Discussion Groups: Accessing An Underused Internet Resource

Discussion Groups: Accessing An Underused Internet Resource

By John Makulowich

Contributing Writer

Over the next few columns, I intend to probe what remains one of the more overlooked and underused resources on the Internet, especially given the current obsession with the World Wide Web. The resource I have in mind is the discussion group; that is, an e-mail-based list, either moderated or unmoderated, of "subscribers" interested in a specific subject, for example, an issue, individual or institution. The distribution of information can be one-way, with only the owner sending messages to list members, or two-way, allowing users to send mail back to the list for distribution to all subscribers.

I'll avoid going into all the variations of a discussion group in order to spare readers death by a thousand qualifications. For those who want to plumb the depths, I offer the URL for specific sites, for example, L-Soft International Inc. (http://www.lsoft.com/), the company that develops and licenses the Listserv software mailing list manager.

According to Liszt (http://www.liszt.com/), a Web site that contains a database of the great majority of discussion groups, there are currently in excess of 66,580 such groups on more than 2,225 sites.

While smaller discussion groups, for instance, 20 to 25 people, can be managed manually with the list owner adding names by typing them, most groups require the use of a list manager software program to gather and maintain subscriber information. The more popular managers go by such names as Listserv, Listproc and Majordomo.

The granddaddy of them all is Listserv, created by Eric Thomas in 1986 under the name revised listserv. One of its values is the extensive series of commands that allow users not only to search the archives of messages passed by subscribers, but also to identify subscribers by domain and country.

According to data at its Web site, Listserv is used for 11,744 public lists. Add another 40,789 local lists and the total number exceeds 52,500. Total subscriber membership is nearly 8 million with more than 20 million messages delivered the day of the survey. And those numbers do not include the Listserv program housed on intranet servers.

The software is now available for a wide range of operating systems, including VM, VMS, 13 brands of Unix, Windows NT and Windows 95. It is also being ported to the Macintosh and to MPE (HP3000).

The commands to subscribe to any given public Listserv-based discussion group are straightforward. Send a note to listserv at the domain in question. For example, if you wanted to subscribe to a discussion group for all the new groups that are created, you would send a note to listserv@listserv.nodak.edu. In the text, you would write, "subscribe <the list name> <Your-First-Name Your-Last-Name>". In my case, it would be "subscribe NEW-LIST John Makulowich". Once you join a list, to send a note to all subscribers (versus subscribing), you send your message to the name of the list at the domain, for example, adv-html@ua1vm.ua.edu. You can always get detailed information from any domain that hosts discussion groups using the Listserv manager by sending a message with the word "help" in the text to the address, for example, listserv@listserv.nodak.edu.

John Makulowich writes, talks and trains on the Internet. Send e-mail to john@journalist.com. The URL for his home page is http://www.cais.com/makulow/ or http://www.trainer.com/pub/journalism/

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