Last spring, in a desperate act of procrastination during the most stressful peak of finals week, I did something most people instantly regret, something that everyone warns you to avoid, something that after nearly a year of matriculation at Princeton University I should have known much better than to do. I joined another listserv.
The result of a final class project of NYU grad students Greg Dorsainville, Josh Begley, Yoonjo Choi, Alvin Chang and Zena Koo, “The Listserve” began as an exploration of the intersections between technology and communication. The premise is simple: subscribe to the listserv and each day you’ll receive an email from a stranger, selected at random, about anything that strikes his or her fancy. You’ll also be entered into the lottery and one day may too have your chance to write to every other subscriber of the list.
Unlike those that flood my college inbox, this listserv is not a forum for debate over mascots or lost coats. The sender of the email can choose to remain anonymous, or leave his or her name, email, and hometown. Responses to an email are possible only if the sender provides the necessary contact information, and if not, the writer’s words are left alone, unharmed in cyberspace.
Their slogan: “If you had the chance to speak to a million people, what would you say?”
Visit the website and you’ll see a link to an introductory YouTube video. In a minute and a half this question is posed to what looks like a random collection of people, caught on street sidewalks and in office buildings. One by one the interviewees are startled, they laugh, they ponder, and they answer with a pretty representational variety of responses. The glossy clips of the individuals’ reactions are played over the humming, strumming chorus of Radical Face’s “Welcome Home.”
Maybe the Listserve won’t actually reach one million people, but according to their website there are currently over 20,000 subscribers. The homepage of their site allows you to view subscribers by country, revealing that about half of them live in the United States, 600 in Brazil, 3 in Bangladesh. It’s a touching sort of granola-meets-technology idea, in the way that bumper stickers plastered on building walls and bathroom stalls catch a passing person’s eye and force upon him their message. You can take it or leave it but the intrusive landing in your inbox each morning is like the newspaper on the doorstep: you’ve subscribed and now you feel obligated to follow through.
After making a fairly non-committal enrollment by entering my middle school email address into the homepage of thelistserve.com, I waited in excitement for the wisdom of strangers to be bestowed upon me in electronic, 300-word doses. The next morning my first Listserve email arrived, from an anonymous sender, with the subject line “BuLLdozer.” The following is exactly what the body of the email read: “To all the people of the list- buy a bulldozer.”
The number of times I googled and google imaged and even urbandictionaried the word “bulldozer” I am too embarrassed to reveal. The double L in the subject line continues to perturb me. Perhaps there is an obvious significance to this message that I am missing, but I have also considered taking it at face value. I will confess to looking into the processes of bulldozer acquisition, and I’ve learned that it’s no negligible purchase (up to $200,000 or more! — but don’t worry, they are also for rent). eHow has step-by-step instructions.
What’s the point? This was not the type of message I was awaiting. Rather, I expected a heart-wrenching tale of unspeakable tragedies, a love story, inspiration from someone’s hard lesson learned. And to be sure, the vast majority of the emails I received after the first one were exactly that. But what fascinates me most is the anonymous sender, 48 hours earlier, sitting at a computer somewhere in the world, capitalizing those center L’s. Founders of The Listserve call it an “experiment,” but to me it is a window. It is a solicited glimpse into some strangers’ psyche and exactly what, whoever they are and wherever they are, they feel is most important to express to thousands of people they’ve never met, and likely will never meet.
Alex Ersnt from New Orleans doesn’t capitalize the letters at the start of her sentences. She spent the previous night at a TEDx event, which she hoped would inspire her Listserve e-mail, but instead she thinks she should say something that comes from her and her heart and her mind and her experiences, so she tells us we’re “stuck with the ramblings of [her] wandering mind.” She’s sorry she’s not sorry.
A. Susilo begins by thanking us for the pleasant, odd chance to write to us. A is “gen Y living in a developing country named Indonesia, working as a marketer in fmcg industry.” On what he or she calls a rare occasion being a non-American — and later I check the site, A is one of 12 Indonesian Listserve subscribers — he or she wants to share six points about his or her home country. I learn that Indonesia is the second largest home of Facebook users and the sixth largest for Twitter, a fact A finds unsurprising, “well since, [they’re] like the 4th most populated country in the world filled with happy chatty people. Haha.” A ends by wishing me a pretty day and signs off with a :).
Trev from Sydney seems to have spent his 48 hours playing with slashes and dashes to create a full-screen bubble-letter “Happy Friday” message. He loves Friday because of the air of excitement, the stories, laughs, and guilty pleasures. A beer or two and the weekend is in full swing. Trev tells us that this weekend, we should do something awesome.
The next day, Frances, a 21-year-old pre-med student in New York City likes writing, cleaning, yoga, and drinking. She’s waiting for Hurricane Sandy to hit Brooklyn. After telling us to “WTF VOTE FOR OBAMA,” surprisingly, the first political message I’ve read so far on the Listserve, she reveals her greatest torments. She believes all the evils of the world sometimes come and rest for a moment in her heart, but she is starting to learn to override her own maladaptive mechanisms and be free from this self-imposed tyranny. She is extremely happy and lucky to have people in her life who can set her mind at ease. She leaves her email address.
Around the same time that I joined the Listserve last spring, a friend sent me an article written by Derrick Jensen titled “Loaded Words,” subtitled “Writing as a combat discipline.” In his article, published last April in Orion Magazine, Jensen attacks writers who claim the need for neutrality and objectivity in their profession. The essence of the article is that such a position not only “reveals a great ignorance for what it means to be a writer,” it is also inexcusable. Art, he argues, in order to be moral, must be a combat discipline.
Jensen, in this article, pushes an environmentalist agenda, but I believe his point about writing applies more broadly. It seems to be a recurring theme in the lives of professional writers: grappling with a constant insecurity over whether or not their careers are worthwhile. I think this is because so many of them, thinkers necessarily, are passionate about the world and the things that they write about. They worry whether their time and skill and energy would not be better spent on the field in action — and then they write defenses about why they shouldn’t be.
This is certainly the case in “Loaded Words,” though I think that the core of the article is a noble one. Jensen shares what he believes is his calling to tell the truth as he has come to understand it.
Writers feel the need to be heard. It’s the standard piece of advice given to creative writing students: write for the smartest reader you can imagine, a reader that will understand your most obscure reference, recognize your most subtle metaphor, discover your hidden analogies. Write for an audience because your words will be read, and if successful, will influence people.
Here, I think, we find the kernel of The Listserve. It is the reason 20,000 people around the world have subscribed to a daily dose of spam, and the reason each lottery winner takes 48 hours to draft and send his own message to the 20,000 people on the receiving end. And even if a good many of the emails are trite reiterations of the same life advice clichés, they can be valued for the meaning they’ve had to whomever wrote the email to begin with.
The Listserve caused some buzz early on for its novel attempt to create a forum in which anyone could speak to a million people around the world, but I believe its function is more complex. It fulfills a deeper need in humans than simply that of social interaction; for this we have Skype and Facebook and Chatroulette. More remarkably, it speaks to the natural human desire for power and for influence, tackling the very source of the insecurity articulated by Jensen and his peers. The idea is appealing because it gives anyone the chance to reach thousands of people they would never have been able to, to hold their attention, and to make them listen to what they have to say. With the advent of the internet, and now more particularly the creation of The Listserve, one no longer needs to be a famous author or politician or expert of any sort to have the chance to spread his influence. It’s the pitch of a lifetime.
Indonesian A ended the email by writing “It’s nice to find more real-people e-mails in the mailbox full of engine-generate mails nowadays,” and I can’t help but agree. Jordan from Texas reminds me to stay classy. David in Kansas City wants us to be excellent to each other. Aniruddh, a doctor from Springfield, Illinois, tells me that smiling everyday will really make me live longer. Browning the butter instead of creaming it is the secret to making really good chocolate chip cookies. The tastiest instant noodle ever is from Indonesia. It’s called Indomie, and you can find it on Amazon.
I wonder how Frances fared in the hurricane and I hope she has food and power and running water. Maybe one day she’ll get a beer with the Australian Trev.
As for what I would say if I had the chance to speak to a million people, I truly have no idea. But for now, I’ll settle with whoever stumbles upon this.
This article was originally published in the Princeton University newspaper the Nassau Weekly.