NET GAINS: Return to sender?
Saturday 15 November 1997
I'm going out on a limb here, but I have a suspicion that junk mail, like airline food, is one of that select group of things about which people moan, but secretly rather like.
Perhaps that's one of the reasons I have a soft spot for Internet mailing lists. It really doesn't matter that you're corresponding with a computer, or that you are effectively receiving junk e-mail. It's just rather nice to know that somebody else wants to acknowledge that you're out there
If you haven't come across mailing lists before (and that's hardly surprising - they're not the most user-friendly aspect of the Internet), they are exactly what their name suggests. In effect, they are just newsletters that you receive by e-mail. The advantage, though, is that they cost the distributors virtually nothing in production and distribution, and that recipients only need an e-mail address rather than a web browser to use them. Suddenly, newsletters on any subject under the sun have become economically viable. And, as you'd expect, there are mailing lists that cover everything from Babylon 5 to cryogenics.
It's a pity, perhaps, that mailing lists have never really taken off in the way that, say, the web has. Perhaps it's something to do with the fact that they lack the gee-whizz attraction of web pages. But I think it's probably more to do with the fact that they are, in my experience, extremely user-unfriendly. Nobody has ever, to my knowledge, yet worked out a way of making them easy to use. The protocol involves sending commands by e-mail to the computer which hosts the mailing list you want, using a rather arcane set of commands. The computer then automatically sends you the newsletter whenever it comes out, which can be anything from several times a day to every week.
There are a number of sites on the web that hold indexes of mailing lists. They are fairly long, though, so it may take some time to work your way through them and pull out anything you find interesting. However, most hosts allow you to specify a subject area that you're interested in and you can pull up an index of appropriate subjects.
The first, and most frustrating, thing you'll find is that, like most things on the web, there is an extremely strong American bias. Bear in mind also that, when you subscribe to a list, you'll receive instructions about how to unsubscribe. It is fairly important to keep a note of how to do it; it's easy to find yourself being e-mailed with a list that isn't really to your taste only to find you have no idea how to remove yourself from it.
My experience is that mailing lists are only worth subscribing to if they deal with a subject that you really feel you should keep abreast of without the hassle of trawling through newsgroups every so often.
An accessible introduction to mailing lists with plenty of links to other related sites.
An index for a wide range of mailing lists.
email address: LISTSERV @ IUBVM.UCS.INDIANA.EDU
A particularly eclectic list of well-managed email sites. Email this address with the message: for a list of mailing lists dealing with subject xxxx
Send the message: for an index of user commands
Home page for "Need To Know", a kind of nerds' Private Eye, and my current favourite mailing list.
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