Sat, 25 Aug 2012 22:19:35 +0000

A few days ago, flight attendant in Connecticut wrote to The Listserve. He (or she) asked a few questions of the project, and called me out by name. So I wrote back. The entirety of the e-mail is below:

To: An anonymous flight attendant in Connecticut
From: Alvin, co-creator of The Listserve

Hi there,

Sorry for the delay. I’ve been busy with work — and watching an obscene number of “Breaking Bad” episodes.

Anyway, I felt I had to respond to you. You had a chance to say anything you wanted to 20,000 people, and you chose to ask poignant questions of us, specifically calling me out by name. We briefly thought about using The Listserve to respond, but decided that space is sacred. So instead, I’m responding to you directly — and also posting it to my blog, so others can see.

First a bit of background:

The Listserve was my last project in grad school. It started in March, and the first e-mail I sent about this project — before any of us had any inkling of what it might be — was:
Hope everyone’s spring break was nice.

I’d be open to doing something pretty experimental – maybe something non-visual? But I’m open to anything.

What I really wanted to say was, “I want to push the limits, because I don’t know when I’ll be able to do it again.” So after some brainstorming, our first pitch for this project started something like this: “Imagine a listserv with a million people on it — except only one person can e-mail it each day.”

There was some laughter — and franky, it was a pie-in-the-sky idea for us, too. But it was one of those ideas that made us smile at each other in the hallways as we thought of executing it. So we decided to go for it.

Now, it could have very easily failed. There are many other people who have tried to mimic The Listserve, but they haven’t quite gotten off the ground. But for many reasons (and perhaps I’ll write about this in another post), our project hit 10,000 subscribers in six days.

Because of that initial launch, we have been lucky ebough to see the results of this experiment. We have tried to keep our voices out of this because a) we’re still making realizations every day and b) if it’s an experiment, we don’t want to taint the results; we want to let it be. But with such a directed questioning you, I thought it’d only be right to start this dialogue.

I have to preface my answers by saying I am by no means an expert on these matters. We’ve done extensive thinking on this project, but we continue to have moments where we go, “Hmm, interesting.”

OK, so on to your questions:
I like this idea. What excites me is that someone might surprise us with something beautiful and true. One or two people have come close. But, does it matter if most emails aren’t that great?

I used to think that the excitement was the potential for occasionally mind-blowing content. But a few weeks ago, a woman named Julissa Castillo wrote to the list. She wrote about being in Los Angeles, pursuing her dream of becoming a TV writer. She wrote it while sitting on her bedroom floor, “stress-eating Chex mix and inhaling caffeine.” And for the first time ever, I wrote back to a someone on the list.

Now this is fascinating because, each Listserve writer receives hundreds of responses — but never wrote one of them. So I always wondered what compelled someone to write back. And then when I read Julissa’s e-mail, I understood: The excitement is about creating mind-blowing connections. By that, I don’t mean you’ll contact the writer and become best friends. Rather, I’m excited that each e-mail could connect with me quite profoundly.

So does it matter if most e-mails aren’t “great”? If you think of it as purely content, then yes. But if The Listserve is more than just content — which is what a lot of our thinking has been based around — then I think the experience of a specific piece of content is quite different from person to person.
If someone says something beautiful and true, someone will post that somewhere else, and it will go viral by the usual wonders of the internet. Why subscribe? Won’t I hear about the amazing truth bomb in another corner of the internet?

Probably. Go wait in your corner.

Nah, but seriously: I work at a newspaper and I can say that truth bombs are rare — and they’re rarely intimate. Also, they are usually about the content.

But for each Listserve e-mail, someone thinks for 48-hours about what they will write to the biggest audience they will likely ever have. But so often they end up writing something very specific. And while the individual content itself might not go viral, I often think about who someone came to realize this is the thing they wanted to drop in 20,000 people’s inboxes.

Much of The Listserve experience is about context. It lands in your inbox, which can be a very personal space. And to have a conversation about the content, you have to proactively reach out to the writer — or other Listserve readers.

In short, I think the power of The Listserve isn’t that it can serve up truthbombs.
Is turnover high? People coming on for a week, then leaving. Does that matter?

We lose and gain around a hundred a day. It has stabilized over time.
How is the listserve going to grow? It seems stuck.

Growth in audience isn’t a primary concern right now.
Usually, listserves serve a specific community of interest. What’s our common denominator? What similar themes have you seen in the emails?

I think the common denominators are:

a. Curiosity
b. A yearning to connect
c. Willingness to be surprised

On that last point: Media organizations are thinking more and more about common denominators, which often means everyone is looking at different content. But on The Listserve, you don’t get to choose which piece of content you read. I often think about the difference between a newspaper and the radio program “This American Life.” A few weeks ago, TAL spent an entire episode on their recently deceased colleague, David Rakoff. A newspaper or magazine couldn’t really do that because, on those platforms, people can pick and choose what they consume. But with TAL, you will consume what they give you, whether you like it or not — and more often than not, it’s something most readers would never have consumed otherwise. What is their “common denominator”? I think it’s similar to ours.

Each time I open a new e-mail, it reminds of me opening a new pack of Pokemon cards and excitedly flipping through to see whether I got a rare one.
Also, usually, a listserve becomes a conversation. People reply, and we see the replies- good and crazy. There isn’t really a conversation here. Does that matter?

1. A few weeks ago, my new co-worker arrived and he mentioned that he liked The Listserve. We talked about the ones we liked, the ones we didn’t like and then he said, “Remember that one where the sister wrote about his older brother who died last year?" It was from Rachel Evans, who wrote about her brother David.“After I read that,” my co-worker said, “I just had to go hug my wife.”

2. Earlier this week, Nicole He invited all of you to a picnic. (It’s happening tomorrow.)

3. About a month ago, Jesse Friedman write about United Noshes, which is about cooking a cuisine from every country — and raising money for the World Food Program USA. Via The Listserve, he connected with someone who works at a hostel, and the hostel will be hosting a fundraiser for them in October.

4. Last month, Frank Mul suggested that every religious person should kill themselves. There is 36-e-mail thread in which my friends and I talked extensively about this.

5. A few days ago, Vitor Bosshard asked for low-intensity sports that are fun because he has a heart condition. He got suggestions from 150 different people.

Conversations happen, but just not in an online forum or comments section. And, for me, that’s the beauty of it.

Since creating The Listserve, I’ve moved to Boston and started a new job. It has been easy to get hypnotized by the monotony of routine. But each day, getting The Listserve e-mail each day still makes my heart stop a beat. I always wonder, “What could be in there today?” It makes me stop and think about my life in perspective; it makes me stop and feel what it is to live.

Oh and:
More selfishly, I’m a flight attendant for a shitty, regional airline. But I’m a good flight attendant. Got a better flight attendant job for me?

I hope you find a better job. But if not — or even if you do — what do you like doing? What are you passionate about? Maybe I can help with those things!



p.s. Write back!