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TechSoup Special Report
An Introduction to Email Listservs and Internet Mailing Lists
Understanding online discussions

By: Susan Tenby
Editor's Note:

This article was originally written in May of 2000. It was updated in October of 2002.

Listservs offer a very important benefit to nonprofit organizations -- they build community through the Internet. In fact, if it weren't for these virtual communities, TechSoup might not be here today.

Compumentor (TechSoup's Mother Organization) started because of an e-mail request by founder Daniel Ben-Horin to the WELL (Whole Earth 'Lectronic Link). He was having printer problems and posted a question to the WELL. Overwhelmed by the enthusiastic response from this community of "helpful electronic next-door neighbors" Ben-Horin asked other members of the WELL if they wanted to adopt a nonprofit organization. A dozen people said they were interested in being computer mentors for other nonprofit organizations, and CompuMentor was born.

Listservs, named after the original software for e-mail list applications, are electronic mailing lists that distribute written discussions to those who subscribe; each posted unit of a discussion shows up in the subscribers' e-mail boxes.

One of the most useful features of e-mail lists or listservs is the fact that you can send the same message to many people at once. Similarly, you can also receive many messages at once in a compiled and organized fashion. With many listservs, subscribers can send responses to messages around to the rest of the list by just replying to the original e-mail.
  1. Listservs have automated tasks that differentiate them from ordinary e-mail.
  2. A Listserv is an application unto itself and can be hosted at your organization's server. ezMLM, FutureQuest, and MailMan are example Listserv applications. Majordomo is another popular application. The Online Policy Group offers free Majordomo access to many nonprofits.
  3. You can set up your own listserv through the Web on sites like YahooGroups, Take it Offline or Topica.
  4. The list owner can find out who is subscribed to a listserv (and there is an option for members to find out this information).
  5. Listservs are set up by both organizations and individuals.

There are tens of thousands of special interest groups that manage their online community discussions through listservs.

Here is ONE/Northwest's description of what e-mail lists are and why people use them:


"What are e-mail lists?

An e-mail list is a tool that makes it easy to reach multiple e-mail addresses (people!) by sending a message to a single e-mail address. This single e-mail address "contains" the e-mail addresses of all the people you want to communicate with on the specific mailing list. When any member of the list sends a message to the address of the mailing list, everyone on the list automatically receives the e-mail message.

"Anyone with an e-mail address that can be reached via the Internet -- including e-mail addresses through commercial online services (America Online, CompuServe) and other Internet Service Providers (IGC, local providers, etc.) -- can be added to an e-mail list. There is no need for list members to have special software; the mailing list software runs on ONE/Northwest's Internet computer (our "server"). E-mail lists are often referred to as "listservs" or "majordomos" (the names of two popular mailing list software packages), or sometimes "conferences".

"We feel that e-mail lists are most useful for groups of people (typically 10-50) who are organized around a specific subject or interest area, and need to communicate regularly for organizational purposes. E-mail lists can be used for mundane purposes like scheduling meetings, forwarding "FYI" information, and simple notifications. Or, it can be used to carry on online "conversations" in which group decisions can be made, documents reviewed, and feedback gathered. In general, e-mail lists are a convenience; reaching everyone you need to reach via a single e-mail address is much easier than remembering all the e-mail names of the individual participants in the list, particularly as people tend to change e-mail addresses rather frequently. Furthermore, an e-mail list allows every member of the group to easily communicate with every other member of the group; because the list of subscribers is centrally maintained, there is no need for each person to maintain their own "address book" of group members' e-mail addresses.

"As you use the e-mail list, you will find that it will help you form an 'online community' of like-minded people who you can rely on for information and assistance. If used properly, you'll find your e-mail list to be an efficient, effective tool in your conservation work."

For more information, you can read the entire ONE/Northwest article.

Listservs function in two basic ways:

  1. The Announcement type of listserv where the owner of the list is the only one who writes, and members receive postings from the owner frequently. These types of listservs are also known as receive-only lists.

  2. The Discussion type of e-mail list, where anyone can send a message that will be sent to everyone's inbox on the subscription list.

Within the discussion list type there are Moderated and Unmoderated lists:

  • Moderated Lists: The messages are screened by a person, and only the messages meeting the list's standards are posted. How carefully messages are filtered by the moderator can run the whole gamut from posting everything that is broadly relevant and not obscene to only posting messages which are unique and tightly focused on the current message thread.

    There are two kinds of moderated lists:

    1. The kind where the messages get sent through the moderator, and s/he posts them.

    2. The kind where the moderator collects the messages, and produces the content based on what people send to the list.

    Either of these types of lists may have a searchable archive. An example of this type of listserv (and searchable archive) is Ryan Turner's list at OMB Watch

  • Unmoderated Lists: These lists are open. Members can post messages without interference. The advantage of unmoderated lists is that the exchange can be really quick--there are no delays while the moderator reviews the messages before postings. On the other hand, an unmoderated list has the potential to degenerate into the feel of a chat room. It also has the potential of being a sounding board for any slob who has plenty of time on his hands, and nothing to say in that time. Or, the discourse can degenerate until flames (nasty messages) are too high a proportion of the list traffic. In these cases, a reader's only recourse can be to unsubscribe .
If you choose to host an unmoderated list, make sure to implement and enforce strict policies about what can and cannot be submitted.

Lists can serve different functions:
  • Information Lists: people merely seek and offer specific information

  • Dialogue lists: subscribers exchange views on issues and ideas. These tend to have more of a political dimension about them.

  • Project Lists: subscribers use e-mail to collaborate on a specific project on which all list members are working.

Basic tips on participating in listservs

  • Always save the first subscribe message, as it will have important information on how to unsubscribe.

  • Remember that you are addressing a group of people. Think about the best and most succinct way to present your message. Be considerate of other people's time. Be sure to make the subject heading for your message clear and focused.

  • Read the subject headings to decide whether or not you want to read a message.

  • Similarly, use subject headings (for example: JOB, or OFF-TOPIC) in your subject headings when you post a message.

  • When responding to a thread, don't include the entire discussion from below. It takes a long time to load for some users.

  • Set up mailboxes, or filters in your inbox to organize your messages.

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May 08, 2000