Mailing List Care and Feeding
Matthew Arnison
email: maffew .a.t. purplebark .d.o.t. net
June 1998
Updated: June 2002

I've seen a fair bit written up about the technicalities of running a mailing list, but little on the very real human side. A successful mailing list needs care and feeding, as well as the mechanics of subscription and dealing with the list management sof tware.

Like chairing a meeting or workshop, you need to know more than just how to use a whiteboard.

From launching and maintaining the CAMPsite (Community Accesss Media People mailing list) for a couple of years, and participating in a bunch of mailing lists and newsgroups over the years, this document is my attempt to distill some of what makes sense to me about online discussion. Hope it's useful.

Most of my experience in list management software is with majordomo, but the same basic ideas apply to LISTSERV and other common software. I like to call the list management software the list robot. It's the robot's job to automate su bscribing and unsubscribing, and to filter messages before sending them out to all subscribers. The robot isn't perfect, so that's technically why every list needs a human maintainer.

I reckon a good discussion group will have:

I mean you don't have to have all of these, but each of them can add to the benefits of the list. A good list is about building a virtual community. That's always going to need some organising.

It also helps to know about:


An easily recognised theme to the discussion is essential. This is what will draw people to subscribe, and how people judge what they write on the list. It needs to be broad enough to draw enough people who are online to contribute - no sense in setting u p a mailing list for the modem smasher's club, they're not going to have email addresses!

At the same time it needs to have enough focus so that people on the list share some sense of identity, so that a feeling of community can build.



Current list management software requires that atleast one person take on the job of maintainer -the person who gets all the mail from the list robot about subscriptions and list errors. The same person usually helps iron out problems with people who have n't figured out how to subscribe or are having trouble getting their messages accepted by the list robot.

You can share this job around in a lot of ways. The job can be rotated with appropriate training. Or by sharing the list password and forwarding the robot's errors to more than one address, you could have a couple of people looking after the list at the s ame time.

But on top of that, there is also the role of facilitation. This may end up being the same person, or you might divide the duties, like how a meeting has a chair and a minute taker.

The facilitator co-ordinates the tasks I talk about below: policy for the list, publicity, and so on.


List Policy

It's a good idea to write up a piece on what's acceptable on the list. You might want to more clearly define the topic, or exclude advertising. This is also a sensible place to talk about whether the list is open subscription, or if there is a policy on w ho can become subscribers.

The list might be for announcements only, and all discussion referred to a seperate list. This is the sort of stuff it's good to get agreement on, and document for newcomers, and those that forget.


Publicity and Outreach

Without enough subscribers your list won't build enough critical mass for some decent discussion. Critical mass is a product of how many people are on the list, and how dedicated they are to the list topic. In general think big. While a face to face meeti ng might only need half a dozen people for discussion take off, a list on the same topic might need dozens. Some people will make enough time to contribute to the list, others will be reading all sorts of email and only have time to respond to things that really get them going. Many people may feel nervous about sending messages to so many people, they need to be made feel as welcome as possible.

If, like me, you're interested in fostering diversity and gender equality, you'll want especially to do outreach. Many people who might get a big kick out of your list won't know the techniques to find out about it by themselves. So publicise it in any me dium you can think of that your intended subscribers use. Offline media are particularly important - newsletters, meetings, or the telephone.

And of course online publicity is going to include related newsgroups, mailing lists, and web pages.


Easy Subscription

Mailing list subscription could be much easier than the robots make it, and I see the job of the list maintainer to make it as easy as possible. It's possible to provide a bunch of different methods. If you want to catch those net beginners, make sure it' s clear they can email you directly (or phone or postal mail too!) to get on the list. That way people won't be permanently put off by finicky list robots.

Update update: A very widely used mailing list manager as of 2002 is Mailman, which solves a lot of the problems that both majordomo and majorcool have. Cat has switched most of its lists to mailman now.
Update: Majorcool is a web front end for the majordomo robot, that makes it easier to get on and off lists, and also easier for the list maintainer to do administrative stuff. For cat lists, you can try it right now.
My preferred email method for automatic subscription is foolproof. Setup two email addresses:

Anyone writing to the geton address gets subscribed, no matter what they put in the message. Getting off is just as easy, as long as they get off from the same email address as they got on. Unfortunately, this requires a little list robot repro gramming, so requires the assistance of a friendly sysadmin at whichever internet server is hosting your list.

New subscribers can be automatically sent a guide for the list. This can include info about the list theme, policy, even a list of frequently asked questions (FAQ) with answers. Assume people don't know nettiquette -- beginners won't and they're the peopl e you want online. Only 10% of Australians (and 1% of the world) is online, so there are going to be a lot of online beginners for some time yet.

Posting this guide onto the mailing list every month or so means people can be reminded implicitly of list policy; and people who deleted it the first time can have another chance to read (or ignore!) it.



Important for community building is some sort of atmosphere. At the CAMPsite, a lot of imagery is used to evoke an image of chatting around the campfire.

Footers and a tag in the subject line can be added to make mailing list message stand out in people's mailboxes. The footer is a good place to put basic info that people forget, like how to write a message to the list, who the maintainer is, and what the web address of the list home page is.

There are many ways a facilitator can build atmosphere and vibe. They can encourage new subscribers to introduce themselves. They can send quiet emails to relevant people encouraging them to respond to a given question on the list. They can privately elli cit fresh posts from people on new topics. They can point out relevant policy publicly if there's confusion.


Maybe a Moderator

A moderator sees all mailing list messages before they are sent to the subscribers. The moderator can accept or reject the message based on the list policy. They may decide to edit messages before they go onto the list, in which case it's a good idea for them to indicate that they have done so. For rejected messages it's considered polite to tell the sender why their message was rejected.

For a list with any kind of serious traffic, the moderator's job is a busy one, and also implies a high degree of trust. It's also totally optional - most lists and newsgroups are unmoderated.

I'm not much into moderating lists. I reckon the great thing about the internet is that it's the first electronic media that allows people to get to a large group of people without passing through editors. Having a moderator seems to defeat the purpose. H owever, for certain lists I can see it might be appropriate, especially combined with a second list which is unmoderated.


A Web Page

A good place to put your theme, policy and an invitation to subscribe. You can even get buttons setup so people can type their email address onto your web page to subscribe. Part of the publicity job is to get this web page linked from anywhere and everyw here appropriate.


An Archive

It's really handy to have a centralised archive of all messages to the mailing list. This gives people a chance to research issues that have been covered previously, before raising it on the list. It also gives the discussion a built in memory.

There are privacy concerns if list members don't want anyone to be able to read their messages. This concern can be addressed with password protection for the archive web page, and the password can be distribted on the list.

Some list robots can also be setup to compile a list archive, accessible through commands to the list robot. I generally find such interfaces are fiddly to use, and a web page is easier for most people.


A Library

In general it's not a good idea to have big messages or fancy formatted documents go out on a mailing list. Email attachments just aren't reliable enough yet, so encourage list memebers to always send plain text messages - these are very reliable and have maximum potential audience.

You can build a library of documents list subscribers have contributed, which too big to send on the list. Or perhaps you could include certain key posts or documents that might occur from time to time.

The library is of course a web page, soemthing that almost every one online will be able to access


Dealing with the Robot

Update update: A very widely used mailing list manager as of 2002 is Mailman, which solves a lot of the problems that both majordomo and majorcool have. Cat has switched most of its lists to mailman now.
Update: Majorcool is a web front end for the majordomo robot, that makes it easier to get on and off lists, and also easier for the list maintainer to do administrative stuff. For cat lists, you can try it right now. Here for handy reference is a sample copy of the email you get when you are the lucky owner of a new list. It's got all sorts of handy hints inside.
Here's a quick guide to how to get the robot to do it's job.

Let's assume you're the list maintainer, and the list management software you're using is majordomo. This means you know the list password, let's say it's fruitbat, and your list is called figtree-l at The list robot wi ll send list notices and errors to you via an address owner-figtree.

So every time someone subscribes or unsubscribes, you'll be told, and assuming list subscription is set to automatic, you don't have to do anything about it.

But occaisionally you'll need to anually intervene and send commands to the list robot. You do this by sending messages to, with commands on one line each in the body of the message (the robot ignores the subject line ). If you want to manually subscribe someone, send this command:

approve listpassword subscribe listname


approve fruitbat subscribe figtree-l

Note that this all has to be on one line!

The robot is very fussy abut commands, and if you get the words in the wrong order it'll burp back a help message to you.

You can get a list of current subscribers using:

who listname

If you want to take someone off the list manually, use:

approve listpassword unsubscribe listname

The message that new subscribers get is called the info file. To retrieve it, use:

info listname

To change it, send a message with the following as the first line:

newinfo listname listpassword

and with the new info file pasted in immediately after.

The config file controls all sorts of amazing options for the list, such as what's in the footer at the bottom of each message, whether to put something in the subject line of each message, and whether to add a Reply-to header to list messages so t hat replies to list messages go back to the whole list by default. It also has important privacy options, like whether subscription is open and automatic or not, and whether only list members can see the subscriber list.

To retrieve the config file use:

config listname listpassword

You can then edit it if you want to change it and send it back with:

newconfig listname listpassword

and the config file pasted in under that first line.


Things That Can Go Wrong

The most common thing that goes wrong is a mail bounce from one of the subscribers. They may have closed their internet mailbox without unsubscribing first, or their internet provider may be having network trouble. On the CAMPsite, which has a bit over 10 0 members, I usually got one or two bounces a week.

Because their email is bouncing, you can't easily contact subscribers to check out the problem. And you need to unsubscribe them or you'll end up with dozens of bounce message sin your mailbox (one for each boucning subscriber for each message on the list ). So I usually take them off, with the understanding that they'll get themselves back on when the problem is over. This is the command:

approve listpassword unsubscribe listname

You'll also need to do this if someone changes email addresses and wants to unsubscribe the old address. The robot isn't smart enough to tell that someone writing from a different email address is actually the same person.

You'll also get messages when the robot filters a message off the list because it's too long, or they mentioned the magic word "subscribe" in the first ten lines of the message, or some other reason. When this happens I generally send a message back to th e writer explaining why their message was bounced and how they could fix it.