Multiple email addresses

A person can have multiple email addresses with GroupServer, the system that underlies OnlineGroups.net. Multiple email addresses have a huge influence on what makes GroupServer different from the other mailing list managers. Yesterday, 27 October, marked ten years since this feature was added, so in many ways yesterday was the tenth birthday of GroupServer. To celebrate, I examine this seemingly simple feature.

In the beginning…

The MailBoxer system that GroupServer was based on is fairly typical of traditional mailing lists. In the code, the list of email addresses maintained by each group was called maillist_members, implicitly acknowledging that there is no difference between a list member and an email address.

In most mailing-list managers a person is an email address. The name of a group member should be more rightly thought of as the name of the email address — and you can often see this acknowledged by the  qualifiers added to names, such as the place of work: Michael JasonSmith (OnlineGroups.net). If someone has multiple email addresses, say one for home and one for work, then he or she will have to register as different people.

Often people only have one email address, and this was especially true when the Internet was young. However, today the world is far more complex: people have email addresses for work, for home, for social media, former workplaces, their alma mater, their work as independent contractors… it gets messy.

Send and receive

In my observation one of the major uses of multiple email addresses is to support being able to send from multiple addresses but only receive posts from a group at one address. The typical case for this is to add your home email address. This allows you to send an email to a work-related group when you think of something, but allows home-time to be home-time.

Another situation is when an email system rewrites the address, such as adding the department to the address. This makes it appear as if you have multiple email addresses, when in fact you only have one. In this case you want to be able to send from both email addresses, but only receive posts at one address.

To support these situations GroupServer distinguishes between preferred email addresses and your other email addresses. You can send email to your groups from any address associated with your profile, but by default you will only receive email at your preferred address.

Different contexts

People exist in different contexts: you may want posts your work-related group to go to your work email, but posts from your sports club should go to your home email address. To support this GroupServer has group-specific email settings. You can specify that posts should be sent to a specific address for a specific group.

However, are the group-specific email settings the settings of a person, or of a group? With GroupServer we made them both: the group-specific email settings are summarised on the Email settings page for each person, and this page links to the groups-specific email settings page for each person. This makes the settings easy to find regardless of whether the group or the profile is used as the context.

When things go wrong

Another use of multiple email addresses is contacting someone when something goes wrong. For example, when an email-address stops working (it bounces) the person is contacted using the other email addresses we have for the group member. (This is great for catching people who switch jobs and the old employer turns off the email address.) Another case is when someone resets a password: the Reset email is sent to every email-address we have for that person, so the person has a good chance of getting that email.

Keep it simple

Supporting multiple email-addresses can be very complex — reflecting the complexity of reality. However, this complexity is unnecessary for most people, who have only one email address. To deal with this GroupServer offers progressive enhancement.

If you only have one email address then all the complexity for managing multiple email address is hidden. The Email settings page only shows a single address and an Add button. The Group email settings page hides all the options for setting a specific email address for the group.

For those people with multiple email addresses the Email settings page changes to deal with the complexity of preferred email addresses, unverified email addresses, group-specific email addresses, and other email addresses. It does this quite well, for people who use GroupServer from the desktop.

However, because the Email settings page uses drag ‘n’ drop it is less than ideal for people that use a touch-screen (because the device cannot tell the difference between scrolling and dragging). So, despite being ten years old there are still improvements to be made to how GroupServer supports multiple email addresses.

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