Webmastering the Worldcon, Part 18

Chaz Boston Baden, smofsweb@bostonbaden.com
Rev. 06-Apr-1997

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E-mail Alias Addresses

I was inspired by Dragoncon and Baycon's e-mail forwarding system. After getting our own domain name (lacon3.worldcon.org) I set up a forwarding address for each department (see next installment). For example, art.show@lacon3.worldcon.org got you the Art Show. (More about Art Show and certain other departments later.) The E-mail Infobot was set up at info@lacon3.worldcon.org - it was piped to "Mreply" (see parts 4-6) and gave an address that could be used to reach a Real Live Person, at the Help Desk - help@lacon3.worldcon.org. Meanwhile, e-mail sent to help@lacon3.worldcon.org went to my own mailbox, but not until after triggering an auto-ack (acknowledge) message saying that yes, a real human being was going to read their message, but if they really wanted the Infobot for automatic replies it was available at the other address.

As a "behind the scenes" backstop measure, any message that the Infobot couldn't process was saved in another mailbox for later perusal by myself. I didn't advertise this feature, but this meant that if someone sent a message to info@lacon3.worldcon.org that said "Please send me infomation on the dealers room" I would find their message later and take care of it myself.

I eventually added a feature to the Infobot where if it couldn't understand a command, and the first word of the sentence correponded to a filename, it would assume a "Send" was desired and send that file back. So if someone just wrote a message that said


it would send the file 'dealers' back, along with a header explaining the 'send' command. (Incidentally, the Infobot is still up at this writing, if you want to play around and see how it all works.) It would only look at the first line, so a message that says


would only get one file back, but the instructions enclosed with it explained how to get all of them; a message that said

send dealers
send art.show
send hotels

would get all 3.

The "Send" command (and most of the commands) have a "to" option, so in the case of someone else needing dealers information, instead of writing back directly to the person (say her e-mail address was hazel@ddb.com) I'd forward a message that said

send dealers to hazel@ddb.com

back to the infobot.

Finally, the fact that it could parse the first word of a sentence meant that I could put in files to match common mistakes. A message sent to the Infobot that said

please send me information would result in the file named 'please' being sent back! which was of some help.

The Mreply package has commands 'index' and 'help' built-in, but since they were equivalent to 'send index' and 'send help' we didn't need to emphasize a bunch of different commands when we explained how to use it. In fact, I kept it simple by telling people that the two commands they needed were 'send' and 'query' (for membership lookup), and 'send index' would get them a list of files.

I felt that I'd built a system that worked well, when I could look in the log and see entries that went something like this

12:00 pm: I want information on the art show (INVALID COMMAND)

and all this happened while I was logged off, and nobody was "on duty" at the e-mail address at all.

I can't stress how helpful Mreply was in setting up something that WORKED and worked well. The biggest challenge was figuring out what to send in response to unprocessable queries (which I also had available as the file 'info') and how much to explain in the 'help' file.

The problem is balancing the need to keep it concise, with the need to explain enough so they can find their own answers and also to answer some common questions.

I eventually started a FAQ list. (And I encouraged people to try 'SEND FAQ' as their command.) I think that most on-line people expect that a FAQ can run several pages, and so won't be overwhelmed when a longer document comes back.

Something I didn't realize at the time, but figured out late in the game, was that the questions change over time. With a Worldcon, you can probably expect the questions on certain major issues (Hotels, Art Show deadlines, and so forth) to crop up about a week to a month before you have answers ready for them.

What do you do about it?

Well, the answer is often "We're going to have information later, please try again in a week/month."

This, in turn, led to one of the questions I myself would ask certain Other Departments: "I *know* you don't have an answer yet. What I want to know is, *when* will you be able to announce the answer?"

How you and your concom figure this one out is up to you guys. But it would be good to know that this situation is going to come up, so you can be as ready for it as possible.

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