Listserv: How it works

Policy How It Works Owner Application Owner Quick Start Introduction

How to send mail to LISTSERV

In the following sections, you will see numerous references to "sending commands to LISTSERV". All LISTSERV commands are sent to the server by email. You would create a new message and address it to LISTSERV@LISTSERV.FREDONIA.EDU.

How to join a mailing list

Given the list name "listname", joining a list is very easy. The command that needs to be sent is:
subscribe listname firstname lastname
for example
subscribe proftalk John Doe

When you join a list, you are sent a little pamphlet, which looks very boring and does not seem to have anything interesting to say about the list itself. Do not discard it! Treat it like a warranty card -- no immediate value, but you never know when you might need it. You should make a new folder in your mail program for these little pamphlets and search it whenever you have an administrative question about a mailing list, instead of contacting the list owner directly. Although they do look the same from a distance, the pamphlets are customized to the individual lists and do not contain the same information. Finally, saving them in a dedicated mail folder makes it very easy for you to know what mailing lists you are subscribed to, and when you joined.

Leaving the list

You can leave the list at any time by sending a SIGNOFF command to the host server (in this case, LISTSERV@LISTSERV.FREDONIA.EDU):

signoff proftalk

LISTSERV does not need your name for a signoff command, so there is no need to type it.

The OK Request

Depending on how the list is set up, once you have sent your subscription request you may receive a message like the one below:

Date: Tue, 7 May 1996 12:09:47 -0400
From: "L-Soft list server at LISTSERV.FREDONIA.EDU (1.8c)"
To: Your e-mail address
Subject: Command confirmation request (66B5D8)

Your command:

has been received. You must now reply to this message (as explained below) to complete your subscription. The purpose of this confirmation procedure is to check that the address LISTSERV is about to add to the ist for your subscription is reachable. This is a typical procedure for high-volume lists and all new subscribers are subjected to it - you are not being singled out. Every effort has been made to make this verification as simple and painless as possible. Thanks in advance for your cooperation.

To confirm the execution of your command, simply reply to the present message and type "ok" (without the quotes) as the text of your message.
Just the word "ok" - do not retype the command. This procedure will work with any mail program that fully conforms to the Internet standards for electronic mail. If you receive an error message, try sending a new message to LISTSERV@LISTSERV.FREDONIA.EDU (without using the "reply" function - this is very important) and type "ok 66B5D8" as the text of your message.

Finally, your command will be cancelled automatically if you do not confirm it within 48h. After that time, you must start over and resend the command to get a new confirmation code. If you change your mind and decide that you do NOT want to confirm the command, simply discard the present message and let the command expire on its own.
This request confirms that the e-mail address that you used to subscribe to the list is valid. You should reply without including the original message. So if your mail program automatically quotes the message you are replying to, you should delete the quoted text before sending the "OK". Note also that you must reply from the address from which the original subscription request was sent.
If you have trouble with the OK command and have already tried the "ok confirmation#" suggestion above, please contact the list owner for help.

Confirmation of Subscription

Once your subscription request has been successfully processed by LISTSERV you will receive confirmation similar to the message below:

Date: Tue, 7 May 1996 12:10:16 -0400
From: "L-Soft list server at LISTSERV.FREDONIA.EDU(1.8c)"
To: Your e-mail address
Subject: Output of your job

> ok



You have been added to the PROFTALK list.

You may also receive confirmation from the list owner that you are subscribed. It will look similar to the one below and reiterates valuable information from this guide, for a quick reference.

Date: Tue, 7 May 1996 12:10:15 -0400
From: "L-Soft list server at LISTSERV.FREDONIA.EDU(1.8c)"
Subject: You are now subscribed to the PROFTALK list

Tue, 7 May 1996 12:10:15

Your subscription to the PROFTALK list (ProfTalk Discussion List) has been accepted....

How To Send Mail To A List

Posting new messages

To post a new message to the list you send mail to the list address using the same procedure as when you send mail to other people. Your mail program does not need to know that you are sending to a list.

The list address is the name of the list, followed by the name of the machine where it is hosted, in our example:


Depending on how the list is set up, LISTSERV may or may not send you a copy of the messages you post. No matter which behavior the list owner chose to have by default, you can always instruct LISTSERV to behave the way you want it to. This is explained in the "How to set your subscription options" section later in this document.

Replying to messages from the list
The best way to respond to messages from the list is by using the "reply" function of your mail program (which is sometimes called "answer", "respond" or something similar). This way the message subject is preserved and the other subscribers can see that your message is a reply to the original question. You can of course post a new message, but you will then have to retype the subject, and if you enter something slightly different people may not realize it is a reply to a previous post. There is no universally correct place to send your reply. Most of the time, your reply will be useful to at least one other person on the list, but on the other hand that might be only a small fraction of the list membership, and some people might complain that you are wasting their time (some people say that anyway, so don't worry unless several people seem to share this opinion).

In general, if your reply is short there is little harm in sending it to everyone: it does not take much time to discard a message which is not interesting. On the other hand, if your reply is a 2000-line paper you wrote on the subject it might not be a good idea to send it to the list unless you are sure everyone is interested. Some people have to pay for mail by the character, or to download it to a personal computer through a low-speed modem. The best thing to do in that case is to send a short message to the list saying you wrote this paper, and that people who are interested can contact you for a copy.

Always think before sending any message!
Ask yourself a few simple questions:

  • Who is getting the message? Carefully check who your mail program intends to send the message to, and make sure this is where you wanted it to go. It is easy to click on the wrong icon, press the wrong key, misunderstand the meaning of a help file, or otherwise do something that will make your computer send the message to the wrong people.
  • Have you removed extraneous information not germane to the discussion, such as copies of previous postings included by my mail program or long signature files?

How To Upset People You Don't Even Know

You should keep in mind that for any given list, there are at least three slightly different addresses, all of which point to different places and all of which are meant for specific purposes. Some people who inhabit lists have a tendency to get upset when you send LISTSERV commands to the list address, for instance, or you may wonder why that posting you mailed to LISTSERV keeps coming back with notes like "Unknown command - "HELLO". Try HELP." The following information intended to help you sort out these different addresses.

If you want to send a message to all the PEOPLE on the mailing list, the right address to use is:


If you want to send a COMMAND for the computer to execute, the right address is:


If you want to contact the person who owns the mailing list, write to: listname-Request@hostname

Please note that if you send a message to the person who manages the mailing list you may receive a confirmation message that begins like this (to remind you that it is not the right address to send commands to):

Your message to PROFTALK-request@LISTSERV.FREDONIA.EDU has been forwarded to

the "list owners" (the people who manage the PROFTALK list)....

How To See Who Is On The List

To see who is subscribed to the list, send the REVIEW command to LISTSERV following this example:


If the list owner allows this option, LISTSERV will return a copy of the "list header" and a list of all the subscribers. The list header contains the title of the list, various configuration parameters, and a short description of what the list is about. There are also some statistics about the list, after the name and address of the last subscriber, and there may be a mention of "concealed" subscribers. See the description of the CONCEAL/NOCONCEAL option below.

By default, the list of subscribers will be sorted by host name, i.e. people whose account is on the same machine will be next to each other. This is mostly for historical reasons (some list owners have programs that require the list to be in that order). You can also ask LISTSERV to sort the list by surname:


How To Set Your Subscription Options

First, you may want to review your subscriber options. To do this you use the Query command. Send this command to LISTSERV@ LISTSERV.FREDONIA.EDU

Query listname

Let's assume the list you are querying is called CATS-L. LISTSERV will respond with something like this:

> q cats-l

Subscription options for Joe User, list CATS-L:

MAIL You are sent individual postings as they are received
FULLHDR Full (normal) mail headers (formerly "FULLBSMTP")
NOREPRO You do not receive a copy of your own postings
ACK Short e-mail acknowledgement of successfully processed postings

Subscription date: 22 Jan 1997

The topics you subscribe to are: All

Summary of resource utilization
CPU time: 0.008 sec
Overhead CPU: 0.000 sec
CPU model: AXP 21164 (512M)

The basic command syntax for changing these options is

SET listname option1 option2 ...

So let's say that you want to get copies of your own postings back from the list rather than just an acknowledgement that your posting was processed and distributed. Simply send a message to LISTSERV (not to the list!) with the command


in the body of the message. Note that you could also send this as two commands, one per line in the body:


LISTSERV will respond with a message telling you that your options have been updated, along with a listing of your current settings now that you've made the change.

Options that may be set:

Setting this option to Mail indicates that you will receive mail from the list. NOMail is the complementary command that stops mail but leaves you subscribed to the list. (NOMail is often a good compromise for users who are leaving the office for vacation or on extended business trips, and who don't want a full mailbox on their return.) The format of the messages received is controlled by the DIGEST/INDEX/NODIGEST/NOINDEX options (see below).

Please note, if you use an auto-responder while on vacation without setting your subscription options to NOMail, your "vacation" messages may bounce back to LISTSERV and you may be "served off" from LISTSERV when you return.

This is because LISTSERV will be unable to process the message from your auto-responder and will consider it an error.

Being "served off" simply means that any commands you send to LISTSERV will be ignored until someone else sends a SERVE command on your behalf.

Causes the subscriber to receive one posting per digest cycle (typically daily) rather than individual messages as they are processed by LISTSERV. The MAIL/NOMAIL option controls whether messages should be delivered, and the DIGEST/INDEX/NODIGEST/NOINDEX option controls the format in which messages should be delivered. Thus, switching to NOMAIL and back to MAIL does not destroy the digest/index/normal delivery setting; it simply determines whether or not LISTSERV should send any list mail to you. To provide as much compatibility with older syntax as possible, the four options operate as follows:

enable digest delivery mode (which negates INDEX), enable mail delivery.

enable index delivery mode (which negates DIGEST), enable mail delivery

disable mail delivery.

restore mail delivery, without altering the digest/index/normal delivery setting

Please note that in extreme cases, subscribers using the DIGEST option may receive more than one digest per cycle if thedigest limit is reached before the end of the cycle.

Causes you to receive one posting per digest cycle containing only an index of subject topics for all messages during that cycle. Instructions on how to retrieve the individual postings are included with the index. See the section on DIGEST (above) for further information.

These three command words control the level of acknowledgment you receive when posting to the list. ACK causes LISTSERV to send a short confirmation message to the sender of the postings when the post has been received and distributed. NOACK disables the confirmation feature for the sender. MSGack is essentially obsolete; if you do not have BITNET/NJE connectivity to the LISTSERV host in question, setting a list to MSGack is equivalent to NOACK.

Occasionally, a subscriber may not want his presence to be known to someone else making a casual REView of the list. You may choose to "hide" your subscription from the REView command by using the CONCEAL command. Conversely, a subscriber may choose to remove this restriction by issuing the NOCONCEAL command. Note that the list owner can always obtain a list of all subscribers.

This option controls whether or not you will get a copy of your posts back from the list after they are processed. Generally, if your mail program is configured to file copies of your outgoing mail, or if you have one of the acknowledgment options (ACK/MSGack) enabled, this option should be set to NOREPro. If, on the other hand, you are set to NOACK and doesn't keep a copy of outgoing mail, this option should probably be set to REPro.

Toggles MIME functions on and off. Currently this is only useful if the user has a mail client that supports MIME digests. Note that users who send their SUBSCRIBE command using a MIME-compliant agent will have this option set automatically unless "Default-Options= NOMIME" is specified for the list.

Where to report problems

If you still have any problems or questions, please email the List Manager who will be happy to help.

This is an excerpt of the L-Soft international, Inc. General User's Guide to LISTSERV®, version 1.8c customized to Fredonia's Listserv server.

Information Technology Services

W203 Thompson Hall
State University of New York at Fredonia
Fredonia, NY 14063
(716) 673-3407