How To: Use an E-Mail List

E-mail lists (also known as LISTSERVS(tm)) represent the inherent democratic nature of the Internet, a vehicle through which people can quickly and easily engage in the free exchange of ideas, information, and opinions. Here are some tips for getting up to speed.

Getting Started

E-mail lists are organized by topic of interest, such as the "Foreign Language Teaching Forum" or the "Elementary Education List." People with an interest in the topic can subscribe to the list to receive periodic e-mails. Some lists are read-only and similar to newsletters; others give subscribers the option to post to the list, which sends an e-mail that automatically goes out to all other subscribers.

One way to find e-mail lists is by a simple Internet search. For example, if you are a middle school math teacher looking to communicate with other teachers, a search on Google for "middle school math" and "e-mail list" may lead you to math-teach, the middle school math e-mail list. An example of a read-only list is edTechResources, which sends out up to three newsletters per week about Web sites of interest to educators. (A disclaimer: I run this list-to subscribe, send an e-mail to Other sources for e-mail lists include national professional organizations and publications.

Subscribing and Posting

The standard way to subscribe to a list is to send an e-mail to a special address that handles the list's subscriptions. For example, to subscribe to the math-teach e-mail list, I would send an e-mail to, with the line "subscribe nctm-teach" in the body of the e-mail. If the organization sponsoring the list has a Web site, you can frequently subscribe by completing a form on the site.

When you subscribe, you will usually receive an e-mail welcoming you to the list. Save this e-mail because it contains information about what address to use when posting to the list (a different address than the one you used to subscribe), how to unsubscribe from the list, how to contact the list owner (the person responsible for running the list), a brief description of the list and its purpose, and other features.

Posting to a list is a simple matter of sending an e-mail to the list address. Your post is then automatically sent to all subscribers. When others post, you (and all other subscribers) receive their post in your e-mail inbox.

Most lists offer the option of either receiving every message posted to the list individually or periodic summaries of the messages-a good option for popular lists. For example, would you rather have 50 to 100 separate messages in your e-mail inbox or one message summarizing them all?

Unsubscribing from a list, like subscribing, usually involves sending an e-mail. However, just as subscribing means sending an e-mail to a special e-mail address, so does unsubscribing. The address you use to post messages to the list IS NOT THE SAME as the address for unsubscribing. Sending an unsubscribe request to the posting address will simply notify all list subscribers (which could number in the thousands) that you wish to unsubscribe-information they don't need or want. The address to unsubscribe will be in the welcome e-mail mentioned above; it's frequently the same address as the one used to subscribe, with the message "unsubscribe" instead of "subscribe" in the body of the e-mail.

Replying to a post can be done in two ways-reply to the list or reply to the individual who posted the message. If you believe your reply is of interest to all list subscribers, reply to the list. However, if it's only for the person who sent the message, make sure to reply only to him or her.


People who read e-mail lists, but do not post, are known as "lurkers." While there is nothing inherently wrong with lurking, in many cases, a healthy e-mail list-one that continues to function and serve the needs of its subscribers-requires give and take. At times, I have subscribed to e-mail lists that seem like they were on life support, with only an occasional message from the same person or two.

Jeffrey Branzburg is a contributing editor and regular columnist for Technology & Learning.