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Participating in Discussion Lists

This document covers the fundamentals of discussion lists, one of the simplest forms of collaborative technology. They put scholars in touch with others pursuing similar interests, and they can be used to extend the classroom experience beyond the schedule of a class. Discussion lists are extensions of Internet e-mail, and as such are easily picked up by students and faculty with little prior experience with information technology. Discussion lists can be set up easily and used within a course to facilitate communication and collaboration among course members. As appropriate, such course-based discussion lists can be opened up to the global Internet community to extend local discussions. Discussion lists often provide a forum for participants who might otherwise remain silent in face-to-face classroom settings.

What are Internet Discussion Lists?


are based on e-mail,

focus on a single topic, or related topics,

are managed by a discussion moderator, usually a person with a particular interest or involvement in the topic,

resemble magazine subscriptions, since you subscribe to the discussion,

allow you to remain a silent reader, lead the discussion, or anything in between.

Internet discussion lists are no more than a program running on a computer somewhere on the Internet, a program that listens for incoming e-mail and responds accordingly. Discussion lists go by many names: listservers, or in the jargon of the ‘net, listservs, discussion lists, or even mail exploders. The latter is perfectly descriptive of discussion lists, for this is precisely what the programs do: they take incoming e-mail that has been sent to the list and “explode” it by sending a copy of the incoming e-mail to each and every subscriber. One piece of e-mail explodes into as many pieces as there are subscribers.

Two Styles of Discussion Lists

There are two styles of discussion lists, each with two important e-mail addresses

Since they are based on e-mail, discussion lists have e-mail addresses. In fact, these lists have two addresses: one forcommands to control subscriptions and one for the actual content of the discussion. Keep the difference between these addresses straight! One of the most common errors an Internet “newbie” (jargon for someone new to Internet protocols) can make is to send a subscription command to the wrong e-mail address for a discussion list and thereby verify to all other members of the list that they are in fact inexperienced. Given that the list is likely to send mail to many people involved in a field of interest, this can be painful - but don’t despair: it has happened to each and every person on the ‘Net!

The address to which you send subscriptions for a discussion list is usually in one of two forms, and for sake of example, let’s assume that the list of our interest is on the Arctic.

Addressing Form # 1

The address of the list (imaginary in this example) is

It is running at the University of Alaska (uak), an educational (edu) institution on the Internet. To this address, one sends one’s postings for distribution to all other subscribers. The other address for this list, the address for commands like subscribe and unsubscribe, is

To this address, one send commands like subscribe (to start receiving e-mail exploded from the list), or unsubscribe (to drop out of the list), or review (to see who is subscribed to the list. For example, to subscribe to Arctic in this addressing form, we would send a one-line e-mail message containing only the line

to the address

Addressing Form #2

The address of the list in this form is slightly different. The address of the list itself (for posting your comments) is

Note the -l part of the address, “l” standing for list. Send e-mail to this address and everyone on the list gets your mail. But in this form, the administrative address is quite different. The address for commands is

It says nothing about “arctic” in the address, for this is the e-mail address for ALL discussion lists running at the University of Alaska. It could be handling just our list on Arctic affairs, or it could be handling hundreds of lists of many varied topics. To send anadministrative command to this second form of list, you have to send not only the command but the name of the discussion list for which you wish that command executed. For example, to subscribe to Arctic with the second form of address, we would send the one line e-mail message

to the address

While the form of address is different for each of these types of lists, note that for both, there is an administrative address and an address for the list itself. There are other aspects of discussion lists which are similar in spite of these differences in addressing forms.

Normally you cannot post messages to a list unless you are subscribed to it, and in fact it’s a good idea to listen in a while before posting something that may have just been covered in the discussion, or may be inappropriate for the coverage of the list.

Restricted Lists

Some discussion lists are restricted to selected participants. If you find out about one of these lists, and send its administrative e-mail address a subscribe command, you will not be automatically subscribed to the list, but rather your request will be forwarded on to the moderator of the list for approval. He or she will then add you to the list, reject you and tell you why, or simply ignore your request. Don’t be surprised if a moderator ignores your request: they may be getting hundreds each day for a “hot” list that is closed to all but a small group.

Welcome Message

Once you subscribe successfully, you normally receive a welcoming message, a piece of “boilerplate” set up for each list by the moderator. This message generally will tell you what the rules of participation for the list are, and will tell you how to unsubscribe from the list. FILE THIS E-MAIL MESSAGE! Don’t delete it, for you will almost certainly need it when you go to unsubscribe from the list. When you get a welcoming message, at the MAIL> prompt, type FILE xxxxx and press R (where xxxxx is the name of the folder in which you want to store it).

Leaving a List

Why would you leave a list? There are many reasons to leave a list. How about getting 400 pieces of e-mail each day? Or finding that the list is about Arctic fishing instead of Arctic politics? Or you are going on vacation for two weeks and can’t stand the thought of having to read 2,000 pieces of outdated e-mail when you get back?

Some comments on those last two cases:

Most lists allow you to send in a “no mail” command which leaves you subscribed to the list but stops sending you e-mail.

If you cancel your e-mail account while you are still subscribed to a discussion list, several people have to take time to figure out ways of removing your name from the list manually. Often the moderator has to do this, so unless you’ve left the field entirely, try not to offend moderators by simply disappearing from the Internet with your subscription running.

Some Pedagogical Examples

Discussion lists are used for many personal and professional reasons, including research, staying in touch with others, gathering information, keeping current on the latest developments. But discussion lists can play a special role in teaching and learning. Discussion lists don’t have to be global; in fact, some of the most successful examples of e-mail discussion lists are local.

use a discussion list to extend discussions beyond the classroom

use a discussion list to enable students to collaborate on assignments

use a discussion list to share their writing projects

use a discussion list to draw out less assertive students who often do not speak out in class

use a discussion list to circulate or amend assignments

use a discussion list........nearly any way you can imagine.

But discussion lists can be used at the global level as well. For instance, a discussion list can start at the local level, develop a strong theme, and then be “announced” to the Internet community for others to join. Or students can collaborate in writing a paper, then post it to a discussion list for comment.

Some Potholes on the Information Superhighway

A word of caution about participating in large, pre-existing discussion lists distributed on the Internet. Listen to a discussion until you are confident that you understand the character of the discussion before posting. Discussions in lists tend to be longer-lived than threads in USENET newsgroups. Discussion list participants are usually more tolerant, but it is still wise to know your audience even if they are virtual.

Some large discussion lists resemble the unofficial USENET newsgroups, and you may find that someone “out there” does not agree with you. Flaming is simply sending inappropriately outrageousor intentionally offensive e-mail as a way of expressing indignation, disagreement, etc. Flaming is rare in well-run discussion lists, and most moderators don’t tolerate extreme or offensive language; the offender is removed from the list. Still, flaming can be common in the relatively secure anonymity of e-mail.

Where to Find the “List of Lists”?

There are perhaps 50,000 or more discussion lists active on the Internet today. There is no single directory of all these lists, but new ways of indexing Internet resources, such as discussion lists, are coming “online” each day. There is a list of many (not all) discussion lists on KCInfo. At the VAX $ prompt, type KCINFO and press R . At the opening menu, follow the pathway below to get to the current list:

7. Internet Resources

10. Selected Information Resources

6. List of Discussion Groups

How Are lists announced to the Internet Community?

There are several discussion lists whose topic is new discussion lists. One of the most popular is “net-happenings” run out of the University of North Dakota by one Gleason Sackman. His list has become legendary, and if you have an exciting new list, let him know.

How Can I Set Up a Discussion List Now?

A separate document, “Creating and Managing Internet Discussion Lists at Kenyon,” has been prepared to guide you through the process of creating your own discussion lists.

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