LISTSERV is an application that creates, automates, and manages email mailing lists. It was first developed and released in 1986 by Eric Thomas to improve on earlier mailing list software by automating membership; previously, administrators needed to manage mailing list membership manually, which was a time-consuming process that limited the scale of a mailing list. Soon after its release, LISTSERV became the standard mailing list tool for BITNET, a network of universities.

Mailing lists using LISTSERV work over standard email protocols, allowing subscribers to receive messages in their inbox instead of through separate software. It allows you to easily subscribe and unsubscribe to the list through a web form or by emailing the LISTSERV email address. Once you've subscribed, you can send messages to everyone by emailing the LISTSERV. Messages and replies sent by other members are forwarded by the LISTSERV to your address. The mailing list's subscriptions and message distribution are all automated by the LISTSERV program.

LISTSERV provided an efficient medium for group discussions online years before the advent of social media. Unlike other mailing list programs focused on sending newsletters and marketing messages one way, LISTSERV allows every subscriber to participate in a back-and-forth conversation. The LISTSERV program has been under active development by L-Soft since it transitioned to a commercial product in 1994, adding modern features like HTML email formatting and email marketing tools.

NOTE: "LISTSERV" is sometimes used synonymously with "mailing list," but they are not the same thing. LISTSERV is a single program that provides automated mailing list functionality. Other mailing list programs and services besides LISTSERV are also available.

Updated September 6, 2023 by Brian P.

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