What is a Listserv?

At its simplest, a Listserv is a piece of software used to run a group email discussion list. In fact, LISTSERV is a trademarked name owned by L-Soft International, which coined term after building one of the first and most popular electronic mailing list programs. However, now the name Listserv is used whenever someone is talking about a group mailing list (similar to how people say “I have a Dyson ‘hoover’”).

The mechanics of a Listserv (or electronic mailing list if you prefer) are quite simple. You have a group email address and a bunch of people who are members of that group. Whenever one of those members sends an email to the group address, that message is then sent to all the other members of the group (the group address is sometimes referred to as a reflector and messages are reflected on to the members).

With this rather simple setup, large groups of people can enjoy low-fiction group discussion over email. Each time, members just reply to their group address and the message gets sent on to everyone in the group. Then as new members come in and old one’s drop out it’s the same group email address to reach everyone in the group.

As you can imagine with this low fiction approach and the ubiquity of email, Listserv’s are a very easy way to facilitate group discussion. It doesn’t matter if people are on different IT systems or would rather not join the latest social network, all you need to participate is an email address and a way to send and receive emails.

The types of organisations using group email is long & varied and includes; sports clubs, charities, religious groups, prayer groups, book clubs, movie clubs, parents associations, residents associations, private companies, families, activist groups and many, many more. Pretty much any group that needs to share information electronically can benefit.

Often all these different types of groups have different needs from their group. Maybe they want a locked down heavily moderated discussion or perhaps they want a more freewheeling anything goes chat. Or maybe membership is strictly controlled and only certain people are allowed to post as opposed to trying to grow membership and accepting anyone to join. Whatever the needs of the group most modern Listserv systems allow some level of customisation to accommodate specific requirements.

Originally running your own Listserv was a big undertaking. You had to install specific software on your own server then once the software was starting up you had to learn how to setup your group, add people to it and put time in to administer the group. You had to maintain an email gateway and fend off spam while trying to maintain the reputation of your own email domain. Then you were responsible for applying updates to your group email software as well as your server.

Fortunately, things have gotten much easier and there are 100% cloud based email discussion list services that handle all of the technical overhead for you. From a simple web interface, you can create a group, upload your members and start exchanging messages with them in a matter of minutes. Managing your group is much simpler with modern web interfaces which work seamlessly on desktop, tablet or mobile.

So, a Listserv is a very powerful tool that can bring large groups of people together over email, and now with cloud based services this power is easily within the reach of many more people. Moreover, even though there are more ways than ever for people to stay in touch online (Facebook, Whatsapp, Twitter to name but a few) it seems there is still a place for the granddaddy of all electronic communication – email.