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A mailing list is a group of email users who elect to receive regular updates from a website or organization, about a specific project, or from other members of the mailing list.
Many websites offer you the chance to subscribe to a mailing list, discussion list, or email newsletter. All of these terms are used to describe a type of email distribution model called a mailing list that involves mass-mailing email messages to list subscribers who voluntarily opt-in to receiving the messages.
There are two types of mailing lists:
- Announcement lists
- Discussion lists
Announcement lists, also commonly called newsletters or email lists, are pretty straightforward. Users sign up and are sent periodic messages from the person, website, or organization running the list. Virtually every blog, e-commerce site, and organization run a newsletter-style mailing list. They are used to send subscribers the latest blogs posts and articles, to provide projects updates, and to recommend products and services for purchase.
Discussion lists are much more involved and less common that announcement lists. While announcement lists are designed for primarily one-way communication, discussion lists are designed for discussions involving multiple people. The basic way a discussion list works is this:
- A mail server is set up with a mailing list application such as Mailman, Dada Mail, Majordomo, or Listserv.
- A reflector email address is established.
- When a member of the mailing list sends an email to the reflector address the email message is received by the mail server and forwarded to every member of the mailing list.
- Depending on the list, some messages may have to be reviewed and approved (moderated) by a list administrator prior to being sent out to the entire mailing list subscriber base.
- In most cases, members can choose to receive messages from the mailing list as soon as the server sends them out, or as a single digest delivered once per day and containing all of the messages from that day.
- In the past it was common for members to have to send specially formatted and specifically worded emails to the server to change preferences and unsubscribe from the mailing list, but today most mailing lists offer a web-based interface that can be used to manage personal preferences.
Discussion lists are far less common than announcement lists and are used primarily for technical conversations among developers, IT professionals, and technology hobbyists.
Frequently Asked Questions
What is the difference between a discussion list and a forum?
Forums and discussion lists are two popular ways that a large number of people can contribute to a conversation. Forums host the conversation on a website while discussion lists are delivered by email directly to your inbox. The primary reason a group might choose to use a mailing list rather than a forum to host conversation has to do with the frequency with which posts are made and the importance of receiving posts promptly. Mailing lists are ideal for conversations that are posted to sporadically, but in which receiving messages promptly is important. For this reason, mailing lists are a popular way for technical communities to stay in touch without requiring that every community member visits a forum site every day to check for updates.
Who uses mailing lists?
Announcement lists are extremely popular and are used by countless bloggers, businesses, and organizations of all types. Email marketing, the use of announcement lists to generate website traffic and revenue, is an entire industry unto itself.
Discussion lists are much less common that announcement lists, and are primarily used for technically-inclined discussions about things like computer programming, Internet network engineering, and software security.