The success or failure of any mailing list depends entirely on its members - as in how effectively can they contribute on the list or how diligently can they enhance the quality of ongoing discussions. If you watch closely, the level of discussions combined with the maturity of posters is what characterizes these mailing lists to a large extend. For instance, take a firsthand look at Technical Writers India mailing list or TWI, as it is popularly called (Refer, http://groups.yahoo.com/group/technical_writers_india/).
When you have a mailing list like TWI, the members intrinsically form the core of all discussions. There is an inherent focus on interaction and networking. Collaboration in this context does sound like an easy word, but more often than not, it is badly implemented. Let me share why managing such virtual communities is seemingly difficult and why a little dose of moderation is absolutely necessary.
To illustrate, I am again choosing TWI as the perfect alibi. This group contains a large proportion of newbie's - who have joined with the sole objective of learning and honing their existing skill sets. Some of these are fresh college graduates, desperate to get jobs or apprenticeship. They focus only on the topicality, which I believe is the mother of all problems. Some of them don't even know how to write and those who do, wouldn't care to research a topic before mailing it on the list. On the other hand, seasoned writers on such lists tend to look beyond the clichés; they define a value orientation with new, simpler, and unique ways to get things done. But again, most of them are lurkers and wouldn't write consistently. Apart from this, we have the issue of trolling (members posting provocative topics) and flaming (personal attacks between individual members.) In my opinion, on a mailing list, it is imperative that the views expressed by an individual should not be restricted, out of context, controversial, ironical, or biased.
The biggest fear of all on a mailing list is the fear of being intimidated. And that's one reason why some people prefer hibernation to active participation. My advice to such people is to relax...this ain't no competition! Of course, members are encouraged to participate all the time, and this way the feel-good factor is also maintained on the list. This is where I have my calling - the moderator of TWI.
The Wikipedia defines a moderator as, "a person who monitors the quality of a comment posted on a site, message board or IRC channel. The purpose is to prevent trolling, abuse of the comment system, and ultimately ensure that posts are not clearly antagonizing others. Moderators are usually chosen from among the members of the online community by the owner or administrator of the website, internet chat room or message board (also known as discussion forums) in question, based on the quality of their past input to the community, their level of knowledge in the prime areas of discussions and, not the least, their behavior. In some communities though, the moderators may be elected or chosen. Systems of moderation and selection of moderators vary widely from community to community."
As the moderator of the TWI, I have been there and done that. The last two years, in particular, have been pretty taxing but its okay...someone's got to give. I would hereby request you to keep the faith. There may be more happier times waiting for us, who knows?