Helping people with computers... one answer at a time.

Mailing list messages represent a conversation between members that has a natural order. It can be very confusing when some mailing list messages arrive out of order, or not at all.

I'm on a fairly active mailing list that I read diligently. Yet, I often seem to be missing some of the messages. I frequently find conversations in progress where I never saw the beginning. What's going on?

Getting email delivered reliably is getting harder and harder. Mailing lists are a particularly precarious position as more and more roadblocks are set up to prevent spam.

But spam's just the biggest reason. There are actually several other possibilities.

I, too, am on several fairly active mailing lists, and experience this kind of thing myself from time to time. Sometimes I've actually missed messages, other times I simply get confused because I read the messages out of order.

Here are some of the possible problems that can lead to what we're both experiencing:

Missing Mail

Spam Filters - spam filtering is the most frequent cause for intermittent message loss. Since most spam filters look at the content of messages in order to determine whether or not they are spam, one message to a list may look just fine, and another could be too spam-like and be filtered out. ("Spam-like" is quite arbitrary, by the way. It could be anything from too many uses of the word "FREE", to a quite benign mention of body parts. I've even had messages filtered because the word "specialist" happens to contain the drug name "cialis" within it. (specialist)

"... spam filtering is the most frequent cause for intermittent message loss."

If you find the missing messages in a "junk mail" or "spam" folder, then this is almost certainly what's happening.

The most reliable solution is to "whitelist" the email address that the mailing list is sent from. Whitelisting says "mail from this address is never spam, so never filter it out." Exactly HOW you whitelist will vary depending on the spam filter solution you're using. It may be a simple as adding that email address to your address book, or you may need to take separate steps.

Other Spam "Solutions" - a recent phenomena seen primarily on AOL is called "rate limiting". That means that they'll only accept so much email from a particular source before arbitrarily discarding some for a while. This would result in exactly the scenario you describe - some messages would simply be missing. Similarly, some ISPs are blocking legitimate mail for various spam-related reasons before it even gets to you.

It's quite frustrating because it's difficult to know that this is happening, and when it does there's no real solution other than complaining to your ISP for not delivering the email you asked for.

Mailing List Problems - mailing list software is, by it's very nature, fairly complex, especially in this era of rampant spam. After checking the spam related issues above, it does pay to check with other members of the list, or the list administrators, to see if there is a global problem, or if "it's just you".

Other Mail Confusion

There are other scenarios that can be confusing and make it seem like all messages aren't being received.

Reading out of order - this trips me up all the time, particularly on moderated lists. What happens is this: a person sends a message to the list, and some time later it is approved by a moderator and some time after that it arrives in your inbox. Note that the time it was sent and the time it was received can be very different due to the inherent moderation delay. Now, on a list with several moderators, that delay can vary a great deal from one message to the next - from a few minutes to perhaps a few hours.

What that means to you is that is you are reading the messages in the order that you received them, that may not reflect the order in which they were sent. Now, if you're on top of your email and literally reading them as they come in, you have no alternative, other than to let them collect. If you do let them collect, if your mail program allows for it, sort your inbox by the "Send Date" instead of the "Receive Date", and things might make just a little more sense.

There's one gotcha here: the send date is sometimes wrong. We see it in spam all the time, but the send date is set by the computer of the sender of the message. If their computer's date or time is set wrong, that wrong will still be reflected as the send date of the message.

Direct Replies - on some lists if you reply to a message and don't pay attention, your reply will go to both the list, and the individual who sent the message to the list in the first place. If your list is moderated, the copy of your mail that goes to the list will get that additional moderation delay, while the copy sent directly to the individual will get sent immediately. If that person then replies to your reply on-list, it's possible for the list to get that reply before getting the message that person is replying to.

Here's an example: I get a message on my moderated mailing list from "Fred". I reply to that message, but I don't notice that my reply goes directly to Fred, and to the mailing list. The copy to the mailing list goes to a moderator who is perhaps away from their computer for a bit. Fred replies to my mail - but does so by sending his reply to the list. His mail goes to a different moderator who approves it quickly, and it's sent to list members. What list members now see is Fred's reply to my mail, which they haven't seen because it's waiting with the first moderator. A while later that moderator returns, approves my message, and then everyone sees it ... though out of order.

The Internet - most people have come to rely on email as a nearly instantaneous communication mechanism. Most of the time it is. But it's definitely not guaranteed to be that way. Various problems can cause temporary outages that prevent email from being delivered immediately. Most of the time you never notice these problems, because the email delivery system is designed to handle them - depending on the type of problem, if email can't be delivered immediately, it can be held for delivery later. In fact, the email protocol allows for email delivered within something like 4 days to be considered acceptable. So if there is a temporary problem, it's possible that some but not all messages on or to a mailing list could be delayed minutes, hours, or perhaps even days, before they are delivered.

Article C2719 - July 12, 2006 « »

Share this article with your friends:

Share this article on Facebook Tweet this article Email a link to this article
Leo Leo A. Notenboom has been playing with computers since he was required to take a programming class in 1976. An 18 year career as a programmer at Microsoft soon followed. After "retiring" in 2001, Leo started Ask Leo! in 2003 as a place for answers to common computer and technical questions. More about Leo.

Not what you needed?

July 14, 2006 8:39 PM

Why not use forum software? There are many FOSS BBS software option available, It allows greater control and flexability than a mailing list.

Just a thought. :)

July 24, 2006 10:46 PM

I am so mad and so embarassed. I wrote my friend a letter, and then another friend wrote me and asked me why I had send him my first friend's letter. I didn't send it to him and he recieved it. That is so embarassing and makes me mad cuz it wasn't his business. Why or how did it cross and go to him? My letter to my girlfriend was so personal about something that is going on in her life and he recieves it. I am so devastated. Can you help me and tell me what happened or what I can do to avoid this from happening again?

Thanks! Martha

Carolyn Woodson
October 11, 2006 8:31 AM

I have not gotten any messages for three days at my hotmail address. This has never happened before. What's wrong???

February 9, 2007 1:40 PM

i can send messages but not receive them--this just started today

Bette J. Petrik
February 11, 2007 5:36 PM

I am not receiving ANY emails at all.

What is the problem?

July 1, 2007 8:33 PM

I am receiving the senders name, the subject,but NOTHING in the body where the message should be! PLEASE HELP!!!!!!!!!

Dale Wright
July 24, 2007 7:16 AM

Since I updated my hotmail account to 2GB, I'm not receiving emails from my hotmail buddies. I can send emails to them but I'm not receiving. I'm receiving from all other email accounts except for hotmail, WHY?

Lester Wagshal
December 19, 2007 2:19 PM

I haven't received any mail for the last 2 days, not even SPAM. I normally receive at least 6 E Mails a day and nownothing!!

arlene montgomery
October 13, 2009 2:05 PM

i see in the pop ups that i have mail but when i go to my inbox i only have 2 maybe 3 messeges but there not the ones from my friends that i saw on the pop up. i,m real tired of this its been going on for sometime now.

J. Dean Reeder
December 28, 2009 9:42 PM

I'm missing some e mails friends and relatives sent me. My mail gets thru to them, but not back.
So far, nothing is helpful.

Bill Mason
June 17, 2012 10:08 AM

I am not getting any e-mails from www. even though i put it in the safe list, how do i get them?

P.S.They are in spam or anything else.

Thanks Bill Mason.

Comments on this entry are closed.

If you have a question, start by using the search box up at the top of the page - there's a very good chance that your question has already been answered on Ask Leo!.

If you don't find your answer, head out to to ask your question.