Reading and responding to messages in these e-mail discussion groups is considerably faster than working through the Web. And because they usually cover subject matter that's narrower in focus than Usenet discussion groups, chances are greater that any given message will be relevant to your needs.
"Mailing lists offer the best signal-to-noise ratio of any type of forum on the Internet," says Scott Southwick, creator of the Web site Liszt (www.liszt.com), a searchable directory of mailing lists.
Liszt lists more than 90,000 different mailing lists. Because mailing lists originated in the academic community, predating both the Web and Usenet, many deal with academic and research topics. But you still can find a bountiful selection of lists about other topics, from music and sports to business and the Internet itself. Any given mailing list can have from fewer than 10 to many thousands of subscribers with varying levels of expertise and interest in the list topic.
In the window coverings field two e-mailing lists stand out. One is WindowPro, an unmoderated free list available in either individual or digest forms. To join, e-mail Join-Window-Talk@Lists.Window-PRO.com. The other is DraperyPro, a subscriber-based, moderated digest compiled and e-mailed by Dian Garbarini, e-mail: DianGar@aol.com.
Mailing lists are sometimes incorrectly referred to as "listservs," after the most popular software for administering them. But other software may be used besides Listserv (www.lsoft.com). Majordomo (www.greatcircle.com) and ListProc (www.cren.net) are two of more than 20 other choices.
NOT ALL ALIKE
There are many different types of mailing lists. Some lists are one-way rather than two-way. With one-way lists, also called announcement lists, messages move from publisher to subscribers without back-and-forth communication. They're commonly used for newsletters and product announcements.
With two-way mailing lists, also called discussion or talk lists, any message you write is first sent to a central address from which it's distributed, or "reflected," to everyone who has subscribed to the list.
Some lists are public; others are private. Anybody can join a public, or open, list. Private lists, also called closed or restricted lists, might be set up for product beta testers or for working members of a specific profession.
With moderated lists, messages go first to a moderator who determines if the message is relevant before allowing its distribution. With unmoderated lists, messages are immediately sent to all subscribers. Moderated lists carry less off-topic noise than unmoderated lists though they're less spontaneous.
With individualized lists you receive as many messages as are sent out. With digest lists you receive one long message each day or week that includes within it all the individual messages that subscribers have sent. Digest lists are easier for subscribers to manage—you won't get overwhelmed by messages—but they make it more difficult to respond quickly to the messages of other individuals.
One negative about mailing lists is that they're more difficult to join than Web or Usenet discussion groups. The most common mistake people make is sending a subscribe (or unsubscribe) request to the mailing list's address rather than the administrator's address. This causes everybody to see the request and is just unwanted noise.
If you want to subscribe, unsubscribe, put your subscription on hold, or carry out other functions, the correct procedure is to send e-mail to the mailing list administrator often using very specific commands. When you subscribe to a list, you'll receive instructions about the specific procedures to use.
Sometimes mailing list participants send messages to all the subscribers of the list that they intended for only one person. If the message is personal, this can be embarrassing.
Another negative is that mailing lists can cause your mailbox to get overloaded with incoming e-mail not directed to you personally. Fortunately most e-mail programs today let you filter incoming e-mail. You can direct the program to automatically route all e-mail from a particular mailing list into a particular folder. This separates it from more urgent personal e-mail, letting you peruse it at your convenience.
As with Usenet and the Web, don't forget that proverbial grain of salt. Mailing list subscribers aren't all experts. Confirm surprising information with other sources if you intend to use it for critical purposes.
Reid Goldsborough is a syndicated columnist and author of the book Straight Talk About the Information Superhighway. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or http://members.home.net/reidgold.