BISSEX: Long Live the List

The surge of commercial investment in the Internet over the last four or five years has had its benefits. Internet Service Providers are more plentiful and less expensive. Software is easier to set up and use. Modems are faster. There's lots more free stuff to read and look at.There are whole categories of software that didn't exist five years ago, most of them spawned from the multimedia Medusa of the Web browser: streaming video, 3-D worlds, Internet telephones. Beneath all the flash, though, one simple textual communication method -- the humble e-mail list -- has continued to thrive.E-mail lists (also called "mailing lists" or simply "lists" by those who deal with more electronic than paper mail) are nearly as old as e-mail itself. Though there's no definitive way to count them, today there are at least tens of thousands of organized mailings lists, ranging in size from dozens to thousands of members and covering every conceivable topic. From Alpaca farming to Zippo collecting, both the variety and specificity are impressive.There are two basic list types. The announcement list is a one-way tube for periodic bits of news or comment. One such list alerts me to critical legislation passing through committees that my congresspeople belong to, allowing me to make timely phone calls to their offices. Another tells me about volcanic eruptions as they occur in various hot spots around the globe.Discussion lists are busier and less structured. Any subscriber is free to send a message to the rest of the list. This type of list can yield high volumes of mail, especially when discussions become free-for-all arguments. It's nearly essential to have an e-mail program that supports "filtering," as most now do, if you join this type of list. That way, all messages from the list can be diverted to their own box; the personal note you just got from Aunt Natalie won't get lost in the 29 messages debating proper spring planting dates for tomatoes.There are other types in between. The informal isn't-this-funny list, for example; this starts with one silly joke among friends; before you know it every variation on "Bill Gates Acquires Vatican/US Government/Olympics/Entire Universe" is in your in-box. Also of dubious utility is the Dear Valued Customer list, whose masses of press releases will make you regret giving your e-mail address to anyone but friends.Spam, or mass unsolicited e-mail, is a mutant form of the mailing list. The key difference is that spam is unwanted by definition. It's a heinous violation of normal human trust, dignity, spelling, punctuation, and grammar, and the less said about it here the better.Not merely persistent relics, e-mail lists are flourishing. They even hold wisdom for some newer, flashier technologies. Consider "push" media. A year or so ago, Wired magazine was telling you to "kiss your browser goodbye" because a new world of fun! active! content was about be shoved your way. Details were sketchy. "Like TV, only better" was the essence of the pitch. A year later, the magazine admitted that the predicted revolution had not arrived on schedule. The latest Web browsers do incorporate "channels" and other push features, but most of these haven't been broadly embraced.If it came down a choice between the Web and e-mail right now, it would indeed be the browser getting kissed goodbye by many e-mail devotees. E-mail lists are "push" done right. They arrive seamlessly, as part of a ritual already incorporated into the lives of Net users. They serve unique niches. They give an audience to those without other means of being heard. They are nothing like TV.Unlike advertising-supported media, most lists are not designed to meet the needs of anyone but the participants. A list is as good, or as bad, as its members collectively judge it to be.Mailing lists are the antidote to the 5-million-channels-and-nothing-on nightmare vision of the Web's future. Lists can be many conflicting things: democratic, anarchic, communal, efficient, noisy, clear, contentious, honest. Qualities, for the most part, that are increasingly hard to find in the conglomerated media fog swirling around us. It's a great time to look back into lists. That's not too pushy, is it?***Sites in my SightsTo search for mailing lists on all subjects, head to the massive Liszt directory (www.liszt.com). One word of warning: pay close attention to the instructions on how to end your list subscription. A small but painful percentage of messages on many lists are variations on "Help! How do I get off this thing?!"Don't Just Sit There, Sit There and Do SomethingThe ACLU is a good example of an organization that takes advantage of the power of e-mail lists to organize and educate its constituency. To learn how to sign up for any of their lists, visit their web site (www.aclu.org/action/maillist.html).What are your favorite lists? Drop a line via e-mail (pb@well.com), or visit the Cyberia website (www.well.com/user/pb/cyb).

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