ABOUT EMAIL "LISTS"                                1997 William J. Beaty

What is an email forum?  An email "list" or "listserv" is an online
discussion group which uses email for communication.  It's like having a
bunch of email penpals, all who send email to the whole little group. 
It's like a Usenet Newsgroup that's delivered right to your email box. 
It's like participating in the meeting of a small club, where the
conversations take place in slow motion, and where the meeting is still
going on whenever you arrive. 


How "Lists" work

When you are subscribed to a list server, you will constantly receive
email messages sent by the other subscribers.  The message are just like
any other email.  You yourself can participate in the "conversation" by
sending your own email to a special address (the List Address.)  Your
message will automatically be sent to all the other subscribers.  Some
lists allow you to simply "reply" to any received message, and your reply
will go to all other subscribers.  (Mine work this way.)

Subscribing and Unsubscribing

Different listservers handle the subscription process in different ways. 
For some lists you must ask the owner to add your address to the
subscribership.  For others, the process is automated, and you must send a
"command" message to a special email address (the List Server address.)
For example, my lists are automated, and to subscribe yourself, you must
send a blank email message to, and place
the word "subscribe" in the subject line of the email message. 

The Instructions

When you subscribe to a list you will usually receive an automatic
"welcome" message. Print and save this message, since it usually contains
"Unsubscribe" instructions, rules, email addresses of the list
maintenance person, Frequently Asked Questions (FAQ), location of the
message archives and list's website, etc.  Don't lose the unsubscribe
instructions, or you won't be able to turn off the flow of messages!

Topics of "Lists"

Particular lists have particular topics.  There are many thousands of
lists on the internet.  See for
a list of science-oriented email lists, and for links to PAML, TILE, and
other webpage libraries of "lists" having non-science topics.

Subscription charges

Email lists are traditionally free of charges.  The term "subscribe" means
to "sign up," rather than to pay for a subscription.  A few rare lists do
require payment, but this is heavily publicized in their welcoming
messages and/or webpages.  Unless stated otherwise, list subscriptions are

Sending messages

Note that your commands for subscribe/unsubscribe always go to a different
email address than do your messages to the readership.  Read the "welcome" 
message to find these email addresses.  To send a message to all the
subscribers, you send your message to the main list address.  The main
email address of a list is usually of the form:, or  Don't mistake the lower-case "L" in "topic-l" 
for the number "1", or your messages will go to a nonexistent location. An
easier way to send mail to the subscribers is to reply to one of the
messages you've received.  I often simply select "reply", then delete the
subject line and the message before writing my own message.

The List Owner

An email list will have a list-owner or "moderator"; a person who runs the
software, keeps conversations on topic, answers private questions, ejects
troublemakers, etc.  You can ask this person for help, but as a list
moderator myself I personally must say FIRST ALWAYS READ THE "WELCOME" 

Moderated lists

All lists have an owner, but some lists are "Moderated", meaning that not
all messages are welcome.  When a list is "moderated", all of your
messages are first sent to the moderator to be inspected and passed along
to the rest of the subscribers. "Moderated" lists have a small range of
acceptable topics.  They are intentionally censored, in the same way that
the editor of a magazine "censors" certain magazine articles by rejecting
them and returning them to the author.

Some lists are "announce only", meaning that they are only used for
distribution of announcements by the list owner, and any messages sent by
the subscribers will only go to the owner and never to the other


It is *usually* acceptable to listen in on a list without ever sending
messages at all.  This is called "lurking".  Most lists have a majority of
lurkers and just a few people "talking."  This is normal, since if
everyone talked all the time, the volume of messages would be enormous. If
a list has 100 subscribers and each one sends only one message per month,
then there will always be several conversations going on.  But if everyone
lurks always, there will be no conversations at all.  Subscribers should
always be on the lookout for opportunities to jump in and converse a bit,
or to make an observation, or to send a question to start a new subject
thread.  A rare few lists frown on lurking.  Therefor always check the
"welcome" message for the policy of a particular list.

Introductions, Etiquette

When first subscribing to a new list, it's always wise (and polite) to
read the messages for awhile first before jumping into the conversation. 
Even better, locate the list "archives" if they exist, and read the past
weeks' messages.  If you are familiar with the recent conversations, then
you can smoothly blend into current ones.  This keeps others from seeing
you as an ignorant oaf who barges into the group and demands personal
Some lists have very low traffic, so it sometimes is a good idea to
introduce yourself when you first join the list.  This can start new
conversations.  (Some lists *require* that new subscribers introduce
themselves.  Check the welcome message for the list's policy.) 

Messages per day
Most lists are pretty safe regarding traffic volume, but some rare lists
have hundreds of messages per day, so always be prepared to Unsubscribe
quickly if you get overwhelmed, (and don't ever lose your Welcoming
message with the "Unsubscribe" instructions!)  Some lists offer a "digest
mode" which causes the messages to arrive as single emails which each
contain many messages.  "Digest mode" keeps your inbox from being filled
with scattered list messages.  But it also prevents you from timely
participation in conversations, since list messages are normally
distributed within hours, while digests might arrive after several days

Topic Threads

There are usually several independent "conversations" going on at any one
time on a list.  These are called "threads", and can be sorted out by
inspecting the subject line of the messages.  If the subject is the same
for several messages, those messages are a single "thread."  Some email
programs will let you sort separate message-threads into separate
mailboxes, so you can read continuing conversations in correct time-order
without interruptions.

To create a new thread, simply send a message with a new phrase in the
SUBJECT line.  Or do as I usually do: hit the reply button, then type a
new subject line. 

To continue a pre-existing thread, use your email software to "reply" to
any message in the thread.  Most email software will copy the SUBJECT line
automatically into your new message (perhaps adding "Re:" to the beginning
if it wasn't already there,) and will include the original message as part
of your reply.  Note that it's bad manners to ALWAYS include the ENTIRE
earlier message in all of your own messages.  It's best to delete large
sections of the previous message, and only leave the critical lines that
are the reason for your reply.

"Flamewars" and Psychology

also see: Newsgroup flaming as mental illness

"Insult wars" frequently break out on internet discussion groups.  Some
people enjoy these and will start them intentionally.  But many more
Flamewars exist than can easily be explained by intentional troublemakers. 

It seems that the psychology of email itself can start flamewars.  Email
messages are "low bandwidth", meaning that the writing usually lacks
critical information about how to interpret the messages, and it lacks
most of the emotional communication of face-to-face talks.  As a result,
we can usually interpret email messages in several different ways.  A
person can send an innocent message which is "heard" as sarcasm or vile
insults by the person who receives it.  The reverse can also happen; 
intentional insults can mistakenly be "heard" as benign, but missed
insults usually cause no problems!  We hear what we want to hear, and
unfortunately this is particularly true of email. 

Flamewars usually are triggered *NOT* when one person intentionally 
insults another, but when one person *takes* insult when reading messages 
having fairly innocent intent.  The offended reader then hurls a real 
insult in return.  The first party feels unjustly attacked, since after 
all they did not send any horrible insults in the first place.  Therefore 
they respond with insults of their own.  And so a "war" has been triggered 
through misunderstandings.  Same as with nations.  Same as with little 
kids.  And as with fighting children, the flamewar participants will often 
end up saying "well she started it, I was just defending myself!  "No he 
started it, no she did, no he did,"  and the list owner finally steps in 
and says "I don't care who started it, you both participated, both of you 
go stand in the corner."

The solution?  Simple: Be nice.  Don't hurl insults via the list, EVEN IF 
SOMEONE ELSE INSULTED YOUR FIRST.  Avoid acting like a self-important 
boob; don't take insult at every little thing, and don't insist on public 
retaliation for every slight.  Either ask if the insult was intentional, 
or if you must, send your responding attack directly to your target via 
private mail and *not* to the email list.  If you feel that someone has 
unjustly attacked you, and if you feel justified in defending yourself IN 
PUBLIC, then you have fallen for the Flamewar psychology.  People with an 
"eye for an eye" philosophy, those who have a need to take retribution for 
perceived attacks, are no better than primitive tribes trapped in cycles 
of vengence, or modern nations who start wars for stupid reasons.  On the 
other hand, if all the real (or imagined) insults go right past you with 
no effect, then you would make a good email-list moderator!  :)

A List Of Your Own

If you are interested in running a discussion list, check with your
Internet Service Provider.  Some ISPs offer a listserver option as part of
their service.  Prices vary, some ISPs provide free lists, while others
charge hundreds of bucks per year.

To get your feet wet, you might consider signing up with a free commercial
list service.  These lists are provided free, but advertising is added to
every message.  Below are a few "free list server" companies.  The last
one, Mail-archive, does not provide lists, but does provide a free 
service for pre-existing lists.

If you have direct access to your system, you might consider running a
list based upon a script or system software. uses SMARTLIST,
which I believe is a Perl script.  Another script listserver is PROCMAIL.
The old LISTSERV freeware ran under unix.  The current LISTSERV is an
expensive commercial product, and I don't know what systems can host it.

LISTOWNER HUMOR Date: Tue, 15 Apr 1997 09:20:56 GMT From: Nite Owl <******> Subject: HUMOR: How many internet mail.............. Q: How many internet mail list subscribers does it take to change a light bulb? A: 1,331: 1 to change the light bulb and to post to the mail list that the light bulb has been changed 14 to share similar experiences of changing light bulbs and how the light bulb could have been changed differently. 7 to caution about the dangers of changing light bulbs. 27 to point out spelling/grammar errors in posts about changing light bulbs. 53 to flame the spell checkers 156 to write to the list administrator complaining about the light bulb discussion and its inappropriateness to this mail list. 41 to correct spelling in the spelling/grammar flames. 109 to post that this list is not about light bulbs and to please take this email exchange to alt.lite.bulb 203 to demand that cross posting to alt.grammar, alt.spelling and alt.punctuation about changing light bulbs be stopped. 111 to defend the posting to this list saying that we are all using light bulbs and therefore the posts **are** relevant to this mail list. 306 to debate which method of changing light bulbs is superior, where to buy the best light bulbs, what brand of light bulbs work best for this technique, and what brands are faulty. 27 to post URLs where one can see examples of different light bulbs 14 to post that the URLs were posted incorrectly, and to post corrected URLs. 3 to post about links they found from the URLs that are relevant to this list which makes light bulbs relevant to this list. 33 to concatenate all posts to date, then quote them including all headers and footers, and then add "Me Too." 12 to post to the list that they are unsubscribing because they cannot handle the light bulb controversy. 19 to quote the "Me Too's" to say, "Me Three." 4 to suggest that posters request the light bulb FAQ. 1 to propose new alt.change.lite.bulb newsgroup. 47 to say this is just what alt.physic.cold_fusion was meant for, leave it here. 143 votes for alt.lite.bulb. Enjoy NITE OWL ------------------------------
Created and maintained by Bill Beaty. Mail me at: .