E-mail is really good for sending messages to one person, or a few people. Suppose you want the message to go to 100 people? Or 1000? Mailing list software allows this to happen easily; you send a message to the "list" address... and all 100 or 1000 people on the list get a copy. If you want to start a list, all you need is the mailing list software (and probably a little help from the systems administrator). So there are many lists, on many topics. Some have fewer than 50 members, others have near 2000. But only the people on the list get the message. So if you're interested in the topic, you have to subscribe to the list.
A newsgroup is a bit more like a newspaper; anyone can read it who has the newsgroup reader software. So you can 'join' a 'discussion' already in progress and read up on the last day's (or month's) messages. How far back you can read (and how long you can wait between reading without losing messages) depends on how much your systems administrator is willing to store. This capability is provided by sending all the newsgroup messages to every machine that will "carry" that group. Because newsgroup messages get copied to machines all over, even if no one reads them, the "Net Powers" decided that newsgroups would require potential readers to voice their intention to read by voting for the group. A group has to get at least 100 "yes" votes... and more "yes" than "no" votes, to be approved. As a result, newsgroups are harder to get started than mailing lists.
Often a mailing list turns into a newsgroup. When the mailing list gets so big that the list "owner" spends a great deal of time handling problems (like bounced messages from people who went on vacation and left their mailbox to overflow), it is usually big enough to get the required number of votes to establish it as a newsgroup.
Either mailing lists or newsgroups may be moderated. This means that someone reads and approves all the messages which are mailed out, or posted. Moderated groups are less likely to contain "junk mail"; messages which are off the topic of the list or group.
(A bit of historical terminology: the term post is used when you send a message that you want to make available to readers of a newsgroup.)
A quick summary. To get involved with a mailing list, you need only email capability, you subscribe by sending an email message to the software that manages the list. To get involved with a news group, you need a news reader (software); that software will allow you to subscribe to a newsgroup.
One more pesky bit of information about mailing lists. There are always two addresses involved. One address is for the software that manages the mailing; this is usually called the listserv or listproc address. The other is the address you use when you want to send something to the members of the list; this is the list address. You should always keep a note of both addresses (you'll be given the list address after you subscribe). Nothing makes the list membership more unhappy than people mailing commands that are meant for the list management software to the list address! So don't loose the listserv or listproc address once you start reading and sending messages to the list... you'll need it if you ever need to unsubscribe -- say when you want to go on vacation without filling up your inbox.
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