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E-Mail Lists: Banes and Gains

By Benjamin P. Gleitzman

Anyone have a book for 5.111? Can I borrow a hammer for 10 minutes? Who put my laundry on the floor for the 15th time?

If you’re a student at MIT, chances are you’ve fallen victim to this sort of e-mail. Mailing lists can be an integral part of communication and a major force in disseminating information, but their abuse creates hordes of annoyed, irate students.

The choice between staying informed and having a jumbled inbox is a tough call for most students. “I don’t want to remove myself from the mailing lists because there are some things I need to know,” said Morgan J. Cummings ’09.

Ask any student their opinion of mailing lists, and you may get a rather negative response. “I’m almost ready to quit every mailing list,” said Raymond Y. Cheng ’09, who is irritated by the quantity of messages he receives that fall into the categories of stupid, pointless, or annoying.

There are a wide variety of lists freely available to the MIT population. Students may wish for class e-mails from professors delaying problem set due dates, while clubs members advertise upcoming events. Other popular lists ending with include reuse (a service for exchanging free items within the MIT community), mit-talk, lsc-info (announcements of MIT’s lecture series committee movies), and the self-explanatory free-food. More obscure lists cater to students with more specific interests; these include atlantic-puffins, eatyourwaythroughboston, tvtalk (not to be confused with buffy), tiddlywinks, and bcs-subjects (where you can take an MRI, look at your brain, and get paid for it). Mailing lists can be ultimately helpful to their subscribers, as long proper etiquette is recognized.

A major bane of many students is internal spam — dormitory lists appear to be most heavily infected, with requests for everything from French horns and T-shirts to hammers and course books.

One wayward soul made a sketchy request to the Baker forum, requesting a fake ID, preferably Asian and over 21, for a weekend of general debauchery. Dormitories, living groups, and clubs typically have mailing lists created specifically for event notification, and students should take care before sending an e-mail to such a large number of people.

Freshmen and even upperclassmen have particular trouble after being inundated with mail from lists they casually signed up for during Orientation. However, even if you don’t know how your e-mail got on a mailing list, you’re not stuck with its spam if you understand how to manage list memberships.

The most commonly used list types at MIT are Moira and Mailman. Moira lists, otherwise known as Athena lists, can be accessed by typing mailmaint into the Athena prompt. Users can also access Moira accounts by using MIT certificates at Mailman lists, an alternative to Moira, offer moderation as well as filtering and can be accessed through a similar Web interface.

A key issue concerning mailing lists involves proper procedure regarding addition and removal. The appropriate method of removal is not to e-mail the entire list asking to be removed — this often creates an avalanche of similar requests, followed by another one of angry e-mails informing the guilty to stop. The same applies to subscribing to a list.

According to the Student Information Processing Board, “to add yourself to or remove yourself from a Mailman list, you can visit (replacing listname with the name of the Mailman list).” An alternative is to type the blanche command into an Athena prompt.

Mailing lists can be easily created by anyone with an Athena account via

MIT has a lot to offer, and staying informed will help you make the most out of your time spent inside this nerddom. Use lists responsibly, and maybe you’ll keep your neighbors from blowing down your door with that French horn you so desperately wanted.