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Groups.io — A modern take on Google Groups

Chris Leong
Oct 11, 2014 · 5 min read

Key points:

  • The interface is fast, simple and well-designed.
  • Hashtags allow members to filter out topics that they find uninteresting.
  • A broad range of subscription settings and administration options are available.
  • The integrations are a nice feature, but they don’t yet tap their full potential.
  • Greatest weaknesses: There aren’t many public groups yet. Lack of a public API.

I remember the days when everyone used mailing lists to organise groups; the days before we had Facebook. While I appreciate the convenience that social networks offer, Facebook is optimised for is optimised for the social, the ephemeral and the easily digested. Mailing lists offer three main advantages over Facebook groups:

  1. The user interface is optimised for long-form conversation instead of short comments.
  2. Mailing lists are more likely to draw people who are serious about discussion.
  3. It is harder for groups on Facebook to build credibility.

Review

Groups.IO has a simple, clean and minimalistic interface. I found the site to be highly responsive.

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Groups interface

Hashtags provide a really useful tool for filtering out messages that simply don’t interest you. This enables you to subscribe to more groups without being flooded by emails; everyone already receives too many emails anyway.

This also addresses the eternal issue of discussion groups — deciding what counts as being on and off topic. Now everyone can decide for themselves what they want to see. In a traditional mailing list, if the scope is too narrow, then members are denied the opportunity to have discussions that they want to have. If the scope is too broad, then most of the discussions won’t interest the members.

This is particularly tricky, as the popular discussions (“What is the best programming language?”) can easily come to dominate these websites and drown out the insightful questions that brought experts to the website in the first place.

This issue, is discussed in-depth by Jeff Atwood, who used this as one of the core principles on what is now one of the biggest programming sites on the Internet. Too many newbie questions cause similar issues, as it is frustrating for experts to receive too many of these questions. Many forums solve these problems by providing a separate forum for newbie questions, but very few mailing lists have this feature.

Hashtags provide a more powerful, modern approach to filtering out the emails. It’s rather tricky to find in the current interface, but if you visit https://groups.io/mutedhashtags then you can mute a hashtag in a particular group or all groups, either forever or just temporarily. Further, there is a setting to force all posts to contain at least one hashtag and to limit the creation of hashtags to moderators.

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Hashtags

Having a good range of delivery options is vital for keeping the number of emails received manageable. The standard options are provided, plus the additional “First message only” setting.

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Email delivery

Moderation options are useful for excluding bad posts and bad posters.

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Moderation options

Groups.io offers various tools for use with your group. These currently include a calendar, files section, wiki and photo-album, with polls and databases promised to be coming later.

They also offer sub-groups that can only be subscribed to by members of the bigger group and which have their own subscription settings. I haven’t seen these used so far, but they might have potential for when the site grows.

Groups.io also offers integrations with a few third party services. The most interesting on is Hangouts. This provides a sidebar that allows you to directly invite members of the group to a hangout. This has two limitations: firstly, I can’t see any way of limiting this feature to moderators only and secondly, that you can’t see from the group that a hangout is in progress.

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Hangouts integration

The other integrations are primarily useful for those who want to keep a group in sync with another website that you already update.

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Integrations — It’s my first post, sorry about the highlights

The discovery mechanisms provided are relatively simple, but are sufficient for now.

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Discovery mechanisms

Free groups should be sufficient for most use cases. Premium groups cost $10/month. This is very reasonable if you wish to run a group for an organisation, but it may be a bit pricey for those who just want to run a discussion group.

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The basic plan and another accidental highlighting

Groups.io only just launched. However, since it is well constructed and monetisable, it seems likely that it could take off. A revival of mailing groups would be fantastic news for anyone who loves discussion.

Possible improvements:

Discovery mechanisms are key to enabling groups to form. Featured groups could be useful during the initial growth period since searching is less likely to be useful. Group tags aren’t needed right now, but they will become vital once this site reaches a certain size.

Integrations have been a huge missed opportunity for other products such as Google Groups and Facebook Groups. There are so many tools such as external calendars, wikis, and photo albums that would benefit from being shared as a group. Groups.io provides its own versions of most of these tools, but sometimes you have reasons for working with external tools. An API would unleash innumerable collaborative possibilities.

Google groups, Reddit and StackOverflow allow you to star messages and threads. Trying to find a post that you read months ago can often be a real pain.

Member profiles would bring people in a group together by allowing them to get to know each other better. Stronger connections would improve group cohesion and cut down on drama. Profiles can also be used to provide a discovery mechanism for groups.

— — — —

Overall, Groups.io steps in to fill a much neglected gap in the market. Mailing lists can still be incredibly valuable as a means of communication, and it is wonderful to see them being adapted in response to ideas popularised by newer web apps.

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