AOL discontinues LISTSERV mailing list service

The shuttering of AOL's LISTSERV could mark an end of an era, or not

Ending a service it has offered for well over a decade, AOL is shutting down its free LISTSERV-based mailing-list hosting operations, the company told mailing list administrators.

"If your list is still actively used, please make arrangements to find another service prior to the shutdown date and notify your list members of the transition details," an email notice sent out by AOL stated. "If you are no longer actively using this service then no other action is required."

AOL had first planned to shutter the service on Nov. 1, but pushed back the date by a month. AOL did not immediately return calls for comment.

For those still actively running AOL mailing lists, mailing-list service provider L-Soft is offering to act as a host, though at a nominal cost (starting at US$8 per month).

At the peak of the service's popularity in the late 1990s, AOL was the third-largest provider of mailing lists, L-Soft estimated, serving more than a million users. To offer the service, AOL used the most widely used mailing-list management software, LISTSERV, created by Paris engineering student Eric Thomas in 1986. Thomas later went on to found L-Soft, and now serves as CEO for the company.

Along with IRC (Internet Relay Chat) and USENET newsgroups, mailing lists can be considered among the first of the Internet's social media platforms. The mailing list served as a simple tool to blast out alerts or notifications by email. In addition to this duty, however, mailing lists also played an important role in connecting people in remote locations who bonded--sometimes with great vehemence--over a common topic.

Whether the shuttering of the AOL service should be seen as a sign of a decline of the importance of mailing lists is a matter of debate. Though they don't attract the media attention of newer social networking services such as Twitter and Facebook, mailing lists can still be a hotbed of activity, as anyone who follows Linux Kernel Mailing List and the security-focused Full Disclosure mailing list knows.

"The traditional email-only LISTSERV platform as we've known it has definitely declined in importance, supplanted in large measure through Web-based discussions and online group platforms," said Joe Loong of Reston, Virginia. Loong received the AOL notice, though he hadn't worked with any of the mailing lists he administered in more than four years.

Much of the discussions that used to take place on mailing lists have moved to Facebook or online groups hosted by Yahoo, Google and others. "I think ending it is just a recognition that there are plenty of other mechanisms and services available to host those kinds of discussions," Loong said. "List owners are probably pretty well cognitively locked into what they've currently got, but they do have a lot more options these days, many of them still free."

The AOL LISTSERV currently hosts about 640 mailing lists, ranging in topics from the cotton industry to the New York Mets. Some lists are still active; others aren't.

One list still somewhat active is the discussion list for AOLserver, AOL's open-source Web server software. The administrator for this list moved it to SourceForge, where the AOLserver code is housed. However, the administrator, Dossy Shiobara, noted that there was no immediate way to move the decadelong archives of this mailing list, along with related announcement lists, to SourceForge. Fortunately, much of the content is mirrored on other sites, however.

"It's always sad when we lose a way to communicate with others," said David Cassel, who ran the AOL Watch site through the late 1990s. "Mailing lists have always represented one of our best impulses for the Internet: to let people connect to other people, and to talk about whatever they want."

Cassel attributed the discontinuation to AOL's changing priorities, as it moves from being an Internet service provider to a digital content hub. "To be fair, AOL offered the service for a long time--but in retrospect, the communities should've known that there was always the possibility of a LISTSERV Armageddon," Cassel said. "It's like having a book club that only meets on [Star Wars'] Death Star. Sooner or later, you're going to have to confront the institutional indifference to your community."

Mailing lists still can provide a unique service for public discourse, said L-Soft's Thomas. With mailing lists, users are not limited by any specific character count, and they can add attachments to their missives, Thomas said. People's dispatches are easier to find than with Facebook's newsfeed, where they can be buried under posts of other topics.

"You are coming to the mailing list to discuss a specific topic. When you are on a social media site, it is a bit of a free-for-all. You put something on your wall, but you don't know how many people will see it," Thomas said. "There is more of a community with a mailing list."

Joab Jackson covers enterprise software and general technology breaking news for The IDG News Service. Follow Joab on Twitter at @Joab_Jackson. Joab's e-mail address is Joab_Jackson@idg.com

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