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Bitnet Lists

As if Usenet and mailing lists were not enough, there are Bitnet "discussion groups" or "lists."

Bitnet is an international network linking colleges and universities, but it uses a different set of technical protocols for distributing information than the Internet or Usenet. It offers hundreds of discussion groups, comparable in scope to Usenet newsgroups.

One of the major differences is the way messages are distributed. Bitnet messages are sent to your mailbox, just as with a mailing list. However, where mailing lists are often maintained by a person, all Bitnet discussion groups are automated -- you subscribe to them through messages to a "listserver" computer. This is a kind of robot moderator that controls distribution of messages on the list. In many cases, it also maintains indexes and archives of past postings in a given discussion group, which can be handy if you want to get up to speed with a discussion or just search for some information related to it.

Many Bitnet discussion groups are now "translated" into Usenet form and carried through Usenet in the bit.listserv.* hierarchy. In general, it's probably better to read messages through Usenet if you can. It saves some storage space on your host system's hard drives.

If 50 people subscribe to the same Bitnet list, that means 50 copies of each message get stored on the system; whereas if 50 people read a Usenet message, that's still only one message that needs storage on the system. It can also save your sanity if the discussion group generates large numbers of messages. Think of opening your e-mailbox one day to find 200 messages in it -- 199 of them from a discussion group and one of them a "real" e-mail message that's important to you.

Subscribing and canceling subscriptions is done through an e-mail message to the listserver computer. For addressing, all listservers are known as "listserv" (yep) at some Bitnet address. This means you will have to add `.bitnet' to the end of the address, if it's in a form like this: `listserv@miamiu'. For example, if you have an interest in environmental issues, you might want to subscribe to the Econet discussion group. To subscribe, send an e-mail message to


Some Bitnet listservers are also connected to the Internet, so if you see a listserver address ending in `.edu', you can e-mail the listserver without adding `.bitnet' to the end.

Always leave the "Subject:" line blank in a message to a listserver. Inside the message, you tell the listserver what you want, with a series of simple commands:

subscribe group Your Name
To subscribe to a list, where group is the list name and Your Name is your full name, for example: `subscribe econet Henry Fielding'

unsubscribe group Your Name
To discontinue a group, for example: `unsubscribe econet Henry Fielding'

list global
This sends you a list of all available Bitnet discussion groups. But be careful -- the list is VERY long!

get refcard
Sends you a list of other commands you can use with a listserver, such as commands for retrieving past postings from a discussion group.

Each of these commands goes on a separate line in your message (and you can use one or all of them). If you want to get a list of all Bitnet discussion groups, send e-mail to


Leave the "Subject:" line blank and use the list global command.

When you subscribe to a Bitnet group, there are two important differences from Usenet.

First, when you want to post a message for others to read in the discussion group, you send a message to the group name at its Bitnet address. Using Econet as an example, you would mail the message to:


Note that this is different from the listserv address you used to subscribe to the group to begin with. Use the listserv address ONLY to subscribe to or unsubscribe from a discussion group. If you use the discussion-group address to try to subscribe or unsubscribe, your message will go out to every other subscriber, many of whom will think unkind thoughts, which they may share with you in an e-mail message).

The second difference relates to sending an e-mail message to the author of a particular posting. Usenet newsreaders such as rn and nn let you do this with one key. But if you hit your `R' key to respond to a discussion-group message, your message will go to the listserver, and from there to everybody else on the list! This can prove embarrassing to you and annoying to others. To make sure your message goes just to the person who wrote the posting, take down his e-mail address from the posting and then compose a brand-new message. Remember, also, that if you see an e-mail address like <IZZY@INDYVMS>, it's a Bitnet address.

Two Bitnet lists will prove helpful for delving further into the network. NEW-LIST tells you the names of new discussion groups. To subscribe, send a message to <listserv@ndsuvm1.bitnet>:

sub NEW-LIST Your Name

INFONETS is the place to go when you have questions about Bitnet. It is also first rate for help on questions about all major computer networks and how to reach them. To subscribe, send e-mail to <info-nets-request@think.com>:

sub INFONETS Your Name

Both of these lists are also available on Usenet, the former as bit.listserv.new-list; the latter as bit.listserv.infonets (sometimes bit.listserv.info-nets).

"It wasn't long before the invention of the mailing-list, an
ARPANET broadcasting technique in which an identical message could
be sent automatically to large number of network subscribers.
Interestingly, one of the first really big mailing-list was "SF-LOVERS",
for Science Fiction fans. Disscussing science fiction on the network
was not work-related and was frowned upon by many ARPANET computer
administrators, but this didn't stop it from happening."
--- Bruce Sterling, F&SF Science Column #5 Internet

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