I don't have a fear of public speaking, but I am terrified of publishing; as a version of the cliché goes, I'd rather be the subject of an obituary than its author. And yet every morning I wake up and check my email for the subject line: "Congratulations. You've won the Listserve Lottery."
I subscribe to an email lottery called The Listserve, in which one person is selected each day to send out an email to the list, which currently includes over 21,000 subscribers from 95 countries. This social experiment launched out of NYU's ITP masters program, and celebrated its 200th listserv winner Nov. 1.
NYU graduate student Greg Dorsainville and his four co-creators began the project for a class on designing conversation spaces, and they sought to test how the medium they created could affect the message.
Dorsainsville wanted to spotlight a single voice, often drowned out by the plethora of social media and blogging platforms.
Yet the majority of The Listserve subscribers are from Australia, Canada and the United States, not exactly muted voices on the world stage. Of the 213 emails sent out by subscribers so far, only five have been in a language other than English.
The founders theorize that this English-speaking majority is a result of their initial campaign video, which was produced in English. "Pitches can't be universal," Dorsainville said.
"There are so many robust places online to have a conversation," he added. "This is a starting point for conversations elsewhere."
The Listserve has indeed inspired several online social experiments. One lottery winner, Ned Resnikoff sent out a call for submissions for his tumblog, The Wonderserv. He invited Listservers to "share the things that make you feel awe." The result is a multimedia tribute to neuroscience, siblings, discotecas, and, of course, pretty skylines.
The Listserve is also used to recruit volunteers and to crowdsource an idea. Yesterday's winner, Maureen, asked for The Listserve to send videos of themselves describing their careers. Her hope was to expose her students, teenage repeat offenders attending class in a Mass. detention facility, to the benefits of a high school education.
Two things about The Listserve fascinate me. First, no one has ever been banned or censored. The Listserve team imposed a word count limit after receiving a 10-page essay from the first winner. But besides that, no post has warranted any sort of disciplinary action.
Second, very few people choose to remain anonymous. So far, only 13 of the 212 lottery winners have signed off without their names. And nearly all of the Listserv winners included their personal email address so that readers can get in touch with them.
Douglas Carnall - translator, editor and the 185th winner of The Listerve lottery - said he feels beholden to his readers as an author. He included his personal email address with a piece on the semantics of the phrase, 'Scout's pace," and received about 30 replies.
"Responding took up most of my free time for the next few days; it was an absolute pleasure to do so," he said.
Carnall compared the experience of writing to an audience of 20,000 strangers to "a secular prayer."
Maybe this explains why so many The Listserve emails are carpe diem essays, or, as the disparaging blog You Got Listserved! unsympathetically termed them, "entitled, self-absorbed spam" (shockingly, the creator of this blog remains anonymous).
The Listserve is used as a space to share a point of pain or happiness for authors, Dorsainsville said. "Email has this weird metric," he said. "It comes directly to you, and when you reach out, its personal."
The Listserve's platform definitely affects the quality of the discussion: communication between subscribers is slow, at least relative to blogs and social media sites that provide instant feedback, and only one person can speak at a time. The result is less trolling and more intimacy.
I just started as an intern with the Tech Team at The Huffington Post, where one of our jobs is to improve the way ideas are being exchanged on our site. I'll be looking to my inbox for inspiration, and comments, so hit me up,