Three Outlook Programming book chapters online

Microsoft Outlook 2007 Programming


Three chapters from my latest book, Microsoft Outlook 2007 Programming, are now live online at Microsoft's MSDN site for developers:


Tips for email discussion lists


In the process of helping my Pacifica Graduate Institute classmates start an email discussion list, I collected some what I've learned over the past decade as a participant in and moderator of several such lists and thought those insights would be worth sharing with a wider audience.

Each list should have a "mission statement" that explains the list's purpose and, by extension, who the potential list members are and what discussion topics are welcome. It doesn't need to be anything elaborate, and it will likely change over time. Such a statement serves two purposes: It provides is a standard against which to measure whether the list is doing well as a whole. It also gives list members a benchmark to help them decide whether a message should be posted to the whole list or sent to an individual.

Many discussion lists have rules that are enforced, sometimes arbitrarily, by a mysterious unseen entity ("the moderator"). If the list's rules and moderation policy are something beyond common sense standards like no spam, no profanity, and no off-topic posts, they should be posted somewhere so that all list members can refer to them easily.

Almost no one reads every word of every message. The chances of your message being read all the way through are inverse proportional to its length. Also, you should not assume that someone understands the context if you refer to some other message, unless you quote the text that you're referring to. Furthermore, if your message requests some response or other action, you might want to put that in the first paragraph, because fewer people will see your request if it appears farther down.

From time to time, someone will send a reply to the list that contains personal material that probably should have gone directly to the original sender. It's embarrassing, but it happens. If you're taking someone to task over their opinion on an issue, for example, think about whether you want that conflict to play out where everyone on the list can watch or whether you want to make it a private conversation. Remember that, when you reply, you can change the To address to reply to an individual, rather than to the entire list.

It can take quite a while for a discussion list to find its collective voice. It's less a matter of making rules than experimenting to see what "fits" – what kinds of messages develop into the kinds of discussions that list members enjoy enough to engage in. The one list in which I've participated for 10 years has been successful, I think, because it found the right balance of subject-matter content (questions, comments, and answers on the topic around which the list was organized) and personal content. We've supported each other through job losses, house moves, divorce, death, serious illness, children with problems, and children getting married – and at the same time, we've ranted and raged with great passion about technical topics.

Finally, Richard Tarnas, author of The Passion of the Western Mind and Cosmos and Psyche, has some very useful things to say about email that, I think, apply particularly to discussion lists. He urges anyone who is serious about their writing to make every email message count: Proofread it, and examine it for feeling tone and possible misinterpretation. That discipline, he says, will make your "important" writing (what you write besides email) come that much easier. In my opinion, such care also shows how much you honor the recipients. In the context of discussion lists, I would add one other thing – consider how your message contributes to the purpose of the list.


Does BookMooch need more rules?

I've been using BookMooch for about a year now and have found it invaluable in making the switch from desktop software guru to mythology & psychology grad student in preparation for whatever comes next. BookMooch works very simply: You post a list of books you want to give away and search or browse other people's inventories to find books that you want to "mooch." The transactions use a point system. The only out-of-pocket cost is the postage required to mail a book to a moocher.


BookMooch founder John Buchman asks in his blog whether the site needs more rules to define acceptable reasons for rejecting a mooch. He cites three recent incidents -- an author who rejected mooches of copies of her new book because she thought the moochers were selling it and two members who rejected mooches for political reasons related to the moocher or the moocher's country. Explaining why he and the other administrators have come up with a short list of acceptable reasons for rejections, John says:


I didn’t want BookMooch to become a free-for-all, where anyone could make up any personal reasons for accepting or rejecting a mooch. That could get nasty.


That's the point where I decided that I needed to respond, and so I've posted this response on the BookMooch discussion forum (or at least I've tried to; I don't see it yet):


John, BookMooch *is* a free-for-all, whether you want it to be or not, and that's what makes it so lovable. One of its most appealing features is that it is a simple concept that requires very few rules because of its overall transparency. The offer of a book and the acceptance of a mooch take place in an environment where both sender and moocher can see each other's transaction history. A sender who engages in a lot of unexplained rejections (or rejections for purely personal reasons) is eventually going to find that they're no longer getting mooches. I believe that the values embodied in the principle of free exchange of ideas will win out over those of repression, without the need to impose any detailed code of conduct.


That said, I would like to offer two action items for you to consider. There's no reason not to try to guide people toward the type of behavior that will further the free exchange of books. Therefore, I like the suggestion that another person made to add a drop-down list of rejection reasons, just as we have a simple drop-down list of ratings for a mooch. The rejection drop-down could include:


  • I can't afford to pay to ship that book to you
  • I can no longer locate that book (which should automatically remove it from inventory)
  • Other
The Other choice should have a box for entering an explanation, and the explanation should be required. That would end the issue of unexplained rejections.


I would not put "bad behavior" on the drop-down list, because that's a subjective judgment by one person of another. It deserves more of an explanation than a drop-down list choice would allow.

The second action item would be for you to consider publishing synopses of any instances in which a BookMooch member's account was terminated. The Terms of Service already allow you to do this with or without cause. If you want to highlight what abuse looks like in an objective fashion, providing information on these (hopefully rare) cases, would be one way to do that.


For the record, feel free to read my BookMooch history. I've rejected three mooches -- two because I did a bad job of managing my inventory and couldn't find the books when it came time to send them and one because the moocher had a lot of pending books to send. In the latter instance, I invited the moocher to try again when he'd cleared his backlog. You can see by reading the history details that he later did so. That's what I mean by transparency.


While you're there, maybe you should check out my inventory and mooch some of those old Microsoft Exchange books from me.