Freedom Of Assembly: Mailing Lists

Read at your own risk

This document dates from the early web period, and is kept for archival purposes only. It is no longer updated, and contains much that is apocryphal, or at least wildly inaccurate.
  1. Personal Discussion Groups
  2. Freedom Of Assembly
  3. Usenet Newsgroups

When people on the net get together to discuss things in an organized manner, they usually use some form of mailing list. In its simplest form, a mailing list is just that: a list, on a central computer, of everyone who is taking part in the discussion. Members send their messages to that central computer, and the central computer copies their messages and sends a copy to each person listed in the list of members.

Most mailing lists today include quite a few features above and beyond that. They’ll have special archives where files of interest to the members are kept. The discussion itself might be archived there as well. Some mailing lists provide privacy to members, so that other members can’t find out who is on the list and who is off. Some mailing lists aren’t for discussion at all, but are for announcements. Only the list “owner” can send messages to the central address. Members aren’t allowed to make announcements to the list.

Finding A Mailing List

There are mailing lists on virtually every topic you could want. And if there isn’t a mailing list on a topic that you want to talk about, you can create one of your own! On the Macintosh, Macjordomo makes it very easy to set up your own mailing list, if your Internet Service Provider will give you an extra ‘username’. They’ll usually do it for five bucks or so. Many provide a limited number of extra usernames for free.

The easiest way to find a mailing list by topic is to use

Joining and Leaving

Once you find a mailing list, you still have to join. Joining a mailing list is called subscribing. You do this by sending an e-mail message to the mailing list’s control address. Mailing lists usually have two addresses: the discussion address and the control address. Mail sent to the discussion address is copied and sent to each member. Mail sent to the control address is responded to by the central computer. If you want to subscribe, unsubscribe, request an archive file, or do anything “controlling” your membership, you must send it to the control address. If you send it to the discussion address, all that’s going to happen is that people are going to discuss how inappropriate your action was.

If you’re lucky. If you’re not, you’ll get flamed from here to oblivion.

Sufficiently scared? Don’t worry, it’s just e-mail. Sticks and stones, and all that.

Now, where were we? Right, subscribing to a mailing list. We’ve found this great list, Amazons International, for the discussion of physically and psychologically strong women and the men and women who love them. In order to subscribe to Amazons International, we need to send a subscription request to the control address. We found out about Amazons International from Liszt, and it also told us what the control address is: The description doesn’t tell us what we need to actually say, so we can assume it’s the standard. The standard “subscribe” request is: subscribe list_name Firstname Lastname. So, here’s what I would send to

subscribe amazons Jerry Stratton

I used “amazons” for the name of the list. How did I know that? Because one of the many standards for “control” addresses is to add “-request” to the name of the list. Usually, you’ll be told the name of the list (and how to subscribe) in the description that you get from findlists.

Now, some day I might want to leave Amazons International. Joining requires subscribing, and leaving requires unsubscribing. Once again, this message has to go to the control address. And the message is:

unsubscribe amazons

You don’t have to tell it your name, because it already knows it from when you subscribed.

Taking Part

So you’re subscribed, now what? Now, it’s time to brush up on your netiquette, because getting flamed in private mail is nothing compared to getting flamed in full view of your electronic friends. Be kind to others, and take a deep breath when they’re not kind to you.

It’s going to be hard to get people angry at you if you don’t know how to take part in the discussion. When you have something to say to the members of a mailing list, you send the message via e-mail to the discussion address. If the discussion address is, that’s where you send the message. And it’ll get copied and sent to each and every person on the mailing list.

Error Messages

Sometimes you’ll get very strange mail when you try to send something out to a mailing list, telling you that your mail was “undeliverable”. If you want to worry about it, you’re going to have to play detective: most of these messages mean nothing. What happens is that one person who is listed as a member was unreachable. Their computer was dead, or they canceled their e-mail address without canceling their mailing list memberships. Your message went out fine to every other member. If you send your message out again, most members are going to get it twice and they’re going to let you know that it’s inappropriate to send messages twice.

If you are worried that your message didn’t make it to anyone, look at the junk in the error message. If it says that it “couldn’t reach a host”, and that “host” is the part of the mailing list address after the ‘@’, then perhaps the computer that the mailing list is on went down temporarily. Or, perhaps you misspelled the “host” part of the mailing list. Double-check your spelling and try again if you can see where you made the mistake.

If it says that it “couldn’t find a user”, and the user is the part of the mailing list address before the ‘@’, then either the list address was changed and no one told you (the jerks!), or you misspelled the address. Double-check your spelling and try again if you can see where you made the mistake.

Continually retrying when you can’t see where you made a mistake is a recipe for flames. The message probably went out fine to everybody except one person, and re-mailing it is continually resending it to everybody except that one person.

  1. Personal Discussion Groups
  2. Freedom Of Assembly
  3. Usenet Newsgroups