In Praise of the Lowly “Listserv”

By Marilynne Rudick on August 5, 2010

In the past few months, two technology-related e-mail discussion groups I subscribe to have vigorously debated whether it is time to ditch the plain vanilla e-mail “listserv” that has been the mainstay of member communication, and migrate the discussion group to a newer social media platform, such as Facebook or Linkedin. In the end, both groups decided to retain the tried-and-true automated e-mail list and also broaden their reach to include Facebook and LinkedIn. List group members liked the simplicity of the e-mail list and concluded that the value of the group was in the relationships that were established, not the discussion platform.

Despite the proliferation of Facebook and Linkedin discussion groups and forums, the lowly e-mail-based discussion group has refused to die. E-mail groups that network communities of common interests—from professional associations, to hobbies and neighborhoods—flourish because they are simple to set up and join, and they use a tool that you know and love—e-mail.

How Do E-Mail Groups Work?

While the first e-mail discussion groups were powered by LISTSERV’s proprietary automated e-mail software, today groups are most commonly hosted by Yahoo! and Google.

The concept is simple. You subscribe to an e-mail discussion group. Subscribers send e-mail to the discussion group’s e-mail address, and all group members receive the message. Members of the group have a choice of responding publicly  to every member of the group, or privately to the poster’s personal e-mail. Old messages can be archived by date and topic, so group member can access a previous discussion via a keyword search.

How Do You Start An E-Mail Group?

One of the reasons that e-mail groups thrive is the ease of starting a new group. To start a new group hosted by Google or Yahoo!, click the “start your group option,” then select the category that best fits your group, and give it a name. For example, say you want to start a group of local gardeners to share tips on growing tomatoes. Select a category (home and family), then name your group (Chevy Chase tomato growers). Choose an e-mail address for the group’s messages, (, and provide a brief description of the group. You can make the group public (anyone can join) or private (only people you approve). You can invite people to join by sending e-mail invitations.

How Do You Join an Existing E-Mail Group?

It’s even easier to join an existing group than to set one up. Regardless of your interest, there’s a good chance there’s a group. Start by searching existing Yahoo! and Google groups. My keyword search for tomatoes in Google groups turned up 118 tomato-related groups, including Tomato Fanatics and Tomato World. Once you’ve found a group that matches your interest, sign up by entering your e-mail address and selecting whether you’d like to receive individual messages when they are posted or receive them all in one daily digest. (If the group is large and active, choose digest so that your inbox isn’t inundated with messages.)

Will newer applications make e-mail discussion groups obsolete? Probably, but in the meantime, e-mail  groups provide an easy way to network with people with similar interests.

Categories: E-Mail & Messaging, Social Networking

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