BIO 256 - Computer Applications in Biology

Assignment 2 - Internet Mailing Lists

Important References:

Electronic mail forms the basis of mailing lists (also called "listservs", after Listserv, one of the earliest, and still popular, pieces of software for managing them). Mailing lists are designed to facilitate the exchange of information on a specific topic. For example, a scientist might set up a mailing list for people interested in gene sequencing. These interested people will then subscribe to the list. Then, any message sent to the list is automatically sent to everyone who has subscribed to the list. This allows a discussion of gene sequencing by all interested parties.

In unmoderated lists, a message that you send to the list automatically goes to everyone on the list, and you receive a copy of everything that anyone sends to the list. In moderated lists, a moderator, usually but not always at the site that hosts the list, selects from among the messages sent to the list, often removing those that don't fit the topic, and sends the results to the subscribers.

Lists may have other features, such as the ability to receive "digests" (all the list mail for a certain period assembled into one message). Many lists now have interfaces through the World Wide Web, making it easier to change your settings or even subscribe and unsubscribe.

It's not even necessary to have access to computers with list manager software in order to have your own mailing list. Services on the Web, such as Yahoo Groups, allow you to easily create and manage your own email list. You pay nothing for the service; like much else on the web, revenue comes from advertising.

Although web interfaces make things easier, many lists still rely on commands sent to the list manager in the body of an email message. Most of these lists have three email addresses, and it is important to know what each one does.

Type of address Who it goes to Example
List manager A computer program
List owner A person
Mailing list Every person on the list
The examples are for the Biological Systematics Discussion List.

You can imagine that it is crucial to choose the right address for different purposes. If you send a long message to the list manager (a computer program) instead of the list, it will send you back an error message for every line of your message it didn't understand (usually all of them). If you send an unsubscribe command to the list, dozens or hundreds of people will know that you weren't paying attention.

It is also important when you reply to a message on a list to look and see who the reply is going to. Some lists are set so that the reply goes to the list, and others are set to reply to the sender. Even I have made the mistake of sending a message to a list when it was intended for a specific member. There is a famous story of a job announcement appearing on a biology list, and a professor responding by mistake to the list (rather than the person sending the announcement) to express interest in the job, and ask for complete confidentiality, because he didn't want his current employer to know that he was applying.

To subscribe to a list, you ordinarily send a message to the list manager computer program. It may be LISTSERV or LISTPROC or MAJORDOMO or even something else, so that it has an email address in the form LISTPROC@csupomona.EDU. If you have a signature file, turn it off (if you don't know what a signature file is, don't worry about it), and don't use "styled text" (bold, colors, etc.) or graphics. The subject line should be left blank unless there are instructions to do otherwise.

The body of the message should have one line, in the form:

subscribe [list name] [your first name] [your last name]

For example,

subscribe cancer-l John Doe

To unsubscribe, send a message to the list manager program with the single line:

signoff [list name]

For example,

signoff cancer-l

Instead of "signoff", some lists allow or expect "unsub" or "unsubscribe".


For your assignment, please carry out the following steps:

  1. Subscribe to the mailing list for this class. Send a message to The subject line should be blank. It should have a single line in the body of the message:

    subscribe bio256 [your first name] [your last name]

  2. Within hours you will begin to receive mail. (Usually the first one or two messages you receive are from the list manager program. Be sure to read them - For lists other than this one, they may tell of additional steps necessary to subscribe, usually involving replying to the message - and note if they tell you a different method for unsubscribing than the one listed below.) As soon as you have gotten the messages from the list manager, you can begin to send mail to the list. In order to satisfy the assignment, you must do two things before the last due date of the quarter:
    1. You must participate in the list. It is intended as a way for students in the class to discuss class materials and assignments, as well as other things relating to biology or Cal Poly. The minimum participation necessary to receive full credit is at least one post per week, and a response to someone else's post at least once during the seven week period. Even though I will give as much credit for lame posts as for thoughful ones, remember that everyone in the class will read what you write.
    2. You must unsubscribe from the list. Keep in mind that if you wait too long, you will miss the deadline (Wednesday of finals week), but if you sign off too early, your participation will be affected. If you have not unsubscribed by midnight on Wednesday, I will unsubscribe you, and deduct three (3) points from whatever score you would have gotten on the assignment.

Summary of assignment

Check off Action Due
Subscribe Due date of this assignment
Post Weekly or more often
Signoff March 20, midnight (Wednesday of finals week)