The listserv, one of the Internet's earliest innovations, is still one of its best.

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Aug. 5 2010 9:14 PM

The Joy of Listservs

One of the Internet's earliest innovations is still one of its best.

Illustration by Robert Neubecker. Click image to expand.

During one frenzied weekend in 1986, Eric Thomas, an engineering student in Paris, invented what would become one of the most important things on the Internet: the listserv. Actually, what he created was LISTSERV, a network program to manage e-mail discussion groups. Those with access to the fledgling Internet had been using mailing lists since the 1970s, but the lists always had to be set up manually—only a list manager could keep the group's participants up-to-date, and that took a lot of work. With LISTSERV came automation: a moderator would set a few simple rules—who could access the list, how often mail would go out, etc.—and then users could manage their own subscriptions.

After LISTSERV, e-mail lists took off. Thomas says that within a few years, there were hundreds of discussion groups, then thousands, most of them hosted at universities and devoted to scientific research or technology. (One of the biggest early lists was LINKFAIL, where people could report Internet outages; LINKFAIL eventually got so big that its own traffic began to generate network failures.) Soon other list-management programs popped up to compete with LISTSERV, and it wasn't long before people began using listserv as a generic noun to denote an e-mail discussion group. Legally, that's a no-no—LISTSERV is a registered trademark of L-Soft International, Thomas' Swedish software company, which offers several examples of proper usage on its site. For instance, you shouldn't say, "Let's post a message to the listserv." Instead, say, "Let's post a message to the LISTSERV® e-mail list."

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It's impossible, of course, for L-Soft to police those rules: Listservs—whether or not they're LISTSERV® e-mail lists—long ago became a basic feature of the Internet. They're so entrenched that you rarely notice them anymore. We all use e-mail lists all the time, yet in our frenzy over Twitter, Facebook, and other novel communication tools, we forget how valuable well-managed e-mail groups can be. I admit I only got to thinking about listservs after JournoList—blogger Ezra Klein's now-defunct, off-the-record discussion group of liberal reporters and academics—popped into the news. Klein has written that he started the group (using Google Groups, not LISTSERV) to give journalists a private space to discuss the news in a way they couldn't in public.

I was never on JournoList, and it has always sounded like an unworkable idea to me—how can you expect a bunch of reporters to keep all those discussions secret? (Blogger David Weigel, whose leaked JournoList e-mails led to his resignation at the Washington Post, was recently hired by Slate; I've never met Weigel or even e-mailed with him.) At the same time, I understood Klein's impulse. That impulse being: Listservs are wonderful! For a lot of topics, e-mail lists—especially off-the-record lists—are better than Twitter, Facebook, and Tumblr at fostering a sense of community and generating deep, thoughtful conversations.

Unfortunately, e-mail groups don't have the same buzz as the latest wave of Webby communication tools. "I remember 10 years ago, you'd have people saying things like, 'Hey, I'm starting the Let's Fix the DMCA mailing list,' " says Declan McCullagh, a CNET reporter who started Politech, a pioneering mailing list covering tech and politics, in 1994. (It went on hiatus on 2008, but McCullagh plans to relaunch it later this year.) "You just don't hear that as much anymore. Today people would be more inclined to start a Twitter hashtag or a Facebook fan page or something like that."

That's a shame—in a world dominated by blurbs, tweets, and sound bites, we need more mailing lists, not fewer. Reader, I'm asking you to join me in a new mission—let's save listservs! If you've got a favorite mailing list, e-mail me the name and topic or post a comment below—I'd like to learn about it even if it isn't widely accessible or if it's on a subject that I probably won't care about (like sports). I don't want to out these lists in order to destroy them, a la Tucker Carlson; I'd like to promote them to the world, because we should all be participating in more listservs.

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