"I'm sure they'll listen to Reason."

How to use a majordomo mailing list

Introduction and disclaimer

Purpose of this document

This is a simple guideline on how to subscribe to, unsubscribe from and behave on a mailing list like Quake Developers or Doom Editing. The examples and helps are given for a Majordomo based mailing list, and the explanations comply specifically to mailing lists I have maintained or am maintaining. Your mileage my vary (see validity). Note that some of these rules are possible because of certain features of Majordomo, others are necessary because of a particular lack thereof.

No warranty

Here's the bottom line: mailing lists are usually provided for free, by volunteers. Somebody provides processing power, disk space, bandwith and memory, and some people take care of all the day to day management details and troubleshooting. None of the people involved do guarantee anything, in terms of usefulness, ease of use, reliability or fitness for a particular purpose.


Despite the technical details, the posting rules and netiquettes described here are entirely defined by myself and in no way official, or related to the majordomo package in general. Nonetheless, as long as you're going to subscribe to a mailing list maintained by me, you'll have to stick to the guidelines as described below. If you're thinking of setting up a mailing list, this might help you to refine your own approach.

Handling a list

What is Majordomo?

There's a couple of mailing list servers out there in the net. Majordomo is only one of them. A lot of problems, like bounced subscription requests, are due to the fact that different servers have to be used differently, and if you aren't aware which server you're sending you request to, you probably won't suceed.

You'll find a lot of basic information on majordomo at this

Mailing Lists for subscribers

page. Please get and use this info!. There's additional information for list admin's, too. There is a help function available with majordomo, too, which provides an overview of all user commands. I'd recommend you use at least the latter to make yourself familiar with Majordomo lists.

Examples and conventions

The examples in this page are usually simple mails that have to be send to Majordomo. Examples are given as code, e.g. recipient, subject and body of a mail. A "whatever-placeholder" means you're supposed to enter the appropriate mail address, list name or other detail.

A typical mail header to majordomo is:

To: majordomo@"whatever-host.whatever-domain"

and the message's body:


"optional explanations,"
" e.g. to the list's caretaker"

As the header line (majordomo address and empty subject line) does not change, it might be omitted in some examples. Note that Majordomo will completely ignore anything after end, but it will still be visible to the list's owners, and might help them to handle your request if it bounced.

The list's owner

Every Majordomo mailing list has at least one owner, which could always be contacted at:

To: owner-"whatever-list"@"whatever-host.whatever-domain"
Subject: "whatever"

in case of trouble. Please contact the list's owner via private mail if there are any problems with the list, whatever they are. Do not post complaints to the list, which will often make things worse. It's entirely likely that the list's owner and the site administrator themselves do not read the list at all.

Modes: open, closed, moderated

There are different ways to run a mailing list. The most commonly used mode of operation is an open, unmoderated list, which means that anybody is able to subscribe, and any posting will be distributed. A moderated list requires a moderator who approves of or discards every single posting, and is way too time consuming for discussions. Open, moderated lists are usually used for announcements and other regular, but not too frequent notifications. A closed list requires that the list owner approves every single request for subscription. This might be used for small lists run in an invitation only way, or for larger lists that have to be run fairly restrictive to stay on purpose. A closed, moderated list, finally, might suit the needs of the chinese communist party.

How to start?

Typically, you've found a pointer to a list, or somebody told you about it. The best way to start is:

  1. verify you've got the right server address using lists
  2. get the list's info, to verify it's what you're looking for by requesting info
  3. get the mailer's help file, to make sure you understand how to use the commands
  4. submit a subscription request
  5. lurk on the list a while to catch the drift
If everything is fine, go ahead and participate in the discussions as you see fit. If the list isn't what you expected, re-read the posting guidelines, and if you're still confused, send private mail to the list's owner, or perhaps somebody who maintains a beginner's service and ask for details. If everything fails, and you're still not sure if the list is the right place to post, just do it once and ask politely for private replies if the posting is considered off topic.

How to find out what lists are available?
How to make sure it's the right server?
How to find out if there's a digest?

Majordomo provides a short overview of all lists available on a given server. You could get yourself this overview at any time, subscribed or not, by sending mail to majordomo@"whatever-host.whatever-domain" no Subject:, body of the message lists end Majordomo will reply with a list like this.

How to obtain an info?

For each list, there has to be an info file. It usually includes instructions on how to unsubscribe, mail addresses of the list's caretaker's, pointers to related FTP and WWW sites, and the posting guidelines. You could obtain a copy at any time, subscribed or not, by sending mail to majordomo@"whatever-host.whatever-domain" no Subject:, body of the message

info "name of the list"

Majordomo will reply sending you the posting guidelines of the list in question, just like this. To my experience, the info file of a list's digest is (as it should be) always identical.

How to obtain the help file?

Majordomo will send you a brief summary of available user commands on request, at any time, subscribed or not. This help file is not list specific, but might depend of the Majordomo revision used on a particular server. Send mail to majordomo@"whatever-host.whatever-domain" no Subject:, body of the message


You'll get a help file like this one in reply.

How to subscribe?

The basics are described in the help file. However, in the real life, things are a bit more messy. Thus my policy is to usually ignore any bounced request for subscription. The fail-safe approach to subscription on open and closed lists is simply submitting a mail to majordomo@"whatever-host.whatever-domain" no Subject: line, body of the message

subscribe "whatever-list"

In this case, Majordomo will use the reply address, which will be valid unless your site's postmaster made a mistake, and accepts the request without bothering the list's owner.

In my experience, the option as described in the help is bound to be a problem. In principle, you could use

subscribe "whatever-list" "mail-address-to-have-subscribed"

Unfortunately, in most cases the list caretaker's have to pay a lot for the list's subscribers convenience. Common problems include:

Majordomo tries to verify the owner of an account prior to processing the request. This is to keep people from subscribing or unsubscribing other people. In addition, Majordomo takes the Reply: address into account. You should be aware of the fact that any discrepancy means the request ends up in the list caretaker's mailbox, and has to be handled manually.

All the same, the list's caretaker is facing the same problem as Majordomo: he has to be sure you're the owner of the account you want to have the mail send to. In most cases, that means sending you an e-mail asking for an explanation. This takes time, and simply can't be done during times of heavy traffic. In addition, the caretaker has to verify that the mail address given by you is valid anyway. Moreover, any subscription the caretaker approves manually means that he will have to approve any subsequent unsubscription as well, which is another good reason to ignore such requests completely. You should always be able to figure out a way that works without approval. If, for whatever reason, you think you have to state a recipients address, you might try the following:

subscribe "whatever-list" "mail-address-to-have-subscribed"

"whatever explanation you have for this,"

I still don't guarantee anything, as there's no way around verification (account's owner) and check (account reacheable, address valid), but if you're providing as much addititional information as possible, this will ease things a bit.

The usual problems

How to make sure I'm on the list?
How to find out if I've been unsubscribed?
How to find out if I'm moved to digest mode?

Get the help reply on the commands which and who. The basic idea is that the former tells you which lists your account is subscribed to, and the latter gives you a list of all subscribers. If, despite my objections, you have suceeded in subscribing using a mail address somehow different from your reply address, you simply have to search the list of subscribers for something remotely similar to your own account. See explanations on how to subscribe on a general explanation on the problems with explicitly stated mail addresses. In any case, if which does not give any answer and you are in doubt of the mail address you used, rely on who to be sure. If you are not on the list or the digest anymore, you probably have been unsubscribed.

Why haven't I been subscribed?

There are three possible reasons:

Technical problems include misconfigured mailer on your site, feedback loops, illegal or insecure characters used in your reply address, immediate delivery failures. In any of these cases, it's a good idea to get in touch with your provider's or site's postmaster, who should be reacheable at postmaster@"whatever-domain". You might want send mail to the list's owner to ask if further details on the problem are available. In any case, as long as the problems aren't fixed, we won't be able to approve your+ subscription.

If your request bounced, you should take a close look at your request, and make sure it confirms with the rules on subscription as layed down above. You probably won't get any replies from the list's owner. The same holds if you are on the off limits list.

Why have I been unsubscribed?

See Forced unsubscription. In general, the list careteaker might keep offending mails and delivery bounces for some days, and you might be able to track down and solve the problem if it's a temporary or local (mailing) problem, not an attitude. If it's not been a technical problem, you probably ended up on the off limits list. Contact the list owner, and he might let you know.

Sorry, but by now you should have all the information available, or at least you should know how and where to get it. See help and info. In my opinion, the very moment you submit your request for subscription you are responsible to handle unsubscription and related issues yourself.

Do NOT post a question like this on the list. This is about the only violation of the posting guidelines that does NOT lead to your unsubscription. I will simply ignore it as long as reasonably possible. Instead, you'll end up on the off limits list. Mailbombing isn't a good idea either.

Posting guidelines

Each mailing list has posting guidelines. I recommend stating the guidelines in the info. By the very nature of mailing lists they are usually a lot more specific and restricted than the charter of comparable newsgroups. Remember that there's no point in creating a list that has the same charter as an already existing newsgroup.

Guidelines are a necessity. A lot of people in the net have to pay for each mail they receive. The posting guidelines have to provide them the information they need to decide wether to subscribe to a particular list or not. In a way, posting guidelines are a promise to the subscribers, which, of course, is made without no warranty. Still, list caretaker's are obliged to try to keep the list on topic.

Part of the posting guidelines is the list caretaker's policy, i.e. how he intends to handle violation of posting guidelines and other problems. If you don't like the policy described in the posting guidelines, always remember that the list caretaker is a volunteer. You might always unsubscribe from the list, contact the list's caretaker to offer your help (e.g. by providing a beginner's service, or simply create your own list.

Obtaining the posting guidelines

For majordomo mailing lists, the posting guidelines should be available in the info file. You will receive this file on successful subscription. You might request another copy at any time (see here).

Changing the posting guidelines

At times, one might to consider changing the posting guidelines, as circumstances change, and early revisions of the posting guidelines might not have been consistent or comprehensible. In general, clarifications of posting guidelines should be announced on the list, followed by an update of the info file.

It is, however, not a good idea to completely change the subject of a mailing list, especially larger ones. In this case, it's better to create another list, and announce it on the older list. The problem is that any discussion on changing a list is off topic, and the majority of subscribers might not want this discussion. If there's demand for a completely different or not too closely related topic, somebody has to provide another list. If a list has outlived its own usefulness, it has to be shut down. By the time this happens, there are too many references, pointers and FAQ's around in the net that will mislead people if the list is changed, instead of replaced.

Forced unsubscriptions

Part of the policy is how to handle offense and violation of specific posting guidelines or netiquette, as well as delivery failures.


Depending on the list caretaker's policy and if circumstances permit, you might receive a warning. This usually does not apply in case of delivery failures, by their very nature: if you're account isn't reacheable, there's not point in sending a notification. It will bounce, too.

Technical reasons

A lot of unubscriptions are necessary because of technical problems, such as

You might want to look at the reasons to deny subscriptions: at times, you succeed in subscribing to a list, but the problems surface later on.

Nontechnical reasons

On mailing lists with rather popular topics, there's usually a large amount of subscribers not too familiar with netiquettes and posting guidelines, in combination with heavy traffic. In my experience, even people who have been using the Internet for a lot of years already aren't always acting sensible.

In general, the list caretaker's have no choice but to enforce the posting guidelines. As reminders posted publicly as well as warnings end by private e-mail usually don't work, the only available measure is forced unsubscription. I'm using this in any of the followibg cases, unconditional and without any warning:

Remark on flame wars

There are three different ways to participate in a flame war: starting one, replying, or requesting to stop. You will be unsubscribed if you start a flame war, or reply to it. You are likely to be unsubscribed if you post public requests. The list's caretaker's usually don't have the time to track down who said what. If you're getting in the way, bad luck, my apologies, good bye.

Occasionally, a flame war involves accusations of a certain person. Circumstances permitting, it is perfectly reasonable to post a public reply. However, it's polite to let the list caretaker's know in advance, and to stick to one reply. Please recognize that such incidents are a problem for both you personally and the list. Support the lists caretaker's in solving the problem, and they'll be able to help you to prevent damage for yourself.

Public accusation in itself is usually a reason for unubscription. Due to its very nature, the net is perfectly suited for slander. Even if you're right, the net is not the place to handle unlawful acts and criminal offense. The net is incapable of justice or reason, don't try it.

Careless use of mail

There's a couple of common nuisances that result from more or less severe carelessness in using mail software. Typically this includes:

In each case, you'll be unsubscribed from the list, and you'll find yourself on the off limits list.

"Hello, world" postings

It is strongly recommended to lurk at least a few days on the list, simply receiving and digesting, instead of posting a bunch of request right away. Nothing personal, but usually nobody on a particular list cares much about you and the fact you joined the list. There's no guarantee your attitude will be tolerated even if you're a beginner.

Remark on insults

Nobody minds the occasional pun, an elaborated bit of irony, or excellent diatribe accompanying some reasonable discussion. Insult is an entirely different matter, and will not be tolerated. I don't care who started the quarrel, whoever gets personal gets thrown off.

Spamming and chain mails

You have to understand that it is absolutely irrelevant whatever noble cause or good deal you're promoting. Both ads and chain letters are off topic on a regular list, and no subscriber asked for it.

Discussion of the list itself

This is particularly annoying, as it usually takes over the list until things are settled. Thus no public suggestions on changing the list's topics, no discussions of creation of newsgroups or other lists, no such proposals. Do not posting anything but announcements on related lists.

Plea for reason

Remember your account's expiration date

This is one of the most time consuming problems, and a real annoyance. You probably don't have the slightest idea how many people never bother to unubscribe if they are going to loose their account anyway. Please take care of your obligations, and unsubscribe in time.

Think about private e-mail

If any posting on a mailing list, for whatever reason, annoys or upsets you, feel free to contact the poster by private e-mail. If you're posting to somebody you consider a "beginner", please think about polite advice instead of insults. It might make a lot of a difference. In general, stay away from "press button to reply" without thinking of the alternative. It's pretty likely that nobody on the list is particularly interested in everything you have to say.

Handling beginners/Beginner service

During the last years, the amount of beginners has increased rapidly. Beginner, in this sense, means somebody who's not familiar with netiquettes and other rules that make the net work. In my opinion, we are to blame the so called providers, commercial companies that are bluntly ignoring responsibility while selling something they haven't contributed too.

In consequence, posting complaints and harassing beginners is not acceptable, and will lead to unsubscription. There's only one way to solve this problem, which includes private e-mail to beginners, providing explanations and hints in a polite manner. Rest assured that those blatantly ignoring the posting guidelines will be gone soon. If you want to preserve the net, and support the people who keep it running, take a share of the load now and then.

Sometimes a mailing list provides a Beginner Service, usually a group of volunteers that in turn send prepared replies to anybody asking beginner questions, by private e-mail. This eases handling the list a lot, and is a very valuable contribution. If you want to provide something like this, contact the owner of the respective list.

Major offense

Account expiration

Judging from experience, most problems occur either at the beginning or the end of a subscription, and the majority of these occurs not only at the end of the subscription, but on expiration of the account itself. That is, a list's caretaker will find himself unsubscribing dozens of students and pupils who lost their repective college, school or university accounts at the end of one term or another, and the scattered bunch of commercial provider's account owners that haven't paid their fee.

Unfortunately, these guys always show up in flocks. There's not much to do about this. One might rely on the off limits list to keep oneself from accidentally approving subscription of a renewed or new account of the same owner, but this is seldom worth the trouble. One might file a complaint with the postmaster of the respective provider or site, which, at least with a commercial provider, isn't likely to have any effect at all. Of course, there's still hope that people learn to take care of themselves.

Mailbombing issues

There's a fine line between appropriate response and abuse of privileges. The use of e-mail to express concern or annoyance is a common example. It is perfectly justified to send one mail to somebody, in order to inform him in a polite but determined manner of your objections or proposals. It is even common to suggest others to do the same, perfectly in agreement of "one citizen, on voice".

Unfortunately, some people severely lack the confidence in their fellow citizens, and proceed to abuse the privilege of having a voice in the net. This includes posting of completely unrelated but rather large amounts of useless data, and repetitive postings. A much simpler but still unjustified variation of "mail bombing" is sending a dozen copies of requests to a public list or newsgroup.

Any proposal of "mail bombing", even in the appropriate form described above, cannot be tolerated on a mailing list. The place to submit such proposals is USENET, in whatever discussion newsgroup available. In addition, if your proposal includes gross violation of netiquette, you will not only be unsubscribed (see Ultima ratio regum).

If you are going to use repetitive postings to the list in order to get your way, either to be subscribed (again), or to be unsubscribed, rest assured that this won't work. Posting to a mailing list you aren't subscribed to, or acting irresponsibly will use lead to your loosing your account (again, see Ultima ratio regum).

The "off limits" list

On any open mailing list, the majority of subscription requests will be handled automatically, and any bounces might be ignored at the caretaker's convenience. If you're unsubscribed for whatever reason, or switched to digest mode, you might subscribe to the list again at any time.

As forced unsubscription is about the only measure available to the list's caretaker to keep the list on topic, this does not always work. In this case, the list might be run closed, i.e. any subscription will be have to be approved by the lists's caretaker. This means a lot of effort, and does not pay off until this mechanism is used to keep offenders off the list.

In conclusion, a closed list means either invitation only (which might work for lists paid for by and dedicated to commercial purposes), or keeping a list of those who repeatedly violated the posting guidelines, or created other time consuming problems. This is what I call the "off limits" list. In small words, if you're thrown off a closed list, you won't come back.

Ultima ratio regum

Occasionally, there's somebody who is not, or no longer, on the list itself, but is still posting on the list. This is not much of a problem in itself, but in some cases people are trying to force their subscription or unsubscription by mail-bombing the list. In this case you will definitely not be subscribed. If necessary, the list's caretaker will assist in your unsubscription. However, in any case he will contact your site's administrator, notifying him and politely requesting that your account is cancelled, or that your site's admin takes whatever measures he thinks appropriate in this case.

Bluntly, behavior like this is a gross violation of netiquette, and cannot be tolerated. In my experience, all of us who have to do system and site administration somewhere on the net agree on this, although provider like Progidy, AOL and CompuServe are occasionally critized in this regard.

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