatively low levels, despite the increasing use of electronic mailing lists. It is therefore crucial to explore under what conditions the use of electronic mailing lists by social activist groups contribute to or hinder the mobilisation of list subscribers, and whether they are helpful in fostering people's short-term and long-term involvement with social activist groups.

The use of the Internet in 1999 to help organise activities against the WTO summit was certainly not the first time the Internet was used by social activist groups. In 1997, for example, a group set up an electronic mailing list and a website to facilitate organising against an APEC (Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation) summit in Vancouver, Canada. This group's electronic mailing list had up to about 250 subscribers. Yet, up until the culminating events during the week of the APEC summit, the number of attendants at group actions only ranged from a handful to about 40.

Consequently, I undertook research to develop recommendations for uses of e-mail lists. These recommendations should be useful for any activist groups and also other groups that use e-mails list and want list subscribers more actively involved in online and/or offline activities. While, at first glance, some of the recommendations may seem trivial, my research in particular, and observation of uses of electronic mailing lists in general, show that the concerns and problems behind these recommendations are either not taken into account for the use of e-mail lists or are not taken care of effectively.


I developed the recommendations below during my study on the uses of two e-mail lists, which, over the course of several months, were used to organise opposition and create alternatives to the globalisation agenda pursued and represented through an APEC summit in Canada and both a European Union and a G7/G8 summit in Germany. In both cases, local groups formed specifically to protest the respective meetings, expecting to exist only temporarily. The e-mail lists were, however, also used by other groups thereby allowing for long-term involvement.

In my study, I draw on a combination of quantitative and qualitative analyses of the messages sent through both lists and questionnaires sent to and interviews conducted with group participants. Due to my intimate knowledge of the group in Canada--I worked with this group and also helped maintain their e-mail list before I decided to undertake this research --I was able to select interview participants from a wide range of social locations, such as extent of group involvement, age, ethnicity, gender, and class background. This allows me to examine in-depth the uses of the 'Canadian' list by a cross-section of subscribers for their (non-)involvement in group activities. For the list set up in Germany, I interviewed everybody who volunteered to take part in the study. As a result of this self-selection, interview participants were mostly organisers or had previous experiences organising with groups. This allows me to examine organisers' different uses of the 'German' list and to compare these to the organisers' uses of the 'Canadian' list.

The interviews serve as a means to understand the experience of group participants with the Internet (in general and regarding mobilisation in particular) and the meaning they make of that experience. Subscribers were, for example, asked about their use of electronic mailing lists and the effects online messages had on their involvement with groups using these lists. To assess whether the usage of electronic mailing lists facilitates the mobilisation of their subscribers, a link between what happens online and offline needs to be made. While the interviews serve this end to some extent, I also analyse the messages posted to the e-mail lists. These messages are examined as to: how groups framed their goals and activities; how subscribers responded to these online framing efforts; differences in subscribers' online behaviour and whether that reflected their social location; how structural features of e-mail lists shaped online messages; and how the contexts such lists were used in (such as group size or a group's objectives) affected online interactions.

Lacking any particular control groups (due to the limited time frame of my study), I did ask interview participants about their experiences with other e-mail lists and with other social activist groups (whether these groups use(d) e-mail lists and whether they were short- or long-lived). These comparisons allow me to develop tentative recommendations for how activist groups could use e-mail lists more fruitfully. Further studies on experiences of activists with electronic mailing lists and the employment of the recommendations could improve these recommendations.

Sometimes only some of these recommendations will be needed and sometimes activists might come up with additional ideas for how to make the use of their e-mail lists more fruitful. In some cases processes need to be formalized more than in others. Group participants need to talk about their own needs and set their lists up accordingly and make changes when necessary. The recommendations below are not meant to be a solution to end all problems, but rather to provide a good starting point to tackle common problems in the uses of electronic mailing lists.


the following steps might lead to a more fruitful use of electronic mailing lists:

  • Make group participants aware of where they can get public access to computers and where they can learn how to use computers. (Consider providing these services, perhaps in collaboration with other groups.)
  • Make information available to people without Internet access, e.g. through a blackboard with printouts or by passing out information during meetings.
  • Remember: the Internet is only one way to get the word out about group actions, meetings, and goals. Posters, phone calls, etc. are a must.
  • Write a statement of purpose for the use of the mailing list. Send this statement to every new subscriber. Send it out as a reminder on a regular basis or when needed.
  • Consider having more than one list. Maybe one for announcements only, and one for discussions. Have all responses to announcements sent to the discussion list. Consider setting up additional lists as needed or encourage subscribers to do so.

    • Moderate the announcement-only list.
    • Have a process in place to moderate the discussion list when necessary.

  • Regularly send short summaries to the mailing lists about what is going on (online and offline) and what has been going on over time. Include links and contact addresses (electronic and otherwise) for where to obtain more information. Make these summaries available to people without Internet access.
  • Make subscribers aware that the mailing list might be under surveillance and let them know how they can protect themselves (e.g. pass on info from
  • Think about if and when to use anonymous email or aliases (for example for accounts of illegal activities). Don't, however, make it a default.
  • Have processes in place to deal with problematic behaviours. Consider taking responsibility as a group, or assigning the task to a trusted person. Either way, some sort of guideline is probably helpful. Make sure the person taking on this task is accountable to the group. The guideline should be fair and transparent to all subscribers.
  • Think about facilitating long-term involvement of subscribers. However, don't let this result in an increase of volume.

    • Send out a weekly schedule consolidating announcements of activities, other than those the list was set up for.
    • Send out a weekly or monthly message with links and contact information for articles or information about other activist groups.

    Somebody needs to be responsible for compiling and sending these weekly or monthly messages out. Guidelines for what to include might be useful.
  • Regularly evaluate the use of electronic mailing lists and the processes set up to maintain the lists.
  • Discuss regularly if online activities influence offline group activities negatively. For example, does the group not meet or meet less? Do only few online participants attend offline activities? Are online interactions of a contentious nature? Do they result in unresolved tensions? Do they help create or maintain informal hierarchies within the group?
  • If a discussion of a contentious nature occurs, it might be good to move this discussion offline to sort out the differences in opinion and come to a resolution that works for everybody in the group.
  • If only few list subscribers participate in offline activities, it might be good to send out an email with a call for more offline participation, perhaps pointing out how many people are subscribed to the list vs. how many participate in offline activities, and to ask for feedback on why this is so (subscribers should be given the option to respond anonymously).

These suggestions won't, of course, work in all cases. In some cases processes need to be formalized more than in others. Group participants need to talk about their own needs and set their lists up accordingly and make changes when necessary. It is hoped, however, that the above suggestions provide a good starting point and ideas for how to use electronic mailing lists more fruitfully.

Pattern status: