Wasting time with Sympa

I’ve spent the past 24 hours working on mailing-list software for my private server.

In a previous post, I discussed my concerns that LiveJournal, the host of my blog, might “go dark” without warning. My solution is to set up my own blog on my own server, with automatic cross-posting. This means when I write a post on my WordPress blog on my server, it automatically shows up on LiveJournal.

I also plan to make the WordPress services available to any of my friends with the same concern, or would just to like to blog on a site that can be configured to their needs.

That project is going well. I’ve written my past few blog posts on my private copy of WordPress, which were automatically copied to LiveJournal, with links posted on both Twitter and Facebook. The server, which will be argothald.net, is currently sitting in a private “virtual machine” on my desk, so you can’t see it yet. When I get enough cash together, I’ll contact a server company to make my work public.

Why stop there? I’ve been concerned about how my Wiccan clan now uses Facebook as their primary form of communication. I am uncomfortable with using an advertising company as a forum for organizing events and sharing personal issues. Up until now, there hasn’t been much choice.

With this server, I can give them a choice. My first step is to offer mailing lists.

My plan is to offer mailing lists that would more-or-less configure themselves. There would be an Elders list, for those who have management responsibilties for the groups in the clan. Each group could have their own list, sub-divided into beginner and advanced students; those groups could be managed by the group leaders. All of the advanced students in all the groups would automatically be in an “advanced” mailing list. All of these lists would automatically be combined in a “clan” mailing list.

There’d even be a “friends” list for folks we wanted to invite to events, but weren’t part of any group. All the groups would be a combined into an “everyone” list.

Finally, our clan would have a way of communicating to its members and friends, even those not on Facebook. Just send an e-mail to everyone@lists.argothald.net to invite them all to the next Sabbat!

It’s a great idea. I see two problems:

– Folks are resistant to change. I know I’m in the minority in my perception of Facebook. I acknowledge it would be an uphill battle to get my clan to use this service.

– It’s hard to find mailing-list software that’s both easy-to-use for non-experts, and can handle the issues of merging mailing lists.

This past 24 hours I’ve worked on the second issue. My initial choice would be Mailman, a well-known mailing-list package. I’ve worked with it before; it’s the mailing-list software I use at work. The problem with Mailman is it throws a lot of options at the users; its web interface may look confusing to those whose only other experience with mailing lists is Google groups.

I hunted around and found Sympa. Its web interface is slicker than Mailman, and I think it would be less confusing to my users.

The problem with Sympa is that it’s a bitch to configure, even for an experienced sysadmin like myself. It took hours and hours to get working. Then after I finally got it installed, I found that the mailing-list functions needed to merge or automatically update lists are much harder to use than Mailman. I could see myself spending weeks to get it to work properly, and it would result in a system that would be almost impossible to explain to the leaders whose groups’ lists I’d like them to manage.

The only other alternative I could find is Dada Mail. This isn’t bad, but it’s designed for mass mailings to large numbers of users. In particular, it doesn’t seem to support lists managed by different owners.

So I’m back to Mailman. I’ll get it ready, then go back to step 1: Talk to my clan about using it. I think I have some good arguments on my side: privacy, security, control. Let’s hope that makes it worth the effort to learn something new.

If the mailing-list doesn’t fly for my clan, we’re not out of options. I can install forums on the server; there’s even a “social network” plugin for WordPress. We can use computers to talk in private. All it takes is the will.

So mote it be!

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