Manfred Kuechler
Hunter College

Email Discussion Lists, Bulletin/Discussion Boards, Newsgroups, and Blogs

Last Update: October 1, 2003
 
 
This is a brief overview on the topic used as a teaching supplement in various classes with an "Internet research" component like Soc 309 and GSR 716.

 Table of Contents:

What are "Email Discussion Lists" and "Bulletin/Discussion Boards"?

Both provide a forum for a "virtual community", a group of people sharing a common interest in a specific topic and wanting to exchange information and opinions related to this topic.

Traditionally, "Email Discussion Lists" operate exclusively via e-mail. Notwithstanding some variations, people "subscribe" to a list to become members of this virtual community and every message they "send to the list" (a specific e-mail address) is automatically distributed to all subscribers (members) of the list.

"Bulletin or Discussion Boards" are web pages to which people can post messages directly (posting rights are often restricted to people who have "registered" or "subscribed" first).

Today, the distinction between these two forms has become blurred as

In general, but there are exceptions, e-mail lists tend to be more professional and/or more dedicated to the defining topic than discussion boards. For professional or scholarly purposes, lists and boards with stricter access control usually have more valuable contents than those with little or no access control.

What are "Newsgroups" and "Blogs"?

Historically, "usenet newsgroups" were the first widely used form to establish virtual communities.  Newsgroups started in 1979 -- long before "Internet" and "e-mail" became household words. Access to newsgroups used to require a special news reader (later bundled with web browsers like Netscape) and special "news servers". A few years ago, Google acquired the almost complete newsgroup archive (going back to 1981) and newsgroup can now be accessed via a convenient web interface. But given its anarchic character, "newsgroups" are of little use for scholarly research on specific topics (other than the Internet -- as a topic of research -- itself). Newsgroups often contain material considered as "offensive" by some -- ranging from pornography to hate speech.

"Blogs" or "web logs" are the latest addition to this group of communication tools. In essence, these are publicly posted personal diaries (logs).  Several providers offer both free easy-to-use software and free web server space to set up and maintain such blogs -- including Blogger by  Pyra Labs (acquired by Google in February 2003), one of the  pioneers in this field.  Blogs can be set up to give a small group rather than just one individual posting rights. At Hunter College, a student journal ("Political Paradigm") has set up a blog to give its editors a posting forum in between regular issues of the journal. This rather elaborate blog also offers visitors an opportunity to post comments. Blogger does not yet include this feature in its own software; rather, a free service like YACCS must be used to post and display such visitor comments (though this remains invisible to the casual visitor). 

Blogs do not offer any functionality beyond what a LISTSERV e-mail discussion group (with a web archive) offers, but they are much more accessible (affordable) for students and student groups. This also means that the quality of information available via these blogs varies widely and that in many cases it is difficulty to determine who exactly is behind a blog. Blogs are the "soap boxes" of the electronic age.

Types of "Discussion Lists/Boards"

Discussion lists/boards can be classified in various ways

Where to find suitable "Discussion Lists/Boards"?

There are several directories of public lists; private lists (though often more useful for scholarly purposes) are more difficult to find. Directories include:

How to subscribe to an "Email Discussion List" and manage the subscription?

A. LISTSERV lists via e-mail
(the instructions in this section apply to LISTPROC and majordomo lists as well, apart from minor differences in the exact form of commands, see command overview)

A list has two e-mail addresses:

All subscription related communication (see command overview) is done via specific commands sent to the subscription address (where a program not a human being responds). Both addresses can be found in an entry in the CataList directory, here is an example:
 

PLSC333-L@LISTSERV.BINGHAMTON.EDU

ESG for plsc333 CIVIL RIGHTS AND LIBERTIES


List name: PLSC333-L
Host name: LISTSERV.BINGHAMTON.EDU (Binghamton University)
Subscribers:  44
Features:
  • Spam filter
  • Hands free bounce processing


To subscribe, send mail to LISTSERV@LISTSERV.BINGHAMTON.EDU with the command (paste it!):

SUBSCRIBE PLSC333-L
For more information, you can:

In this example

The posting address is always of the form
list_name@host_name

Note that most lists require a confirmation of a subscription request (to prevent abuse, someone subscribing you without your knowledge). Just watch your e-mail account and respond promptly following the instructions provided (more details in the following section).

In general, there is no need to contact the owner of the list, so you will not use the third address: "PLSC333-L-request@LISTSERV.BINGHAMTON.EDU". You would use this address only if -- after being a subscriber -- you suddenly experience problems with the delivery of messages and you need to reach a human being rather than a program.

In any case, make sure that you always use exactly the same form of the e-mail address you have used for your initial request. Failure to do so is a very common source of problems.

B. LISTSERV lists via web interface
If a list has a web archive, you can do all communication with the list via this web interface -- both subscription management and posting. The advantage is that you do not need to pay much attention to the different list addresses, as the web interface is much more intuitive. Introduction to using the web interface for a LISTSERV e-mail list.

You can freely switch back and forth between using the web interface and using e-mail. No matter which way you subscribe to a list, you will receive a "welcome to (list name)" message indicating that the subscription process has been completed successfully. In addition, to a confirmation request (fairly common), some lists have an approval process where a human being makes a decision about allowing you to become a subscriber. Sometimes this is just a formality (which can nevertheless cause a time delay), sometimes there is some real screening involved -- and you may not be admitted. So, it is really important to look out for the "welcome message" and keep it -- as this message also contains important information about the details of your subscription. However, those welcome messages vary greatly. Here is an example of a very detailed welcome message (it is almost a brief manual on how use the list):
 

Date:         Sun, 20 Jan 2002 18:40:22 -0500
From: "L-Soft list server at The City University of NY (1.8d)" <LISTSERV@CUNYVM.CUNY.EDU>
Subject:      Welcome to CUNYTECH!
To: Manfred Kuechler <mkuechle@HUNTER.CUNY.EDU>
Reply-To: CUNYTECH-request@CUNYVM.CUNY.EDU
X-LSV-ListID: CUNYTECH

This message contains important information about the CUNYTECH electronic
discussion forum for faculty and staff of the City University of New York.

CONTENTS
INTRODUCTION
1. POSTING GUIDELINES
2. POSTING MESSAGES TO THE MEMBERSHIP
3. REPLYING TO MESSAGES
4. ADMINISTRATIVE MATTERS
   a. To join CUNYTECH
   b. To unsubscribe
   c. To stop mail temporarily
   d. To restart your mail
   e. To receive CUNYTECH mail in a single, daily message (DIGEST)
   f. To receive only an index of messages posted each day (INDEX)
   g. To get a log of past postings on CUNYTECH
   h. To find the e-mail address of a subscriber
            i.To get the complete list of CUNYTECH subscribers
           ii.To search for past messages on a specific topic
5. IF YOU SUDDENLY STOP RECEIVING MAIL:
6. ADDRESSES OF CUNYTECH MANAGERS

======================================================================
INTRODUCTION:
   This electronic discussion "list" was created and is run by members
   of the University-wide Systems Committee of the University Faculty
   Senate of the City University of New York. The committee hopes to
   continue in this electronic forum the discussions that were begun in
   its December '94 conference held at the Borough of Manhattan Community
   College: "Educational Technology: What Works? What's Needed? Who Decides?"
   The CUNYTECH list is open to all faculty and staff of CUNY, and aims to
   promote open and fruitful discussion of all issues related to
   technology in the university.

1. POSTING GUIDELINES:
   The CUNYTECH list has as the focus of its discussion all forms of
   technology as they relate to the educational, administrative, and
   library needs of CUNY. We ask that all posts relate directly to the
   focus of CUNYTECH, and that they be concise and brief.
   We also ask that the tone of all posts remain collegial and well-
   mannered.
   CUNYTECH is not a moderated forum, but the managers ask for self-
   moderation on the part of all who belong, so that this can be a useful
   and productive resource for all of CUNY.

2. POSTING MESSAGES TO THE MEMBERSHIP

 Messages which you want read by the entire subscribership are sent to
                CUNYTECH@CUNYVM.CUNY.EDU  or
                CUNYTECH@CUNYVM.BITNET

 (If you are sending from a CUNYVM address, there is no need to add
  CUNYVM when posting to CUNYTECH; just address the message to CUNYTECH)

 For some users, only ONE of the above addresses will work.  Sending
 a message to the wrong address will result in a message saying that
 "You are not authorized...."  In such cases, please try the other
 address.  If it also does not work, send the message that you
 received from the Listserv to one of the CUNYTECH managers, along with an
 explanation of what you were trying to do. The names and addresses of
 the managers are at the end of this message.

 ***When posting please be SURE that your message follows the CUNYTECH
 posting guidelines. (non-commercial, relevant to technology issues in
 CUNY, non-personal in nature, clear and brief)
======================================================================
3. REPLYING TO MESSAGES

 Using your 'reply' function after reading a CUNYTECH message will direct
 your message to the CUNYTECH list, the whole group. You most likely will
 have to enter the person's email address manually in order to reply in
 private to an individual CUNYTECH member. In the VM system, typing
 "reply from" at the top of a person's CUNWIDE posting will direct your
 reply back to that person, not to the group.
======================================================================
4. ADMINISTRATIVE MATTERS

 All of the following messages must be sent to the Listserv (the
 "computer robot" program that handles administrative matters).  You
 can send multiple commands in a single message, one per line.

   LISTSERV@CUNYVM.BITNET  or  LISTSERV@CUNYVM.CUNY.EDU

 For some users, only ONE of the above addresses will work.  Sending
 a Listserv command to the wrong address will result in a message
 saying that "You are not authorized...."  In such cases, please try
 the other address.  If it also does not work, send the message that
 you received from the Listserv to the CUNYTECH managers, along
 with an explanation of what you were trying to do.

a. To join CUNYTECH
                       SUB CUNYTECH my-full-name
                           Example:  SUB CUNYTECH Bill Clinton

b. To unsubscribe from CUNYTECH
                        UNSUB CUNYTECH

c. To stop mail temporarily

                        SET CUNYTECH NOMAIL

d. To restart your mail

                        SET CUNYTECH MAIL
 

e. To receive CUNYTECH mail in a single, daily message

                        SET CUNYTECH DIGEST

f. To receive only an index of messages posted each day (from
   which you may 'order' messages that you want to read

                        SET CUNYTECH INDEX

 Note that MAIL/NOMAIL/INDEX/DIGEST are four selections for a
 single setting in your subscription.  Only one of the four can
 be active at any one time.

g. To get a log of past postings on CUNYTECH from the CUNYTECH archives:

     All of the following messages must be sent to the Listserv (the
     computer program that handles administrative matters).  You can send
     multiple commands in a single message, one per line.

   LISTSERV@CUNYVM.BITNET  or  LISTSERV@CUNYVM.CUNY.EDU
 

        To get a log of past postings on CUNYTECH

               GET CUNYTECH LOGyymm

  Where yy = year, mm = month

  For example, CUNYTECH LOG9412  refers to the year 94, month 12
  (which is, of course, December)

h. To get the email address of particular CUNYTECH subscribers:
   i. Send a message to LISTSERV@CUNYVM.CUNY.EDU or LISTSERV@CUNYVM.BITNET
           REV CUNYTECH

   (This list will be alphabetical by node. If you would like
    the list alphabetical by name, send the following:
           REV CUNYTECH by name

   ii. To find the e-mail address of a subscriber

            SCAN CUNYTECH search-characters

   This command will yield a list of all subscribers whose name or
   address,in whole or part, matches the characters you specified.

            Example:  SCAN CUNYTECH jones

j. To search for past messages on a specific topic.

   It is possible to search the whole database of messages since
   the inception of CUNYTECH for those messages containing whatever
   keywords that you specify.  The SEARCH function, however, is too
   complex to be explained in this document.

   For further information send the following message to the LISTSERV:
            GET SEARCH INFO CUNYTECH

======================================================================
5. IF YOU SUDDENLY STOP RECEIVING MAIL:

 If your CUNYTECH mail suddenly stops, it probably means that your
 membership has been set to NOMAIL by the CUNYTECH managers because it
 was bouncing messages.
 Mail usually bounces for one of two reasons:

  1. Your electronic mailbox is full and your system refuses to take
     any more mail for you
  2. There is, or was, a breakdown in the link between CUNYVM and you
     (naturally, if you have a CUNYVM address, this is unlikely to happen!)
 In either case, it is your responsibility to check your mailbox and
 clear it out and/or check your system by sending this message to LISTSERV:

                    QUERY CUNYTECH

 which will show you your current status. If it reads "Mail=No" then send
 a message to the LISTSERV saying:

                    SET CUNYTECH MAIL

 After that, you should receive mail regularly;  it is still your own
 responsibility to check your mail and keep your mailbox clear.
======================================================================
6. MANAGERS OF CUNYTECH:
   Dean Savage (Sociology, Queens), Co-Chair, UFS/CUNY Committee on
   Technology

         email: savage@qcvaxa.acc.qc.edu

   Anthea Tillyer  (ESL, CCNY)      Co-Chair, UFS/CUNY Committee on
   Technology
         email: aticc@cunyvm.cuny.edu 

The welcome message may or may not tell you how exactly your subscription details are set. To find out use the "query" command, i.e., you sent a message to the subscription address with one line in the body of the message (not in the subject line):
QUERY (listname)
Of course, you need to replace "(listname)" by the actual name of the list. Here is an example what you will get back in return:
 

Date:         Tue, 22 Jan 2002 09:53:16 -0500
From: "L-Soft list server at The City University of NY (1.8d)" <LISTSERV@CUNYVM.CUNY.EDU>
Subject:      Output of your job "mkuechle"
To: Manfred Kuechler <mkuechle@HUNTER.CUNY.EDU>

> query cunytech
Subscription options for Manfred Kuechler <mkuechle@HUNTER.CUNY.EDU>, list
CUNYTECH:

MAIL           You are sent individual postings as they are received
FULLHDR        Full (normal) mail headers
NOREPRO        You do not receive a copy of your own postings
MSGACK         Short "TELL" acknowledgement of successfully processed
               postings

Subscription date: 20 Jan 2002

Summary of resource utilization
-------------------------------
 CPU time:        0.004 sec                Device I/O:        6
 Overhead CPU:    0.001 sec                Paging I/O:        0
 CPU model:        7060                    DASD model:     3390
 Job origin:      mkuechle@HUNTER.CUNY.EDU 

This message told me that I would neither receive a copy of my own postings (NOREPRO) nor a brief acknowledgment via e-mail (missing ACK), all I was supposed to get was an online message acknowledging receipt (MSGACK) which is useless unless I have an e-mail account on the same server (and I do not). The list owners did not set the defaults for this list intelligently, so I needed to modify my subscription by sending another command (see command summary).

Of course, using the web interface saves the trouble of all these e-mail messages; you can change your subscriptions option right on the web page.

C. Topica lists

Unlike LISZT which was a genuine directory or catalog of e-mail list hosted on a wide variety of server around the country and beyond, Topica is hosting a great number of lists on its web site, providing a very convenient (user friendly) web interface. The price for this convenience is the barrage of advertisements you are subjected to. But here are the steps involved:

  1. Search for a suitable list using the search box on the home page
  2. Go to the list specific page, this will look something like this

  3. To subscribe, you can either click on the link "subscribe", click the "Join this list button", or send an independent e-mail message to the address specified (bte-l-subscribe@topica.com). If you subscribe via the web interface, you will see a page like the following next.  You have to enter your  real name and your e-mail address, and you can choose the message delivery method from a pull-down menu:
  4. If you have not registered before and you enter your subscription request via the web interface, you will also be prompted to "register" (see below)
  5. If you will receive a confirmation request, reply as instructed. Once you are registered, you log in with a password eliminating confirmation requests for subsequent subscriptions and your subscriptions may be confirmed right away:
  6. If subscriptions need "owner approval" (as some lists do) you will receive another message informing that the owner has been contacted
  7. If approved you will receive a welcome message (note that "bte-l" list does not exist any more):

  8. To: kathman@bellatlantic.net
    From: Topica Support <support@get.topica.com>
    Subject: Welcome to BioTechEffect!
    Date: Thu, 21 Feb 2002 15:47:53 -0800
    Message-ID: <0.0.2146672126-1463792638-1014335273@topica.com>
    Reply-To: support@get.topica.com
    X-Topica-Id: <1014335272.web012.2529.1000001>

    Welcome to BioTech Effect!
    Here's a description of the list:
    BTE-L was created to foster active and lively discussion on the topic of biotechnology and genetic engineering, and their effects on human and non-human life.
    To unsubscribe, send a blank email to:
        bte-l-unsubscribe@topica.com
    To post a message to the list, send email to:
        bte-l@topica.com
    To read this list on the web, visit the following url:
        http://www.topica.com/lists/bte-l

    If you're not already registered with Topica,
    complete their simple registration process

    Thanks for joining!

    Michael Meuser
    meuser@mapcruzin.com
     

  9. In addition to subscribing to specific lists, Topica wants you to "register" at their site and to set up a special personalized web page through which you can manage all your Topica list subscriptions. If you do so, you will receive a confirmation of this registration as well:

  10. To: kathman@bellatlantic.net
    From: Topica Support <support@get.topica.com>
    Subject: Your Topica Registration is Complete!
    Date: Thu, 21 Feb 2002 15:29:00 -0800
    Message-ID: <0.0.1001296564-1463792638-1014334140@topica.com>
    Reply-To: support@get.topica.com
    X-Topica-Id: <1014334136.web009.22067.1000001>

    Hello, and welcome!

    Thanks for signing up. Be sure to visit the links 
    below to take advantage of the benefits of your 
    new membership at Topica.

    --------------------------------------------------
    * Organize your subscriptions with My Topica.

    Put messages on hold, search or browse back issues, 
    manage your Topica email easily, and more!

    Log in now to learn more:
    http://www.topica.com/partner/sysmes1/my
     

    Don't remember your password?
    http://www.topica.com/partner/sysmes1/login.html
     ...... 

  11. You can access your "My Topica" page by using the e-mail address and the password you "registered". On the "My Topica" page, you can add and cancel subscriptions, change or add additional e-mail addresses (for yourself), change your password, and more.

And here is a look at a message posted to the "EWAR" list and the options (buttons) available to you as subscriber:
 
"Options"  lets you change the delivery method  (each posting delivered via e-mail, digest via e-mail, or no e-mail);  "Post"  sets you up to enter a posting of your own; "Forward" lets you send the displayed posting to any e-mail address, and "Reply" sets up an immediate response to the message shown.