Listserv (mailing list) basics

A group on is very much like a listserv, also known as a mailing list. In this post we discuss the basics of how a listserv works, and how improves on the basic functionality.

A group with, like a listserv, has members. The members are normally interested in a common goal, or general subject area. For example, they members may be interested in open government, systems that catalogue wildlife, or developing a great listserv.

Sending an email

A group member making a post

A member makes a post by sending an email to the address of the group.

Members normally share information with each other by sending email. A group, like a listserv, has an email address. When a person has something to share they send an email to this address.

A unique email address for each group makes it much easier for the members to share. Each group member only has to remember the address for the group, rather than remembering the addresses of all the individual members. The system also automatically updates the membership when people join and leave the group, making it far easier for everyone to manage.


Archiving the message

The archive is updated with the details of the new email message

The archive is updated with the new post.

One of the big advantages of over a listserv is what happens when the group receives the email: we add the email to an excellent archive, which you can access using the web. Every group has its own unique page on the web, in much the same way that every group has its own email address.

The archive allows new members to see what has been discussed previously.  It also allows existing members to catch up on what has been discussed while they were away (on vacation, for example). Members can also share links to the archive, enhancing their conversations. To ensure that only the right people see the messages makes it easy to restrict access the archive.

The messages in the archive are automatically organised by topic. In the image shown here the email that was just sent to the group is about an existing topic, so the number of posts in the topic is increased by one, and the date of the most resent post is also updated.

Sending the email from the listserv

The new message is sent from the group to all the members of the group.

The post is sent out to all the group members.

After the message is archived the group sends an email to all the members, just like a listserv. This allows the members to use any email program they like to keep in touch with the group.

The email contains the message that the member wrote, but it is changed a little.

  • The name of the group is added to the Subject of the email, so people can easily spot messages from the group.
  • A link is added to the bottom of the message, so people can quickly find out more about the topic by visiting the archive. has many other advantages over  a normal listserv. For example, members can have multiple email addresses — such as one for work and one for home — and they can select the address that is best for the group. The members can also elect to receive a daily summary of posts, or they can just use the web archive to read and make posts, rather than one email every time someone posts.

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