The Listserve: What Would You Say to a Million People?

One email a day, from a random person, talking about whatever they want. But don't even think about calling it spam.

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The first rule of Listserve is, you can talk about anything you want on Listserve. Your life, your secret Bloody Mary recipe, your love of bees. (We’ll get back to the bees.)

That’s the idea, anyway. And at heart, it’s a simple one: go to Enter your email address. And once a day, you’ll receive a message in your inbox from a different randomly chosen member, anonymously, on whatever subject he or she wants to talk about. If your name is drawn, you’ll have 48 hours to compose your thoughts and send them out to everyone else on the list — nearly 17,000 people and counting.

As the tech site Digital Trends puts it, The Listserve is sort of like PostSecret meets Chatroulette; instant, anonymous wideband communication, minus the unsolicited nakedness. It’s the final class project for a group of New York University grad students — Greg Dorsainville, Josh Begley, Yoonjo Choi, Alvin Chang and  Zena Koo —  intended to explore the intersections between technology and communication. Within five days of launching, it surpassed its target of 10,000 subscribers, and began sending out one email per day to participants on April 16.

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“What we realized before we sent out emails is that no one wants a deluge of content,” Dorsainville tells TIME. “Email is a weird, personal space for people — It’s as if you’re going into someone’s house, and we wanted to be wary of that.” So far, the daily emails have run the gamut from motivational anecdotes to educational how-to’s to historical tales of St. Patrick. It’s a little like sneaking a peek into a random passerby’s mind. The project’s idiosyncratic nature encourages subscribers to write about what they know, about what they feel a strong impetus to share. One subscriber — a data visualization specialist by day — wrote about the love of his life:

I want to write about a subject that is very close to my heart – bees!

Anyways, what is probably most impressive is the workload these little animals deal with. For one kilo of honey, they visit 4 million flowers, and fly a distance equivalent of more than 4 times around the earth. Think about that for a second.

And then, if you start to think about how they “furniture” their housing themselves by the wax they sweat out, how they can control temperature inside the hive to the tenth of a degree, how they collectively make decisions in a group of 50’000 (the queen has nothing to say in that sense, she is only the breeding unit)… the amazement never stops.

Anyhows, next time you complain about how tough your life is – have a spoon of honey and think of the bees. And start to keep some! (You can also do it in the city – no excuses!)

“It is a serendipitous bright spot in my otherwise task-management email,” Begley says. “The hope would be that it propels personal narrative and blurs national boundaries.” With participants from more than 100 countries, such daily doses from strangers can come from anywhere in the world. The team is hoping to grow its international audience and add some multilingual posts in the future.

As The Listserve evolves, the team isn’t sure what form the emails will take. They are hopeful the messages will continue to feel whimsical and diverse, but who knows?  Perhaps your next “open” click will reveal an inspirational quote, a narcissistic rant or a political plug. At the very least, its creators hope, The Listserve will spark conversation in unique spaces; ideally it’ll make the rest of your inbox feel like spam.

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