The Medium is The Message

Introducing The Listserve, a Giant List Only One Person Can Email Per Day

Five NYU grad students are working to bring back the listserv to a more diverse audience.
picture 5 Introducing The Listserve, a Giant List Only One Person Can Email Per Day

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It’s the sad truth of the Internet: you can tweet and blog your sweet little heart out, but there’s no guarantee that anyone is actually listening. But what if there was a platform that gave you the chance to deliver whatever thoughts, feelings or advice you had, right to the intimate confines of someone’s inbox? And they actually voluntarily signed up for the chance to hear you?

It’s not a newsletter or a shared-interest listserv: it’s a new project out of NYU’s ITP masters program called The Listserve that gives the chance for one person each day to share their thoughts with thousands through a random lottery email system. Users sign up to receive one email daily from a randomly selected user. The email can be about anything–from what they had for breakfast that morning, to a picture of a kitten, to a politically-motivated diatribe–and it’s sent, either publicly or anonymously, out to the other Listserve subscribers.

The project was incubated in an NYU masters class run by Internet scholar Clay Shirky entitled “Designing Conversational Spaces.” Listserve’s tagline? “If you had the chance to speak to one million people, what would you say?”

“The basic idea that it comes from is to see what people do when given a spotlight,” Josh Begley, a Listserve group member, told Betabeat via phone. “I’ve long been curious about that idea. You know, even on Facebook when you see a bunch of friends having this perception that a lot of people are listening, sometimes we end up doing crazy, heartfelt or surprising things. So we’re just trying to create a scenario in which that can happen in a low budget way.”

Alvin Chang, another Listserve member, explained it further. “How do we play with it to the point where we can find something out about how people are having conversations and how people are viewing things in context based on not only design choices, but contextual spaces?”

For those of you who took journalism classes, Mr. Chang is essentially applying famed journalism scholar Marshall McLuhan’s popular phrase, “The medium is the message,” to this experiment.

The group argues that what differentiates the project from other large-scale email lists is that it’s not organized around a specific theme or topic. It simply exists to allow people to share and listen to what others have to say, regardless of their interests, location or physicality.

“The obstacle that most people have now is that they are in silos, they talk to people of like-mindendess,” said Greg Dorsainville, another team member. “When I thought of the use cases of getting an email from someone you don’t know and you don’t know the topic it will be about, it’s an antithesis to that type of behavior.”

To protect anonymity, the user who is randomly picked to send out the list-wide email can choose to have it sent either from their email address, or by the Listserve team, and each email will be vetted before being sent, to avoid users sending out hardcore porn or computer viruses. “We just want to make sure that some 12-year-old who happens to sign up for the list doesn’t get porn,” said Mr. Chang.

Listserve is staged to be a social experiment. The group members say they want to see what gets people to communicate, and how their messages change depending on the size of the audience and the medium used to convey their message.

“I want it to be understood that this is as earnest as it sounds,” said Mr. Dorsainville. “We would like to take out this notion of communication having to be about something else behind it, like how Facebook gives you a platform because they want you to bare your data. That’s not what we want to do. We want to share your stories and your feelings and your opinions.”

Very earnest, indeed.

It’s worth noting that the project will only begin once it reaches 10,000 subscribers. Until then, perhaps playing the Fame game can satisfy your desire to be heard.

Follow Jessica Roy on Twitter or via RSS. jroy@observer.com