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The Listserve Hopes To Revitalize The Quality Of Online Conversation Through The Oldest Online Social Network -- Email

BY Sarah Lai Stirland | Thursday, April 12 2012

What would you say if you suddenly had the opportunity to connect personally with a million of your fellow human beings around the world?

That's a question that a group of five students at New York University's Interactive Telecommunications Program are currently exploring with their intriguing class project/online social interaction experiment The Listserve, in which one person is chosen by lottery, and given the platform and opportunity to speak to a mass audience through e-mail in a one-shot deal.

The students are putting on this project as part of a class taught by adjunct professor and Internet thinker Clay Shirky, called "The Design of Conversational Spaces." In it, students are supposed to figure out what it is that fosters quality conversations and interactions online.

Shirky's students chose e-mail because of its broad reach and intimate nature. Many of them clearly hope that the people who sign up to be part of the list are aspiring writers or people with some profound thoughts to share.

"We all hope that the 55 novelists on the list will be the ones published -- that would be my dream -- but that probably won't be the case," says Josh Begley, a web designer and one of the students working on the project.

E-mail was a particularly interesting space to explore in the context of creating mass conversations because it still serves as a primary space for so many people in their daily lives as their private "online home," says Alvin Chang, who was the primary person who came up with the idea for the project for the group. Chang is a hockey writer for ESPN.

"For me, the interest was really in seeing how someone’s story changes from when it goes from a blog to being in your inbox, but at the same time knowing that it’s going to hit 10,000 people or more," he says. "This project is about context, it’s about medium, it’s about messing with the dials, and pushing up the scale, and having this very free-flowing conversation."

Yet at the same time, it's going to be a very controlled conversation because only one person gets to post a day, and the goal is to get the self-selected readers to actually sit back, read and absorb the text from a stranger with whom they have nothing in common. The person who's chosen is given up to five days to compose their message and sends that message to the students who are the listserve moderators. They don't intend to edit or curate the pieces, but they also want to make sure that it's content that's suitable for a 12-year-old's eyeballs.

The students, who also include Greg Dorsainville, Yoonjo Choi, and Zena Koo, have no idea what to expect -- the spontaneity and novelty of the unexpected appears to be part of the thrill of the project.

"I've always been interested in hearing stories, stories that remind people that they're human, from a human that is so unlike me, yet so like me in some ways. I think that is so powerful and intriguing," says Chang. "I'm hoping that one day someone will post a recipe, and another day someone will e-mail out a ranting at the Tea Party, and the next day a note about a break-up with their boyfriend of 12 years or something."

In their best forms, electronic mailing lists have been and still are great vehicles to distribute the thoughts and musings of great thinkers, and as the virtual thread that ties neighborhood and affinity groups together. So in many senses, the Listserve violates these norms. There can't be any self-righteous complaints from the thousands of members of this self-selected global community that a subject is "off-topic," because there is no topic. Also, unlike regular community e-mail mailing lists, subscribers can't respond directly. The students have designed it so that readers have to respond elsewhere. That's because the focus of the project is a focus on the individual and what that individual will say when presented this random opportunity to engage with thousands of people, and potentially a million people online.

As anyone who's in the business of online political campaigning knows, aside from in-real-life fundraisers, e-mail is still the most effective fund-raising tool because they can be sent out at emotionally-charged moments that are driven by unfolding events. Email has always served as a an incredibly effective tool of communication in those kinds of moments. One of the e-mails that's seared in my memory is the writer Tamim Ansary's September 13, 2001 email to about 20-25 of his friends after people started talking about "bombing Afghanistan back into the stone age," after the September 11 attacks on New York. It was precisely his intimate conversational tone in trying to explain Afghanistan to the world that was so captivating at that point in time, and is probably what explains why it became a global phenomenon.

That is a long way of wondering aloud about whether the conversations on The Listerve will be as compelling as those driven by actual world events, and whether people writing to an audience they don't know will come up with anything interesting. Novelists and writers do it all the time, however, so I look forward to seeing what emerges.

And it looks as if the conversation is going to start soon. The students are planning to launch when 10,000 people sign up. As of Thursday morning, 7,381 people have subscribed. Forty-two percent of the subscribers are located in the United States, with the rest of the subscribers scattered across the globe.