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

Innovation, the Internet, gadgets, and more.
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.

Why am I so into mailing lists? In part, it's from personal experience. Over the last decade, I've worked at three online magazines—Wired.com, Salon, and now Slate. I was a big fan of all of these publications before I started at each, but what surprised me the most about each of these publications was how much more interesting they were on the inside. Many of the stories you read on Slate—it could even be the majority—are inspired or informed by e-mail discussions. I open my inbox every morning and find it filled with links to news, plus long threads of hilarious, profound, and sometimes completely infuriating discussions about those links. The forum is a prized source of information and a wonderful sounding board: When I have an idea I want feedback on, I post it to Slate's e-mail group; it's a much more reliable way of getting good, meaningful responses than, say, putting out a call on Twitter.

The quality of the discussions at my various workplaces stems in part from the caliber of the people there, but that's not the whole story. In the past few years Slate, like all publications, has tried to open its internal discussions to the public through Twitter and Facebook, but those platforms can never mimic what's going on in our e-mail groups. That's because the e-mail lists are closed: When people believe their thoughts are being shared only with a small group, they're more comfortable to express what they really feel and can thus say more interesting things.

There are advantages to listservs even when they're not private. E-mail is available everywhere, for starters. "In a world where devices proliferate, e-mail is king, equal on all of them," says Jim Griffin, the co-creator of Pho, a huge and storied e-mail list devoted to discussions about digital entertainment. You can't say the same about Twitter and Facebook, which might not work correctly—or as quickly, or at all—on all mobile devices or across other platforms. E-mail is also more accommodating of long messages. There's no character limit, as on Twitter, and there are many handy tools that allow for functions not available on Facebook (you can save a draft, check spelling, add inline links, and organize a torrent of messages using automated filters).

McCullagh points out that different social norms apply to e-mail, too. For example, comments on Facebook tend to be relentlessly positive. Because posts there are tied to your real-life identity, it's difficult to criticize someone sharply on his Facebook page; if you do, it's considered rude, like swearing at someone in his own house. Mailing lists, meanwhile, are very accepting of flame wars. As James Fallows notes, these can sometimes be annoying—especially if you're not a party to them—but the best flame wars can be thoroughly absorbing and informative, and I've even seen flame wars change people's minds.

This leads to perhaps the best thing about e-mail lists: They are just about the only medium online devoted exclusively to discussing things. You start a Facebook group to popularize an idea (1 million people against hipsters!), you start a Tumblr to make fun of the idea (Look at This Fucking Hipster), and you start a Twitter account to get a lot of people interested in your pithy observations about the idea. E-mail lists, by contrast, are devoted to getting people to talk about an idea. What's more important than that?

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Farhad Manjoo is a technology columnist for the New York Times and the author of True Enough.

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