Listserv Why Still Use it?

A cartoon of four chipmunk like critters passing around a bunch of envelopes. What is Listserv and Why Use it?
Cute chipmunks pass around an email.
Listserv- Why Still Use It?

Dear Ms. Smartphone: I am watching my parent’s condo this summer while they are gone, and that includes checking their PO box and an email account. The postal mail is tame, but the email seems to be out-of-control. My question is listserv- why still use it? There are tens of messages that come in daily from the condo association listserv. The emails are diverse – restaurants that offer an early bird special, at what time the lifeguards will open the pool, and concerns about an assessment. Occasionally there is a posting for free boxes or furniture which I find useful. I just got out of school and don’t understand why people are flooding email boxes with this junk instead of say using a forum with channels- like Slack or Google Groups. Dylan, Brookline

Dear Dylan: Since you are housesitting, it’s unlikely that you can propose improvements to their communication network. So use this time to steep yourself in telecommunications history and understand how the Internet developed. Listserv is to the Internet as corded wall phones are to wireless telecomm. You can read about the early history of listserv here on Wikipedia. When listservs came of age in the nineteen eighties, email was also in its infancy. Before then, only  scientists and geeks got to try it out. Your parents, and those still using in-house listservs, probably remember those early days of technology.


There are pros and cons to a listserv service, and older people who grew up with it find it useful. They do not have to use the Internet to visit outside sites so it lowers the barriers to participation. And for a generation accustomed to writing letters, the email format lets them continue to write long diatribes- without text limitations. Having reactions and feedback stretched over time also seems natural, since they used to send letters through the post office.

A listserv also provides more security, than say Nextdoor. You have to be vetted by a moderator and he/she surely knows who is moving in and out of the condo building. That gives listserv subscribers more confidence that they are participating in a safe “closed” group. But, it’s hard to be anonymous on listserv- say to complain about the noise upstairs or the mess left in the trash room.  


The most annoying feature of the listserv as you note, is the volume of email that it can generate. I have three suggestions, but you will need to run these by your parents! You can ask the moderator of the listserv if they have a web site you could access, in lieu of sending out the emails. Second, see if there is an option to get a weekly digest, not day- to-day traffic. If all else fails, set up a rule for incoming email that sorts and compiles the listserv emails.

For either Outlook or Gmail , the basic steps within email are: Manage rules> Alerts>New Rule. When you establish a rule description, it will automatically filter incoming listserv messages and compile them in a new folder. You can find more directions online.

Taming listserv makes me imagine that early tech founders, say Jack Dorsey on Twitter or Mark Zuckerberg on Facebook were also party to listserv communiques, just like you. They innovated because of their frustration with this dialogue method. They imagined a better version of messaging where discussion threads were threaded or tagged, where pictures and images could be posted, and topics were easy to search. Perhaps they wanted a shareable calendar. Most of all, they saw a need for two-way dialogue in real time without the long gaps in between. As you follow the daily blasts from the listserv this summer you can steep yourself in the history of the Internet and appreciate how faster and shorter messaging has become.

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