How do I use mailman?

A mail list program does two basic jobs:

  • It maintains a number of emails grouped as a “list”
  • It puts each of those email addresses on an email message you write and sends that email, message and email address, to your email server. It does this for every entry in your email list.

Imagine yourself sending the same email to a list of people — one at a time. With a sizeable list that would be tedious and time-consuming. That’s the basic task a mail list program does automatically and very quickly.

Mailman is one of the Internet’s most popular and powerful mail list programs. It can do a lot more than the basic tasks: it does a lot of administration work on your list including catching bounced email and eventually unsubscribing people who get a specific number of bounces, allowing for the configuration of your emails, handling subscribing and unsubscribing to the list and lots more.

As you become more familiar with mailman’s administrative screens you may want to work with some of its other capabilities but, in this article, we’ll concentrate on the basics — making a list and emailing it to you.

To make a list and send to it you will need the following:

  • an email program, most likely the one you use to do regular email.
  • a regular email address from which you’ll be sending to the list. This could be the admin address for the list — which you’re given when your list is created.
  • the email address of your list — e.g. support@lists.mayfirst.org.
  • the url of your list’s administration screen: which may be something like

 https://lists.mayfirst.org/mailman/admin/nameofyourlist

  • the user/password login for your list’s administration screen.

If you have all that, we can get started. If not, contact Critical Path Help Desk Support at support@critpath.org or 215-985-4448 x145 press option 2.

Populating your list:

You can’t send an email to a list unless you have a list. In mailman there are a couple of ways to initially build (or “populate”) your list, both using the administration screen.

  • Go to the url for the list and log on. You’ll see all the admin functions on the screen that opens up. Don’t be intimidated! You won’t need most of this for a normally functioning list. For now…

Click on Membership Management in the first column of links.

  • Click on Mass Subscription under Membership Management. You use this no matter how many emails you’re subscribing – even one.
  • First things first.

You’ll see three radio buttons under the Mass Subscription title. Here’s what you do:

“Subscribe these users now or invite them?” Usually, you’ll click subscribe if you’re starting your list. Invite means they get an email asking them to join — not all that effective for the list’s initial construction.

“Send welcome messages to new subscribees.” Up to you. If you click Yes they’ll receive a welcome message the moment you subscribe them. Thing is, if they are already on your list with some other program, this might be confusing so usually we click No.

Send notifications of new subscriptions to the list owner? Click NO absolutely! YOU are subscribing them. You don’t need an email for each of them telling you they are subscribed.

  • Either paste your new list into the upper box or use the “browse” function to find a text file on your computer with the email list you want. If you’re browsing mailman wants a text file with one email per line and ONLY that. Be very careful to make sure it’s a TEXT file — not a Word file or something. All text editing programs can save a file as “text only”. Save it that way before browsing and uploading. Anything else will cause all kinds of errors.

If you paste the emails in, you can do some from any kind of file. Just make sure there is one email per line and nothing more. Note that, even if you have thousands of emails on that list, you can paste them in because Mailman handles this function very well.

Ignore the bottom box unless you’re doing an invite to people in which case you can follow the instructions if you’d like.

  • OPTIONAL

Additionally, you can include first and last names as well as email addresses. To include names with their email address, create your list of emails to be added with the following format:

“Cesar Chavez” <cchavez@…> “Ella Baker” <ebaker@…>

The name must have a beginning and an ending double quotation mark, the email address must be contained within angle brackets. If you are using this latter format, you will need to check your list carefully before you paste the list into the Membership Management -> Mass Subscriptions page: a missing double quote or angle bracket can cause not only the id on that line to fail to be subscribed to your list, but all subsequent entries in the list to fail to be subscribed, too.

Now click “Submit Your Changes”.

  • Review the response page Mailman gives you. It will tell you who was subscribed and who wasn’t (and why) so you can fix any bad addresses and resubmit them. Note: Mailman also weeds out any duplicate email addresses so you really don’t have to worry about duplications in your list.

Announcement Only vs. Discussion list

By default, your list is a discussion list, which means that anyone who is subscribed to the list can post to the list without moderator approval. This type of list is also referred to as an “unmoderated” list.

Sometimes people prefer an announcement list, which means that only the moderator is allowed to post to the list.

To find out what kind of list you have, go to the Membership Management section and take a look at the list by clicking on Membership List. It tells you how many people are on your list, has an alphabetical “list” of the members and has one other critically important feature: it tells you whether people have their mod bit turned on or off.

“Mod” means “moderated”. With the mod bit turned on, a member’s post must be approved by a moderator before it goes out to the list. This is THE item that defines what kind of list you have.

Discussion List

Carefully weigh the option of an unmoderated list because such lists CAN sometimes go out of control if people start posting inappropriate messages or don’t really understand the etiquette of posting to a list.

If you want to have an open discussion list (an unmoderated list) in which members are free to post answers to each other, then:

  • Turn the moderator bit off for all current members:

Go to Membership Management -> Membership list

Scroll down below the member list and you’ll see “Set everyone’s moderation bit, including those members not currently visible” and two radio buttons for on and off. Check Off and submit.

  • Make sure new members have the moderator bit turned off when the join

Go to Privacy Options -> Sender filters

Set the default_member_moderation flag to No so that new users are automatically set as unmoderated.

Now, anyone who is subscribed to the list can freely post to the list.

Announcement List

To make a list announcement only – so that only you are allowed to send messages to the list:

  • Turn the moderator bit on for all current members:

Go to Membership Management -> Membership list

Scroll down below the member list and you’ll see “Set everyone’s moderation bit, including those members not currently visible” and two radio buttons for on and off. Check On and submit.

  • Make sure new members have the moderator bit turned on when the join

Go to Privacy Options -> Sender filters

Set the default_member_moderation flag to Yes so that new users are automatically set as moderated.

  • One more thing and this is something everyone forgets. Subscribe yourself to the list with an email address you want to post with. AND make sure YOUR mod button is on. This sounds wrong – you might think that you should turn your mod bit off so your posts will go through automatically. However, this approach is not secure. It is very easy to fake the from address to an email message. For this reason – we recommend that you always manually approve email messages being sent to your announcement list.

Avoiding spam and other annoyances

Note: as a default, email from anyone who is NOT a member of the list is held for moderator’s approval. In short, only members can post no matter what setting mod bit has. This can cause an avalanche of postings waiting for moderator approval coming from spammers. To avoid this trap, it is recommended that you discard posts sent from people who are not subscribed. You can do that by going to Privacy Options -> Sender Filters and changing the value of:

“Action to take for postings from non-members for which no explicit action is defined.”

to discard.

If you are still getting plagued by spam, we have an entire page dedicate to avoiding spam on mailman.

Now your list is ready for mailing. It gets a lot easier from now on.

To mail a post to the list.

  • Using your subscribed email address, send the email you want to distribute to your list — article, opinion, reminder, whatever. Send it in an email to the list email address. Just like you’d send to anyone else.
  • Go to and log into your management screen. At the top of the right hand column of the management menu you’ll see “Tend to pending moderator requests”. Click on that.
  • You see your email there? You may see others, by the way. This means that other people are trying to post to your list and you’ll need to determine which you want to approved and mail out, if any.

Note: if you don’t see your email, wait a few minutes because things might be a bit clogged on the server but in the meantime check YOUR email. The email you sent to the list may have bounced because you didn’t do the address right or something. Check the bounced email for errors and send ANOTHER with the error corrected and the same message. DO NOT resend the email that’s bounced — it will look strange and may behave even stranger.

So…it’s there on the admin screen?

Approve what you want to approve by checking the approve box. Discard the stuff you don’t want sent to the list by checking “Discard” and if you don’t want to make a decision on some post right now just click “defer”.

You’re going to check “approve” for your own message, right?

We’d suggest you ignore “Reject” unless you know the person who did the post. It sends a message to the poster that his or her email was rejected and, since most unauthorized messages are spam, you don’t want to tell the spammer that you’re paying attention to him or her. You’ll just get more spam. :-)

Now, with all the messages appropriately assigned a fate, just click submit.

Your message is then issued to the list. Check your own mail to see if you’ve received it. Mailman mailings can arrive instantly or can take several hours depending on size of mailing, time of day and Internet conditions. They usually arrive fairly quickly for most lists and most times of the day.

Your message is now in the hands all those people on the list. And it gets easier and quicker as you get used to these steps. In no time, you’ll be issuing message to your list in a couple of minutes.

How to make people get your permission to subscribe

Under Privacy Options, one of your options is the “What steps are required for subscription” option. If you choose “Require approval” then when someone subscribes they have to be approved by you before they can join the list.

The “Confirm” option means that they have to reply to an automated email before they can join your list.

You can also make them do both: “Confirm and approve.”

The rest of the Program

As you work with Mailman you should explore its various capabilities. The best place to start is with the “general configurations” but by all means go through all the admin menus to at least see what they do. Each of them has a help screen that will give you an idea of what things do.

If you don’t understand a capability or if you’re stuck working with your list or if there’s something in this article that isn’t clear, contact the Critical Path Help Desk Support at support@critpath.org or 215-985-4448 x145 press option 2.

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