On September 5, 2016 I won the Listserve lottery. In case you haven’t heard of it, the Listserve is a one-message-per-day email newsletter. Each day a single person from the 21,000+ subscriber list gets to send a message out to the entire list.
Here’s what that invitation looks like:
Hey there, you’ve been chosen to write to the rest of The Listserve. You have 48 hours to respond with the following:
*this can be blank, but you will not receive responses
We’re excited to read what you have to say!
—Your friends at The Listserve
What can I send?
- Text — letters, numbers, symbols
- 600 words max
What can I write?
- Anything! Well, almost anything… We reserve the right not to send your message if it threatens the spirit of the list — hate speech, etc.
- If you send something overtly controversial, or (self-) promotional, you must provide your name and email information and why you believe in what you are endorsing — you cannot be anonymous. Spam is unappreciated.
The following are random suggestions for you from the Listserve community:
- Motivational/life tips should be kept to a minimum. Those are a dime a dozen. Instead, tell me a story, give me a reason to want to know more about you.
- Your subject line is everything. I choose which listserve emails to ready solely based on the subject line. No pressure, though :)
- Tell me a story. Write a poem. Did you meet somebody interesting? Do something outrageous? Experience something spooky?
By submitting an email to The Listserve, you are agreeing to license it under the Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 Unported License, and you agree that you have sufficient rights to be able to grant such a license.
Oh, by the way, sometimes there is a queue of emails, so don’t worry if you don’t see your email go out right after you submit it. We’ve got it, and unless we contact you, it’ll be going out soon! Thanks!
I thought about what I would do, how I would spend my 600 words. I emailed friends and collaborators to bounce ideas off them. I thought about what it meant to get so many people thinking the same thing at approximately the same time.
Around this time I was also working hard on a side project, an SMS-based group chat server that resembles what the very first Twitter service looked like. This software was still very much a work in progress (it still is!). I decided I would announce my new social software and effectively launch it via the Listserve.
Here is my Listserve message, sent September 15, 2016:
(TL;DR—this one is kind of an experiment, scroll to the bottom for the punchline.) There’s a scene from the movie Network (1976), where TV news anchor Howard Beale has a series of epic on-air rants about the uncertain state of the world. He urges his viewers: “I want you to get up now. I want all of you to get up out of your chairs. I want you to get up right now and go to the window, open it, and stick your head out and yell…”
Then he says the line maybe you’ve heard—“I’m as mad as hell, and I’m not going to take this anymore!” He stands up, repeating the line with increasing intensity. The movie cuts to a shot of an apartment complex, and people start opening up their windows. It’s hard not to feel a sense of excitement when they start hollering out their windows, it almost feels like it’s really happening.
But I’m not so interested in Howard Beale, or the “mad as hell” speech itself—some of which is uncomfortably similar to the populism of a certain American political candidate. What’s really striking to me is how our use of broadcast technology has changed since the ‘70s. All those people hearing the same message from their TVs, all at once. And with the ethical weight of Watergate-era news journalism. It kinda feels like we’ve lost that capability with DVRs, social media, and Internet streaming.
I mean, we also have all this new stuff—so many new (relatively) inexpensive capabilities that let more of us reach many more people. Today’s Internet mega-viewerships surely outnumber 1970s TV, but it’s also interesting how many smaller in-between scales we have now. The Listserve is on that spectrum, somewhere between a receiving a postcard and browsing through trending hashtags.
I’m curious: what’s the present-day equivalent of sharing a common acoustic space, like those apartment-dwellers in Network? Who are we all? Where do we live? What could we achieve if we acted in concert somehow?
Instead of yelling a slogan out of our windows (basically a 1970s retweet), I have a couple other ideas.
- Let’s meet up IRL! We could select a handful of central locations and convene at a common time to build stuff/get weird/stare at each other awkwardly/make art/plan to overthrow the government/etc.
- What about a backchannel? I’ve been working on a new project that I’m eager to try out. It’s a group chat, kind of a pared-down, SMS-based Twitter.
(Insert here: the part where I pitch my project, Small Data. It’s a data cooperative I’m starting up with some friends, a collectively run alternative to cloud-based-advertising-ware.)
Just reply to this email and I’ll let you know when I figure out how this meetup(s) thing will go. If you’re feeling adventurous and want to try out the backchannel—that part is already working! Send an SMS message to (646) 846-4777 and you’ll be able to pseudonymously chat with other people who sign up.
And for my money, Ned Beatty’s boardroom speech in Network deserves to be every bit as famous as the “mad as hell” rant. Look it up if you haven’t seen it!
If you were reading closely, you may have noticed the span of time between when I won (September 5) and when my email actually got sent out (September 15). This was a very stressful time for me. Each day I hoped against hope that they would delay my message a little longer, so I could work more on my SMS software, and get it ready for an influx of new users.
The email went out. I thought well, here we go!. People started replying, and they were into the idea. I got messages from old friends I hadn’t been in touch with. I got a very kind message from Josh Begley, one of the co-creators of the Listserve.
This one was amazing to receive:
I’m Asare from the republic of Ghana.
I’m really inspired by you listserv today. Thank you ver much.
Hope to establish a friendship between.
I loved getting all these replies, but I realized with a sinking feeling that the SMS messages weren’t getting delivered. The server had recorded outgoing messages as sent, but they were not actually getting sent. But I could see the incoming SMS messages, and the list of phone numbers started stacking up in my MySQL table.
That’s when I panicked. What if it really shits the bed? What if I start SPAMMING all of these people with SMS messages? I disabled the SMS service and hunkered down with the code. Meanwhile, I replied to each incoming email reply as best I could.
And then, life just kind of bumped my weird project down the list of priorities. I can’t even remember what specifically happened, but I know I was traveling and focused on other work responsibilities. The end result is that I just kind of … didn’t follow up.
I am posting this here to explain what happened to the many adventurous Listserve subscribers who took the time to reply, or send an SMS message.
To all of you, I want to say: I’m so sorry!
But I also think this idea still has legs! Maybe it just needed some more time and motivation to actually be workable. I have ran some more test runs with the SMS software since then, and it’s still not perfect, but it is starting to feel stable enough for actual use.
So much has happened since last September to warrant being mad as hell. I don’t know what it means to connect with a distributed group of mostly-strangers. But I think it could still be an interesting cross-section to mobilize to … do something.
And happy EDFD!