Mailing Lists - An Introduction

Often referred to as ListServ, a mailing list is a service that forwards all the mail it receives to the people who subscribe to the list. Mailing list discussion groups are different from e-mail and news groups, but before you dismiss mailing lists as more of the same, take a look at some of the groups, why they exist, and how they differ from e-mail and news groups.

How do Mailing Lists, E-mail and News Groups Differ?

A mailing list is a list of discussion groups and electronic digests and journals whose participants exchange e-mail about a subject or topic that interests them. Mail is gathered to a specific site and distributed to a group of interested people who have specifically requested to receive mail (subscribe). Any members of the group may participate in the discussion.
In some respects, mailing lists are similar to regular e-mail. Using regular e-mail, you can send a article to someone across the country and include a list of friends to receive the same article (the carbon copy or courtesy copy). And you can change the program settings to let all recipients know who else is getting the article or shield them from this (blind copies) so no one knows. With mailing lists you can do similar tasks. And in some ways, mailing lists are like Usenet (also known as Internet Discussion Groups, or news groups). Some BITNET news groups are mailing list groups. But mailing lists are different from newsgroups because you don't receive anything unless you specifically request it.
What mailing lists do is to provide structure and give each specific group a life unto itself. Each mailing list is controlled and restricted. It is controlled by the group moderator or administrator and all articles flow to this person or persons. articles are distributed to only those who subscribe and only for as long as they subscribe.

Why Would I Want to be on a Mailing List?

Many, if not most, mailing list groups are specialized and many are a part of the academic and scientific community, especially within the BITNET network. Internet groups tend to be less academic and more focus on more popular subjects. But both BITNET and Internet mailing list groups exhibit tremendous diversity. Many groups have huge archives of information. So, if you use e-mail for general correspondence and news groups for general postings and commentaries, you can be on one or more mailing lists for specific information you can get from nowhere else, or at least nowhere else quite as easily. And the more specific the information source, the less time you have to spend searching for that information.

Finding Your Way Around: Lists of Lists

Fortunately, there are a number of lists and guides to mailing lists. After all, you have to find a group before you can join it. Begin with any one of these links as a way to explore mailing lists. Most sites enable you to do a search for specific mailing lists by subject, country, description, or sponsoring organization. (Note, all links were active at the time this list was composed, but be aware changes can take place making a link obsolete at any time.)

Tile Net A LISTSERV site providing an index to Internet discussion groups. You can do a search by subject, sponsoring organization, description, country, etc.
Liszt directory of e-mail discussion groups Search a directory of over 65,000 mailing lists
PAML PAML stands for Publicly Accessible Mailing Lists. Lists include descriptions and subscription information.
Inter-Links An Internet navigator, resource locator, and tutorial. When you're finished looking for mailing list groups, look at some of their other resources.

Navigating Mailing Lists

Now that you've found a list you want to subscribe to, how do you subscribe to it?
There are two types of subscription procedures:

The automated type of subscription procedure involves sending a subscribe command to the administrative address of the mailing list group. More about this later. First, you need to understand the mailing list addressing system.

With the non-automated type of procedure, you send e-mail to a person and asking to be added to their mailing list. The human administrator replies back, but not always right away. This type usually indicates a smaller mailing list base of subscribers.

Typically, a mailing list has a name, two addresses, and a list server type associated with it:

List Name example: trekchatter trekchatter is a Star Trek related discussion group
Administrative Address For communicating to the group's administrator or moderator.
List Address For communicating to the other subscribers, use this address once you've subscribed.
List Type majordomo A mailing list server program.

You must pay particular attention to the two addresses. When you subscribe, unsubscribe, get information about the group, and so forth, you must use the Administrative Address. If you do not, you will not accomplish your task. What you will do is send your article to every subscriber, which is a major breach of netiquette as well as being embarrassing for you. The other address, the List Address, is the address you use to send e-mail to people on the mailing list.

The List Type is also important, because it identifies the mailing list manager software, commonly called an MLM. There are a number of MLMs available: LISTSERV (original BITNET, now called REVISED LISTSERV), LISTSERV for Windows 95, Listproc (a UNIX list processor), Mailbase, Majordomo, Mail-List, Maiser, MLP, and Smartlist. The list type identifies the MLM and, consequently, the particular set of commands you'll need to do administrative things like unsubscribe.

For example, to unsubscribe:
List Type Signoff command to type
Majordomo UNSUBSCRIBE [listname]

You'll find many commands are quite simple and are the same or close to being the same for all the mailing list managers. To see some of these commands, their format, and what they do for you; here are some sites with a list of mailing list manager commands:

If the commands you will need to use appear too difficult, there is a program available providing a web interface or gateway called mailserv. Mailserv is a freeware program serving as a go-between for you and an MLM.

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