The answer--depends how you use them.
Yes, you can be signed up for too many, or for ones that don't really fit your needs or interests. Or you can waste your time reading and talking too much or on off-topics. (Much of this applies to Facebook pages or groups as well.)
However, I believe that used judiciously, list serves can be useful. There are one-way list serves--basically announcements that provide information. And two-way list serves, which are
online communities. I'm addressing the latter here. Writing (or illustrating) is mostly a solitary activity. Meeting with other creative face to face isn't always possible, but a list serve can be a good substitute.
Let's talk about several ways people are involved.
All this means is that people are reading, but not participating in the conversation. They don't comment, nor start new topics, nor share good and bad news. We call them "lurkers." Does this mean they can't get anything out of the posts? Of course not. They can glean lots of information from what others are saying. But...if they have a question and don't ask it on the list serve, how will they get it answered?
One of my friends had been lurking on a list serve and because I "out"ed that she was there (she had invited me to it), she decided she'd better introduce herself. Nervously, she wrote a post of intro and commented on a topic that the group had been discussing. She asked me to look over her post before she sent it. "Is it okay?" she asked. "Definitely," I told her. "Go ahead and post." She did, and guess who commented?! Andy Boyles of Highlights. Just by making an intelligent comment on a list serve she had a short conversation with an editor.
Posting means participating in the conversation. It can include sharing information from good articles or tips you've read, links to resources and events, your own posts on a topic from your blog or on a website, information about the publishing industry, etc. It's a place to ask and answer questions, get opinions or quick feedback, find potential critique partners, learn about opportunities, meet people, and make friends.
List Serve Etiquette
Although on many list serves you are welcome to share about yourself and your successes, on no list serve should your posts be all about you. Remember that word conversation. Don't shout about "me, me, me." Instead, engage others by rejoicing with their successes, commiserating when appropriate, etc. Ask and answer questions.
Never attack someone. (Also known as flaming.) If you disagree with something, be polite when expressing yourself. Don't participate in a long and involved argument; simply state your opinion and move on.
Never make rude comments about another children's writer or illustrator, editor or agent. Yes, sometimes we gripe in general about a situation, but don't make libelous statements. You also don't want to create an overall view of yourself as a complainer. As Thumper says, "If you can't say something nice, don't say nothing at all." You'll stay out of a lot of trouble by following that little rule.
If you want to share someone's words/thoughts from a post on a list serve, ask the author's permission. It's fine to share links.
When replying, don't quote the whole message you are responding to (and definitely not a whole digest).
If you want to start a new conversation, start a new topic instead of commenting on a previous topic. A back and forth conversation is called a thread. Basically, it's good to keep the same thread under one subject heading.
It's nice to sign your name. Some lists will ask you to post your email address as well.
Be gracious. People will make mistakes, including you.
Types of Groups
Groups are hosted by a provider, such as Yahoo or Google. They can be open or closed. An open group is one anyone can join. Closed groups are often invitation only, or the person desiring to join must be approved by a moderator. Groups can be by location, genre, organization, work group, or any limitation or category someone dreams up.
How List Serves Commonly Work
Most list serves can be used in three ways:
• Individual emails to your inbox each time someone posts
• Daily digests - a collection of the days posts with headings emailed to your inbox
• Reading posts online
It's usual to be able to reply to posts via email, to the sender directly, to the whole group or online. Starting a new topic can be done online or by sending an email to the list serves email address.
Some list serves have moderated posts, which can either be someone approving posts before they go "live" or someone who just watches out for problems.
It's also usually easy to unsubscribe from a list that no longer meets your needs.
Why I Use List Serves
I use them for community, for staying in touch with people I don't see often, for help and information, and have even gotten job leads.
I'd be interested in hearing what others think about this topic.
(bird on a wire picture courtesy of morguefile.com)