Internet mailing lists

Internet mailing lists, called LISTSERVs, create the opportunity for two-way communication. Through e-mail, you can post messages or ask questions, and others will respond almost immediately.

LISTSERVs differ from usenet newsgroups* in how messages are distributed. For a newsgroup, you use your news reader application, usually included with your browser or e-mail program, to read messages that might interest you. The LISTSERV, in contrast, sends out messages to all "subscribers" and the messages come into your electronic mailbox the same way regular e-mail does. Whether this is an advantage or not depends on the list and your interest in receiving e-mail.

Topics found on mailing lists vary considerably. Some deal with scientific and professional topics, and others are of general interest, offering a wide range of information and entertainment, including NITPICK-L, the Star Trek Nitpicker's Guide.

The volume of traffic on a LISTSERV varies from a message every week or so to more than a hundred a day, so be cautious before subscribing.

Of course, the first step in subscribing to a LISTSERV is finding the ones that cover your areas of interest. More than 30,000 lists exist, but searchable lists can be found on the Web at several addresses. Not every site lists every LISTSERV, so you may have to check more than one:

The largest directory of mailing lists is probably Liszt, which offers a quick search engine and in-depth information on many of the lists indexed there.

If your search of Liszt doesn't yield what you're looking for, you can also try some of the smaller searchable indices, such as the site compiled by Stephanie da Silva.

A useful source of information on lists, including links to searchable indices, basic list command, and guides for searching, is found at the Impulse Research site.

When you find a reference to a group that interests you, the Web site may support subscription directly from that page; otherwise you will have to carefully note the address and the directions for subscribing. Usually you send your request to an automated server, not to the human being who is the "list owner." Because machines are unforgiving, the request must follow a specific format. Usually, for a LISTSERV, the address is to the machine:

To: This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.

Usually the subject line is left blank. In the message area, enter exactly what the instructions told you. Usually it will be something like:

That's all you write. Your e-mail program attaches your e-mail address which the server uses to add your name to the list of the subscribers. Follow instructions exactly; remember that this is a machine so don't send any more than the directions specify.

When you subscribe most lists send you a confirmation along with directions for using the list. Save these directions. If you're running low on disk space, print out the instructions and put them where you can find them later. Commands to get off the list, to stop messages while you are on vacation, to access the list's archives or to deliver the mail in a digest version are all sent to the machine, not a person, so you need to follow the directions exactly. Few messages are as frequent or as pitiful as the "How do I get off this list" sent to thousands of subscribers -- usually proof that you never kept the files.

Some lists are moderated, meaning that access is restricted or messages are screened. Most lists, however, are open; the list owner intervenes only if a discussion (called a thread) gets way off-topic or inappropriate or if problems arise.

Check out our section on Netiquette and remember to lurk (read messages without announcing your presence) for a while before jumping into the fray, so that you can get an idea of the interests and the tone of the list.