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The Listserve; A Social Experiment about an Email Spotlight

Last week, a fellow BlogHer editor sent me a note about a new site that was starting up called The Listserve.  I wrote about it and my reservations on BlogHer, and one of the creators got in touch to answer those questions as well as many others I posed below.  I’ll admit that I have spent more time considering what might enter my inbox than what I would say if I was chosen.  I thought about it so much that I didn’t sign up.

The gist of the site is that it’s a listserve that sends out a daily email.  The email’s subject matter is chosen and provided by one member of the group.  It’s a lottery with a winner every day, and at the heart is the question: what would you say if you had one million people listening?

It’s a heady thought.  A slightly terrifying, overwhelming thought.

The project came out of a graduate class at NYU in the interactive telecommunications program (cue music from Rent — pretty much any song that contains Tom Collins and Angel Dumott Schunard) and Greg Dorsainville explains,

[We looked] to see what decisions people like you have made in order to foster the types of conversations you want. It’s amazing how design can control these sorts of aspects.  So the listserve is our attempt to foster interesting, diverse conversation, by giving  an amplified voice to people that may not have that normally between people who normally do not interact. With that goal, we want to make sure the conversation does not stray toward hate speech and other offensive language that mars too much of the Internet conversation space.

It’s an admirable goal; an interesting concept.  Don’t like the comment section of the New York Times (and… I don’t), then change the conversation.  Create an equally diverse community but don’t allow the conversation to devolve into name-calling and snarkiness.

Dorsainville reassured me that emails go through their team before being released to the entire listserve.

We reserve the right to reject emails that violate the spirit of the list. And that spirit is sensitive to being inclusive, diverse, and fair. I cannot say exactly until we see it, but I feel that our group and project want to respect the email space that people have given us.

Equally, when I expressed my fear that the listserve could be used to send out what amounts to a suicide note or a suicide threat and asked if the person would receive counsel, Dorsainville stepped up to the plate much in the way we’ve seen Frank Warren provide outreach via his project, Postsecret.

This listserve is not the wild west. We would never share a message to the list that comes close to a suicide note, and we would do our best to get that person the help they may need. We will do our best. I hope that helps.

Hate speech is expressly forbidden as stated in the “you won” letter, though when I asked who is defining hate speech and how would they  respond to accusations of censorship, Dorsainville admitted that they hadn’t yet figured this out.  Nor do they have a plan in place if the listserve morphs into what amounts to a daily advertisement.

If [the daily email] gets to be something that none of us want to open, we will reevaluate and probably attempt to reboot. But we want to know what comes, first.

There will be no way at this point for people to respond to the emails nor forums for discussion.  It is solely a one-way conversation from the speaker to our inboxes.  Nor have they considered whether or not they will track how many people actually open their daily email, therefore providing no information to the people providing the content: are they really speaking to one million people, or are the majority of those people hitting delete?  And lastly, there is no way to opt-out and ask not to be chosen in the daily lottery.

It is something we have discussed in the group, but so far we have decided for this to succeed, we cannot provide the mechanism to read only. It is important for the users to realize that at any point they may be thrust into the spotlight to address the group. I know that might sound difficult for most (since so many people tend not to want to talk out in public), but we do believe this is a great opportunity.

I ended up signing up for The Listserve.  The first email will be going out within the next 48 hours.  Who knows what I’ll find in my inbox; if it will be the most brilliant thought I would have never encountered in the circles I move in traditionally on the Web or if it will be words that will ruin my day.  It’s a big experiment, and we’re all the guinea pigs — the people who sign up as well as the bystanders who end up catching snippets of the discussion.

What specifically would you tell people if you were chosen?  And if I’m chosen, can I count on all of you to help me construct what to say?


1 Kir { 04.18.12 at 7:45 am }

Well I’m glad you’ll be in the mix with me and of course you can count on me to help you when it’s your turn to speak..you have perfect words!

2 Bea { 04.18.12 at 7:57 am }

Hm. Ok, I’m game. I’d like to know what happens.

3 serenity { 04.18.12 at 8:02 am }

I thought about it all night, ever since I saw this on Prompt-ly. I felt the same way you did; worried about what I’d see. I’m actually really happy you were able to get more information. So I signed up as well.

I have no idea what I’d write if I were selected. But of course I’ll weigh in when you do. 🙂


4 St. Elsewhere { 04.18.12 at 8:18 am }

Honestly? Nothing really strikes me as of now, as to what topic I will want to write on.

You are so eloquent. I am sure you will do a good job at whatever topic you choose. And if you ask here on your blog, and I am around in the bloggy land at that point of time, and if I can contribute, I definitely will.


5 Mina { 04.18.12 at 9:06 am }

I was thinking you’d sign up eventually. I am glad you did and looking forward to hearing your opinion about it.
You are too modest in saying you need anyone else’s help to write something, but I can understand the need to hear you have support should you need it. And of course, the answer to that question is a resounding yes. I just hope you ask us to be your sounding board when I am around. 🙂

6 HereWeGoAJen { 04.18.12 at 9:34 am }

I’m very interested. I don’t know that I will sign up right away, but this is definitely something really interesting.

7 Justine { 04.18.12 at 9:36 am }

Way better than I could have said it (or did say it *grin*). With research, besides. 🙂 Thanks for asking the questions we would all want answered, even if some of the answers don’t exist yet!

I think that this is as much an experimental space for them as it is for us … staying tuned to see what arrives. 🙂

8 a { 04.18.12 at 10:00 am }

Well, I’m mildly fired up about last night’s Frontline and the view it portrayed of my profession, so I might find myself saying something about that.

I guess it would be a good way to clear up misconceptions about something that you feel are out and about in the general public.

9 sass { 04.18.12 at 10:11 am }

The idea of this causes me anxiety just reading about it. What would I say to the world if I had the spotlight? Probably, I’d turn 80 shades of red and run out of the room.
Of course I’d love to read the creative things that others come up with, but I probably won’t join because of the risk of being chosen. It doesn’t mean I wouldn’t comment if you asked for help here though.
I do hope this listserv turns into something unique and valuable, and maybe I’ll someday find the courage…

10 Baby Smiling In Back Seat { 04.19.12 at 12:08 am }

Okay, I totally had no interest when I heard about it before, but now I’m going to sign up.

I would send out a public service message based on my work. It would be thought-provoking and funny and engaging and heart-warming and life-affirming and it would change the world.

11 St. Elsewhere { 04.19.12 at 12:38 am }

For once, BabySmiling? What do you do?

Puhleease? You know I have been curious, and so far all my guesses have been wrong.

So? 🙂

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