In a recent column, I suggested to readers that they e-mail me if they were interested in participating in a mailing list for Web users in the Detroit area. Several of you replied enthusiastically. So I set out to discover what it takes to set up a group mailing list and found useful information for you.
First, the basics: A mailing list enables people with common interests to correspond with one another via e-mail. One big advantage of a mailing list is that e-mail is ubiquitous. Even if you don't surf the Web, you probably have an e-mail account. And people who feel uncomfortable or intimidated with everything else feel just fine using e-mail to write messages.
There are thousands of active mailing lists currently on the Internet. People who are interested in a specific topic can subscribe to a list that deals with that topic. Once subscribed, you can easily converse, via electronic mail, with others who share that interest, or receive announcements about the interest.
Whenever mail is sent to a list, copies of that message are automatically distributed to all list subscribers. The sender does not need to know or maintain the names and network addresses of all the subscribers. Instead, that information is maintained by some kind of e-mail program or mailing list management software. The program is owned and managed by either another individual on the list or an institution, or is managed by a commercial entity to which you pay a monthly hosting fee.
Perhaps you have a topic you're dying to discuss on your very own e-mail discussion list. There are some pretty low-tech ways of going about that. If your list is rather small and you have time and patience to serve as the moderator, all you need to do is maintain a list of subscribers in your favorite e-mail program. When a message arrives, you forward it to the list. If you take this route, you should consider a mail program with a "bounce" feature, which will automate the process. Also consider putting your list of addresses on the "Bcc:" line rather than the "To:" line. Then, if people reply to a message, it comes back only to you and not to the list (bypassing you and your moderation function). This works best for groups that can easily publicize the list to members or friends so they may join. It's especially good if you're not really looking for strangers to jump onto your list uninvited.
For lists with more subscribers, or for more complex features, you may be better off using someone else's management list management (MLM) software. Many commercial services now provide MLM services to their subscribers. Using your provider's MLM, you don't need to worry about the system's care and feeding, or the heavy loads an MLM can generate (though many large lists do run well on small machines). Start out by contacting your provider.
If your list is not for profit, you may find someone to host it with an MLM for free. The information they'll ask for will include how many subscribers the list will have, how many messages you expect each day and whether you need any storage space for message archives. Check with the large community of Listserv administrators on LSTSRV-L@uga.cc.uga.edu (you need to subscribe first, then politely ask if anyone has the facilities and the interest to run your list for you). Thanks to Norm Aleks at naleks@Library.UMMED.EDU for the valuable tip.
Rooting around the Web I found Cool List (www.coollist.com), which will host your mailing list for free as long as you don't mind their tacking a three-line advertisement at the bottom of every message sent. But at least they promise not to sell your addresses to a third party for spamming purposes. Or check out Listserv's site at www.lsoft.com, where you can host small-scale lists for free using Listserv Lite, or have them host for a small monthly fee.
Once you've established a list, you can publicize by sending a post announcing your new list to firstname.lastname@example.org, which distributes announcements of new and changed mailing lists daily to nearly 10,000 subscribers.
There are countless other options; I've covered only a few. I hope this is enough to show that you can be the proud owner of a mailing list even if you haven't a clue what a browser does or how search engines work.