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What is LISTSERV®?

By Darlene Goodman
Updated: May 16, 2024

LISTSERV® is a software program that typically helps organizations and individuals to create, manage, and distribute messages to an electronic mailing list. For the most part, the software maintains the list automatically, allowing members to opt in and out via email. These lists are usually collections of email addresses that all receive the same communications. The program may allow members to communicate with the whole group, or it may be used only as a distribution list for a newsletter or announcement email.

The term list serve has become, in some circles, a generic term used to describe any email distribution list. However, LISTSERV® is a brand name that refers to a particular software program created by Eric Thomas in 1986. The message system is currently offered for sale by L-Soft, a software company that was founded by Thomas. There are several other companies who offer software packages that perform similar tasks, and some of these alternatives are free.

There are several ways that LISTSERV® can be used. First, it can facilitate an online discussion group or email forum. Members often send emails to the main email address, and the program automatically forwards the messages to everyone in the group. This allows members to send an email to all others without having to personally acquire all their email addresses.

Second, LISTSERV® may offer the ability for members to receive a truncated list of email messages. For example, if a member chooses this option, he or she may receive an update that shows highlights of the week’s activities on the group email. This feature may help keep a user’s inbox from potentially receiving many individual messages.

Third, LISTSERV® may be useful simply as a central contact point where members can opt in or out of a mailing list automatically. The program can then be used by organizations to send out information only to people who have opted in. If used in this manner, the list’s members typically do not communicate with one another. Newsletters and announcement pages can be sent to the entire group at once.

According to L-Soft, LISTSERV® combats both spam messages and viruses. When the software recognizes spam in a message, the program typically blocks it on all available servers. This may help reduce the amount of spam sent through the distribution list. Also, the program usually scans messages for known viruses and blocks infected messages from going through the list.

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