nettime's roving correspondent on Thu, 7 May 1998 05:32:32 +0200 (MET DST)

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<nettime> Bennahum on mailing lists

<> w/ permission of DSB

  E L E C T R O S P H E R E  |  Issue 6.04 - April 1998

 The Hot New Medium Is ... Email

     List publishing is not merely information delivered to your
     mailbox, it's the devolution of mass media into the hands of
     everyday people.

     And it's growing faster than the Web.

     By David S. Bennahum

     Monday, March 4, 1996, begins normally enough. At my office in New
     York, writing an article. I'm reluctant to start working, so I do
     what most writers do when they don't want to work: I
     procrastinate, checking my mailbox for new messages. A few arrive.
     Nothing particularly interesting. Then one catches my attention.
     "MEME: joined the list." I sit up. Georgia6?
     That's Newt Gingrich's district. The Speaker of the House just
     joined Meme? Well, I think, that's extraordinary. The power of
     ideas. Gingrich is on my list!

     Meme is my newsletter, delivered once a month via electronic mail
     to 4,400 subscribers. Many of them forward Meme to friends,
     colleagues, and other mailing lists, until it reaches 20,000 -
     maybe 30,000? - people. I can't be sure how many. The Net is too
     permeable, passing information so easily, that keeping track of
     copies is impossible. That's why I called the newsletter Meme: a
     meme is a contagious idea, and I want each issue to spread through
     the network like a virus, from mailbox to mailbox, from mind to
     mind. Meme explores the development of cyberspace through an essay
     I write or an interview I do. I've sent out writings on the
     Unabomber, musings on the future of Microsoft, and interviews with
     former Secretary of Labor Robert Reich, among others.

     I don't make any money off Meme. The newsletter is free. What
     counts is who reads it. The power is in the network of people who
     receive my ideas. Publishing a list is like that: success is often
     measured by who's on the list, rather than by money or the sheer
     number of subscribers.

     There's an indelicate thrill I feel each time I finish an issue: I
     press Send and my words go out to thousands of people. Readers
     make Meme possible through their time, their interest, their
     enthusiasm. I know the names of everyone who joins my list,
     because the software that manages the distribution of Meme
     automatically sends me notices of new subscribers and departing
     ones. The reward is in the dialog - in knowing some use, some
     benefit, is gained from my work. Letters from readers are
     precious. So is the expanding circle of readership. When each
     issue goes out (I've published 28 since August 8, 1995), the
     circle changes. It gets a little bigger. My readers give me their
     time, their interest, their willingness to receive something in a
     medium where reducing, rather than increasing, the amount of
     information we receive is the rule of the day. I give them ideas
     in return. It's democracy of a kind, each arrival and departure
     from the list a vote of confidence or no confidence.

     A little later in the day, "MEME: joined the list"
     pops up in my email. MTV? I wonder who turned them on to Meme.
     Dozens of new subscribers start coming in, my email program
     bleeping every few minutes, announcing another new Meme
     subscriber. "MEME: joined the list" - John
     Markoff, a New York Times technology writer, just subscribed. It's
     turning out to be a hectic day. The potential ancillary benefits
     of list publishing come to mind - maybe I'll be invited by
     Gingrich to testify in front of Congress about digital technology.
     Or MTV will put me on the air. And then the big ones roll in:
     "MEME: joined the list," "MEME: joined the list," "MEME: joined the list." The president of United
     States just joined my list! I try to get my brain around that one.
     How did that happen? I imagine that somewhere, someone has
     republished an issue of Meme or mentioned it glowingly, and now
     I'm feeling the aftershock. I do what I have to do. I call my dad.
     "Dad," I say to him on the phone, "you're not going to believe
     this. The president subscribed to my list. And the vice
     president." Maybe I should take a day off and celebrate.

     A few hours after Bill Clinton joins Meme, I received a message
     from someone named Tim Heberling at the White House: "Good Day! I
     am the administrator of whitehouse .gov. Someone has
     spoof-subscribed the following accounts to your listserv's
     services:,, and I
     request that you unsubscribe them." The shame! The cruelty! I
     should have known. All those people subscribing in one day? But
     that's the thing with lists - you never can be sure where they
     will go. The president could be reading an issue, for all I know,
     filtered through some staffer's personal email address. It's a
     level playing field out there in listspace. Not just in theory,
     but in reality, I can reach the president with my list. Anyone

     More often, the payoffs are heartfelt and far humbler. "I edit a
     senior citizens monthly magazine in Bombay, India, called Dignity
     Dialogue. My readers are educated upper-middle-class. I would like
     to take them to your thoughts ... They are not yet wired ... They
     will take another five years I think, our country's senior
     citizens. So I would like to feature your pieces in my column,
     Futures." "We publish F.U.N. News, a newsletter for homeschoolers.
     A reader forwarded Meme 2.13 to us and we thoroughly enjoyed it.
     We would like to excerpt parts of it to include in our

     Saying yes to all these requests is consistent with my original
     motivation for starting Meme - behind-the-scenes journalism,
     information that would otherwise sit in my files unused, is passed
     on, given away to readers. The summer Meme began, I realized that,
     rather than sitting on the sidelines and reporting on other people
     finding new uses for computer networks, with email I could join in
     and start an experiment of my own. Break down the separation
     between writers and readers and take a chance on being one-on-one,
     without the buffer of editors, paper pages, and advertisements
     between us. As I wrote at Meme's inception, "I also want to test
     this theory that on the Net the writer becomes publisher and
     distributor all in one - and that somehow it can work out. I want
     to believe it can work: that I can provide quality information
     which is accentuated and enhanced by appearing in this medium ...
     I have no idea how this will turn out, or what it might lead to.
     That's the best part about it."

     When I started as a list publisher, I had no idea how lists worked
     in the marketplace, a place where, at its simplest, something is
     exchanged for something else. What is exchanged on a list, where
     money rarely is the prime measure of success or failure? Ideas,
     time, and attention - the sometimes vast numbers of subscribers,
     or powerful people on a list - are all part of a complex ecology
     in an environment remarkably separate from traditional markets,
     where getting something for nothing remains a paradox. In the
     world of lists, though, you can seemingly make something from
     nothing. Here you find a pure example of the peculiar way new
     markets of cyberspace function. It's a place where traditional
     models lose their meaning and power comes not from wealth, but
     from thought. There is something sublimely Platonic here: the
     ideal of the thing matches the thing itself. List publishing is a
     real example of our idealized picture of the Net as a place where
     all can speak and ideas flow freely.

     Because it's so ubiquitous, list publishing is powerful: reaching
     one person is as easy as reaching a million. Since most lists are
     free, the barrier to receiving them is very low. All you need is
     an email account. List publishing is the devolution of mass media
     into the hands of everyday people - people who can, with almost no
     overhead, gestate and spawn enormous publishing empires of their
     own, or, if they choose, small intimate salons, private spaces
     between friends. Whatever the scale - from the nearly 1
     million-person list (CNET's Digital Dispatch, one of the largest
     lists in the world) to the two-person list, the cost of production
     and distribution is extremely low. That's an important distinction
     when comparing lists to self-publishing on the Web.

     The barrier to entry onto the Web remains higher than the barrier
     to email. Web sites require more labor to produce. They favor more
     advanced computers, with fast connections and color screens. Web
     sites are also more expensive to operate, since hosts charge
     popular sites proportionately increasing amounts of money based on
     increased traffic. A popular list faces a lower cost structure:
     email traffic is distributed among many servers as it travels
     through the Net, each sharing part of the cost of transmission.
     Lists are lowest common denominator, democratic technology. If
     there's one thing everyone can do on the Internet, whether they're
     in Saint Petersburg, Florida, or Saint Petersburg, Russia, it's
     read email. The medium is platform agnostic. List publishing is
     the tangible technology that, so long as it exists, ensures that a
     multiplicity of voices exist in cyberspace. Take the Web away from
     the Net, and the Net fundamentally remains the same. Take away
     multiperson email, and the Net isn't the Net anymore. It's
     something else, something closer to old media - a broadcast medium
     with millions of channels - a place where the big and the financed
     deploy increasingly complex schemes to capture our attention. List
     publishing, though, requires the active participation of its
     readers. Growth comes from word of mouth, from the literal gesture
     of taking a few seconds to forward a message. You can't easily buy
     or manipulate that kind of participation. Where list publishing
     goes, so goes the network.

     Yet, for all its power, list publishing remains mysterious. No one
     knows for sure how many lists exist, or how fast they're growing.
     Counting lists, like most things on the Net, is like trying to
     count every particle in a nuclear explosion as it's happening.
     Estimates range from 150,000 to 350,000, swelling by 5 to 10
     percent a month. That's faster than the growth of Web usage, which
     according to RelevantKnowledge, an Internet survey company,
     increased by 3 to 4 percent a month during August 1997 to January

     List expansion is bolstered by programs that automate the
     technical management of the list. Two programs, Listserv and
     Majordomo, control approximately 75 percent of the market.
     According to L-Soft, the company that makes Listserv, it knows of
     77,000 lists using the program. Brent Chapman, author of the
     Majordomo listserv software, estimates there are 110,000 active
     lists using Majordomo, which, unlike L-Soft's Listserv, is
     freeware. The combined total of 187,000, however, is a
     conservative estimate, since, as Chapman points out, universities
     and corporations use lists internally, and these are not easily

     These thousands and thousands of lists, compose a growing shadow
     world, a world whose origins and evolution exist on the fringes of
     popular attention. Such growth is having tectonic impacts on old
     media, which in January found itself blindsided by the Drudge
     Report, a list and Web site ( maintained by
     Matt Drudge, a self-made list publisher. (See "Drudge Match," page
     89.) Drudge's report that Newsweek had canceled a story about an
     alleged affair between President Clinton and a former White House
     intern kick-started the biggest media frenzy since Princess
     Diana's death. Within 48 hours, major events - plans for bombing
     Iraq, the Pope's visit to Cuba - became mere endnotes on the
     evening news.

     The rise of a shadow media

     New economics are visible in this shadow world, as are new
     relationships between the power of ideas, money, and attention.
     Untangling these lines of influence begins with the earliest days
     of the Net, at a time when spontaneously self-organized lists
     allowed researchers, separated by great distances, to build a
     network where shared ideas, rather than shared geography, bound
     people to one another.

     The power of list publishing was apparent from the technology's
     inception. The first lists existed on local networks, what people
     then called time-shared systems. One of the earliest systems to
     employ distribution lists was the CTSS computer system at MIT.
     Developed in 1965, MIT's MAIL was set up to send administrative
     messages to network users. Tom Van Vleck, one of the program's
     authors, forbade users on the list from sending mass messages
     unless it concerned a system emergency. It's understandable, then,
     why one day in 1968, Vleck was shocked to find a message in his
     mailbox, a message that had been sent to everyone on the system.
     It began: "There is no way to peace. Peace is the way." One of the
     system administrators had, as such an action would come to be
     known, "spammed" everyone else. Vleck confronted the programmer,
     who replied, "But this is important."

     Defining acceptable use of list publishing consumed the early
     1970s as computer networks, especially the Arpanet, grew rapidly.
     Where once systems like MIT's CTSS existed as small islands, these
     local networks were being interconnected through Arpanet, with
     money from the US Department of Defense. Because the national
     network was government funded, it wasn't clear whether all forms
     of online speech were acceptable. What was OK on one local system
     might not be acceptable on another. Should taxpayers fund lists
     like SF-Lovers, which discussed science fiction? Wine-tasters,
     which discussed wines? Or info-terms, which evaluated computer

     Steve Walker, an administrator at the Advanced Research Projects
     Agency, the DOD arm funding Arpanet, announced in June 1975, via a
     mass mailing to the hundreds of people on the network, that it was
     time to "develop a sense of what is mandatory, what is nice, and
     what is desirable in message services." In recursive Net style, a
     list was formed to discuss lists. Known as the Message Services
     Group, or MsgGroup, it would last until 1986. The MsgGroup was
     maintained, at first, by Dave Farber, who then was teaching
     computer science at the University of California at Irvine. Farber
     functioned as a human computer. Everyone who wanted to join the
     list had to send him a message asking to be included. Incoming
     messages went first to Farber, and he sent them to everyone on the
     list; if anyone changed addresses or wanted to unsubscribe, it was
     his job to make the change. Within a few months, Farber gave the
     job to his colleague, Einar Stefferud. Stefferud gamely worked as
     MsgGroup clerk until March 1979, when he attended a meeting in
     Montreal, taking him away from his computer. "I had to abandon
     manual MsgGroup forwarding," he told me. "A major flaming outbreak
     started up just before I had to leave. So I forwarded the address
     list to the subscribers and said, 'You are on your own. I gotta go
     travel!'" Within a few hours, a list member at MIT devised a way
     to automate redistributing messages. In the midst of one of the
     Internet's first flame wars, two-way message-list software was

     MsgGroup was a discussion list. No single author, or publisher,
     controlled the content. Discussion lists were the first
     implementation of list publishing, a natural outgrowth of
     electronic mail, where sticking addresses into the CC section of
     the header required little more than a few moments of typing.
     One-way lists emerged soon after. One of the earliest one-way
     lists, called Desperado, still exists. Desperado began in 1978
     when Tom Parmenter, who was working at Digital Equipment Corp. as
     a technical writer, received his first mass mailing. "I honestly
     can say it came to me in a flash. The thing I got was some
     business announcement. It was used as a business tool," he says.
     "I saw the possibility of using this technology as a publishing
     tool." That day, Parmenter wrote a short missive on vegetarian dog
     food and sent it out to his fellow tech writers at Digital. "They
     said, 'Thank you, that's funny,'" Parmenter recalls. So he did it
     again. And again. Desperado spread throughout Digital's extensive
     internal network. Parmenter collected responses to his messages,
     edited them, and sent them back out. By 1983, Desperado had around
     3,200 subscribers. It was like a traditional magazine - feedback
     from readers and articles, with Parmenter ensuring a consistent
     level of quality. Parmenter left Digital in 1993, and Desperado
     now appears intermittently. "Desperado is not dead," Parmenter
     promises. "It's just resting."

     Once, lists concerning wine tasting and computer terminals caused
     controversy, but on today's Internet, there are no limits to a
     list's subject matter. The network is no longer funded by a single
     source, and the argument that frivolous lists exist as unwholesome
     parasites has faded. Today's world of list publishers has taken on
     myriad directions. Although there are thousands of lists, a
     taxonomy has emerged, a shape and structure dividing them into
     different clusters. Every list publisher, when setting out to
     create a new publication, decides who the ideal audience is, how
     frequently to distribute, what kind of participation from readers
     is expected. All these choices fall into a pattern, producing a
     dynamic system filled with an order all its own.

     Decoding the world of lists

     Building a general taxonomy of lists has less to do with the lists
     themselves, and more to do with the list owner's motivations. It's
     a catalog of publishers, rather than a catalog of publications.
     List owners can be divided into two camps: those who wish to make
     money from their list, and those who don't. Money, because it is
     so scarce in cyberspace, plays powerfully upon the shape and
     purpose of a list. Its absence or presence serves as a
     gravitational field, warping the surrounding space. Typically,
     lists without financial motivation are animated by some other
     commitment, usually a desire to share in a collective enterprise -
     a political goal, the development of free software, the setting of
     public standards, the expansion of knowledge, or merely the
     pleasure of being heard, the joy of reaching other people and
     forming communities of shared interests.

     List owners who hope to make money from their lists may also share
     similar dreams with nonprofit list owners, like the expansion of
     human knowledge. Their lists, however, have different rules, a
     different etiquette between reader and publisher. Commercial list
     owners are divided between those who are purely cash-and-carry -
     you pay a fee directly to them and, as with a traditional print
     magazine, receive the publication in return - and those with an
     oblique system of exchanges, turning the attention they get online
     into a financial reward. This can appear in the form of paid
     advertising, sponsorship, or a teaser for a secondary, commercial
     service. Subtler still are lists where the financial reward is
     indirect. These list owners experience changes in their lives that
     translate into additional income: a new, better-paying job comes
     along or paid speaking engagements, book deals, and consulting
     gigs pop up. Decoding the trail of reward reveals the dynamic
     within the world of lists. Success doesn't exist as a standard the
     way Nielsen ratings or box office receipts do. Instead, it's a
     subjective thing that ultimately resides in the mind of the list's
     owner. The rules are theirs to make.

     The virtuous-circle list

     In 1994 Carnegie Mellon University revoked access to the and Usenet newsgroups. The
     administration, shocked to discover in cyberspace pictures of
     people copulating, decided to eradicate these message boards from
     their local network. Its decision sparked a cause célèbre:
     fighting Internet censorship.

     Declan McCullagh, then a 23-year-old student reporter at Carnegie
     Mellon, created a list to discuss Internet censorship at
     universities. He called it Fight Censorship. FC, as it came to be
     known, quickly grew in membership. It was a discussion list with
     subscribers writing back and forth to each other so often that
     more than 100 messages a day were being redistributed. "That was
     too much for most people," McCullagh says. "So two years ago, I
     started an announcement version of the list, with me moderating."
     Acting as the editor, McCullagh gathered information pertaining to
     Internet censorship and then passed it along to FC subscribers.
     Within several weeks, a virtuous circle emerged: subscribers began
     sending McCullagh information they thought would interest the
     list. This wealth of material, in turn, attracted more readers and
     increased the power of FC to influence the world outside

     "Fight Censorship changed the whole dynamic of blocking software,"
     McCullagh explains, referring to programs like SurfWatch and Net
     Nanny designed, as Net Nanny puts it, "to protect your children
     and free speech on the Net." People on FC sent remarkable
     information showing how these programs were blocking Web sites
     like the National Organization for Women and gay rights sites.
     "About a year and a half ago, everyone thought blocking software
     was a great idea," McCullagh explains. Here was a way to let both
     adults and children coexist online without, as the looming threat
     of the Communications Decency Act argued, needing to set standards
     for indecency in cyberspace. McCullagh and fellow journalist Brock
     Meeks didn't see it that way. They wrote an exposé and posted it
     to Fight Censorship and Meek's own popular list, CyberWire
     Dispatch. Their story was passed along online to thousands. Soon
     print media picked it up and articles appeared repeating their
     claims. This fundamentally altered the debate over free speech on
     the Net. "It's a different way of doing journalism," McCullagh
     says. "I can send out a story and reach a couple thousand people
     in 10 minutes."

     McCullagh's list generates no direct financial reward, although,
     indirectly, Fight Censorship has increased his value in the
     commercial marketplace of ideas. He reaps the benefit of being
     better known, with the attendant material pluses: speaking
     engagements and jobs (McCullagh works for Time Warner's Pathfinder
     and Netly News sites and has written for Wired). The cost,
     however, of maintaining the list is high - McCullagh sometimes
     spends several hours a week filtering and redistributing
     information, culling the best for his readers. His primary reward
     comes from knowing that his list impacts the development of the
     Internet. He counts among his 2,000 subscribers journalists,
     Washington lobbyists, and staffers on Capitol Hill. At times the
     power of FC becomes startlingly apparent, as when Senator Dan
     Coats (R-Indiana), author of a post-CDA Internet bill meant to
     create mandatory rating systems for content, read an article from
     FC on the Senate floor. FC affects both public opinion and the
     opinion of people capable of setting laws.

     Another virtuous circle is Dave Farber's Interesting People, or
     IP. Farber, who founded the MsgGroup, says IP has approximately
     25,000 subscribers. It began in 1988 when Farber's friend, Erich
     Bloch, left IBM and became director of the National Science
     Foundation. Farber says, "He was bemoaning how at IBM he could
     look around and breathe, but that now he had no more time to look
     around. So I said, 'Why don't I forward to you stuff I find
     interesting?'" Bloch found Farber's material extremely
     interesting. Farber, who is now a computer science professor at
     the University of Pennsylvania, had a simple rule: "I wanted to
     send people things that were interesting, but might be sensitive."
     The messages tended to be about computer policy and
     communications. Bloch asked whether Farber could send the messages
     directly to some friends. Farber agreed. The virtuous circle
     extended itself to IP: quality information attracted people with
     little time, people who wanted the best information. They, in
     turn, began forwarding good information to Farber.

     IP remains exclusive. Any incoming request to be added must come
     with an explanation. "I ask them to tell me about themselves. The
     list is for people who give me the feeling that they are not just
     surfing through, asking to be put on," he says. "Just asking
     people who they are acts as a filter. It's fun to be a newspaper
     editor, and I try to conform to my perception of what an editor's
     ethic should be. There's a filter, and it is me." As with
     McCullagh, Farber reaps the indirect reward of being a Net
     "personality." The reputation he's built upon IP translates into
     invitations to paid speaking engagements, but this, as with
     McCullagh and Meeks (who similarly receives indirect financial
     gain from CyberWire's popularity) is an ancillary benefit, rather
     than a prime motivation.

     Interesting People, Fight Censorship, and CyberWire Dispatch form
     an informal distribution network, a virtuous circle of virtuous
     circles. Farber will forward messages from FC and CyberWire. FC,
     which in January was renamed Politech, will forward messages from
     both. This tends to create agreement in cyberspace. If an essay is
     reposted by these lists, which are known for their quality, it
     serves as a seal of approval. "Certainly, it's something I assume
     editors feel - being able to have some minor influence by taking
     out the junk, putting out things that are relevant, and helping
     people make decisions," Farber says. "I think it is still driven
     by knowing it is useful to people. I get nice positive feedback
     from people. It feels good. It's worth the energy." Farber pauses
     and laughs. "But it doesn't take too much energy. It's stuff I
     find interesting. And I assume the people out there, likewise,
     find it interesting. But obviously there is a business here. It's
     the way of the future," he explains. "It's the filtering process.
     It's what I believe people will be willing to pay for."

     The cash-and-carry approach

     A favorite cybernetic cliché is the mantra "Information wants to
     be free." Taken to its extreme, it's supposed to mean that no one
     will pay for anything in cyberspace that won't lead to either an
     orgasm or lots of money. No one will subscribe to smut- and
     casino-free content, we are told. What then to make of the few
     lists with paying subscribers, lists with nary a gyrating GIF? Why
     would anyone want to pay for that? The answer lies in Farber's
     assertion that in a world brimming with free bits, people will pay
     for the very best filtering. Cash-and-carry lists favor the oldest
     model of financial exchange: you pay, I give. In return for your
     money, these lists deliver the most cogent bits, quality
     information distilled from disparate sources, placed in context,
     and delivered to you in one tidy package.

     Mark Anderson runs such a list, called Strategic News Service, or
     SNS. Delivered once a week by email, it costs US$195 a year.
     Anderson will put anyone who asks on a free one-month trial
     subscription. I asked, and he sent me a welcome letter that read,
     in part, "I hope that you will consider writing in on subjects
     which seem appropriate. As you probably know, your cosubscribers
     include Bill Gates, Michael Dell, Ann Winblad, Rick Sherlund, and
     many other industry leaders, as well as employees throughout the
     ranks of companies such as Microsoft, Intel, AT&T, and others. We
     probably share the belief that much of the value of the newsletter
     comes from subscriber letters." Anderson began SNS in June 1995.
     "I started with a Rolodex," he says. Anderson was advising
     corporations, including AT&T, Adobe, and Bank of America, on high
     tech trends through his company, Technology Alliance Partners.
     "From the beginning the list had CEOs of companies. I ran the
     whole thing for free for the first 90 days," he adds. Anderson's
     subscriber base grew, and he now works full time researching and
     publishing SNS (Anderson will not say how many subscribers he has.
     "That's a trade secret.") Anderson deals with piracy by giving
     subscribers some room to pass on SNS. He tells them they can
     forward SNS one time, so long as they CC him on the message. He
     then sends the new person a one-month free subscription.

     I ask Anderson why people are willing to pay for SNS. "I make good
     predictions," he says. "I predicted Steve Jobs would come back to
     Apple 20 months before it happened. I predicted a large crash in
     the Japanese stock market seven months before it did. I predicted
     the conflict between Taiwan and China. At the end of 1995 I
     predicted a huge increase in PC sales. I predicted Intel would do
     terrifically well during that period, and they went up 100
     percent." For Anderson, email is the best platform. "The Web is
     not a broadcast medium; it's a transaction medium," he explains.
     "During all this hype about videostreaming, people have been
     emailing each other. There's been a denial about what's going on.
     Email works and people like it. I wondered if I should do
     something fancier than this, and the answer is no. There is always
     this disconnect between what the media focuses on as new and what
     people are using in the marketplace. There is no better example of
     that than the Web."

     Commercial Web sites, designed to capture eyeballs, often derive
     revenue from how many times people click on their pages: the more
     clicks, the more cash. Thus, an incentive exists to postpone
     gratification and bury information several pages deep. The Web,
     with its tawdry emphasis on steering viewers along paths of
     increased revenue through inflated quantities of ad-banner
     placements, is souring as an effective vehicle for delivering what
     people want. Lists offer the more tantalizing prospect of
     immediate information and linking back to the Web site.

     This is John Quarterman's strategy. Quarterman, an Internet
     pioneer, runs a company called Matrix Information and Directory
     Services, or MIDS. His list, Matrix News, which launched in April
     1991, was the first nonacademic publication on the Internet that
     charged a fee for subscribing.

     Matrix News comes out once a month, and approximately 1,000 people
     pay $50 a year to receive 12 issues. Quarterman's list is part of
     a family of online products that he sells through his Web site.
     The list delivers information, and the Web serves as a transaction
     medium, a place to sample free examples of his services and place
     an order for Quarterman's various services - Matrix News; his
     Internet Weather Report, which shows daily traffic on the network;
     and Matrix Maps Quarterly, which offers color maps of the
     Internet. Quarterman claims that his subscribers are "influential
     people, because they are involved in major networking projects."
     Since he also serves as a consultant on networking issues, Matrix
     News is another way for him to stay in contact with potential
     clients. His perspective on piracy is similar to Mark Anderson's.
     "If someone is paying for this, they tend to be unwilling to give
     it away for free. And on the Net it's easy for us to find out if
     someone is going around giving it away. Someone will tell us."
     Cash-and-carry lists work, according to Quarterman, if the
     audience is small and focused and the information is clearly
     valuable to them. Rather than an aberration, these lists point to
     a lucrative expanding niche on the Net, a place where information
     doesn't want to be free at all.

     The broadcast model

     Free information spreads fastest of all, because there's no
     barrier to redistribution and no threat of retribution from an
     irate copyright holder. Free information also tends to stimulate
     size: copies lure more readers, producing more copies, and more
     subscribers. It's quite difficult for a cash-and-carry list to
     grow gargantuan, but free lists can, and do. For some list owners,
     having thousands of subscribers translates into paid advertising
     or sponsorships - money for mindshare. It's a broadcast model
     inspired by TV and radio.

     Randy Cassingham's list, This is True, works that way: the list is
     free, but it carries advertisements. This is True is one of the
     biggest lists on the Net, with 156,000 subscribers receiving each
     weekly issue. It's popularity comes from Cassingham's shrewd
     selection of subject matter: strange-but-true stories he finds in
     the press. Issues include tales of the teenager killed for his
     beeper and the murderers who responded to a page from the police;
     the goat who was leading in the polls for mayor of Pilar, Brazil;
     and the school board candidate who claimed to have earned a
     bachelor's degree from "Hamburger University" after taking a
     training course at McDonald's.

     Cassingham came up with the idea for This is True while lying in
     bed, unable to sleep, on a warm California night in June 1994. He
     wanted a job he could run on his own and that would let him move
     anywhere in the world. He imagined creating a new media empire
     based on free information delivered through electronic mail, with
     a publication distributing strange-but-true stories as the
     flagship product. Within four months of starting This is True in
     July 1994, Cassingham had 10,000 subscribers. Cassingham,
     realizing he had a business in hand, quit his job at the Jet
     Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California, and moved to
     Boulder, Colorado, to run his list full time.

     "I am delirious with my lifestyle right now," Randy Cassingham
     says from his home in Boulder. "It's beautiful here and it's
     centrally located. There are some other countries that interest
     me: Ireland, Australia, New Zealand. If I move to New Zealand,
     I'll just use a different mix of newspapers. The mix is already
     half US stories, half from somewhere else." Cassingham's week is
     spent reading hundreds of magazine and newspaper stories (he would
     not say how many, lest it give the competition an advantage),
     sleeping, and having meals with friends. Cassingham has no other
     job. Advertisers pay him a third of a cent per reader to run ads
     in This is True. Cassingham takes one ad per issue, and that costs
     $500 a week. Cassingham also sells three books based on This is
     True, containing thousands of short stories. These he sells at his
     Web site for $11 each. Newspapers also pay Cassingham to reproduce
     This is True as a regular column. "The most important thing is
     ownership. I own the syndicate that works with the newspapers. I
     turned down one of the largest newspaper syndicates in the world
     because they wanted 50 percent of the income and total control. I
     own the content. I own the book publisher. When I decide to sell,
     I don't have to ask anybody."

     Independence, in addition to his income, is the payoff that
     Cassingham reaps from This is True. While Cassingham won't say how
     much he earns, he has the trappings of the good life - a house,
     free time to mountain bike, and three-hour dinners with friends.
     He is his own master. But his independence comes at a cost.
     Cassingham must do his own public relations, and he must negotiate
     every deal, including ad sales, which is time-consuming.
     Generating complex sponsorship deals is important for growing the
     list, but Cassingham must also read piles of newspapers and
     magazines every day, and process the 200 email messages that come
     into his mailbox daily.

     Cassingham's problems are endemic to list owners who are trying to
     employ a broadcast model, like television and magazines. Because
     commercial list publishing is so new, advertisers are leery of
     plunging in. It's also difficult to identify, in the wide world of
     lists, which list has the right demographic for an advertiser.
     Then there's the problem of trust and verification: there aren't
     means of auditing list owners to make sure they're not goosing up
     subscriber numbers, nor is it easy to calculate the effectiveness
     of an advertisement or how many people have seen it.

     John Audette, president of the Multimedia Marketing Group in Bend,
     Oregon, wants to bring some stability to the broadcast model of
     list publishing. His company specializes in tracking online
     advertising and marketing strategies on the Web (Wired Digital,for
     instance, has used MMG's services), and Audette considered
     expanding his services to include list publishing. "We spent six
     weeks investigating lists," Audette says. "The surprise for us has
     been how few lists are viable from an advertiser's point of view."
     Audette is familiar with list publishing. He moderates a
     discussion list called Internet-Sales with 8,500 participants and
     the LinkExchange discussion list, which boasts 40,000

     Audette thought that expanding advertising techniques from the
     Web, such as banner advertising, into list publishing could be a
     fruitful new business for his company. He imagined a role as
     middleman, bringing advertisers to appropriate lists. What he
     discovered, however, is that there were too few lists with more
     than 5,000 members to support his model. Audette says that MMG has
     in its database "about 70 lists Internet-wide with 5,000-plus
     readers. Of these, only 10 are discussion lists, and the rest are
     newsletters." Size matters because, for an advertiser, size
     translates into simpler decisions - it can reach more people with
     one step. The 30 test ads he's tracked on his Internet-Sales list
     generated low response rates, around 1 percent. Those who did
     follow the ad to the advertiser's Web page wound up costing the
     advertiser around $3 a visit. Web banners typically yield a cost
     per visitor of $1 or $2. "Our conclusion is that it's not a good
     medium for branding or high-volume, low-margin products. It's a
     good medium for low-volume, high-margin products, like luxury
     items or higher-priced services."

     Jack Zoken, CEO of Sift disagrees. "We see email advertising on
     lists as a greater opportunity than the Web." Sift, which grew in
     part out of the Digital Library Project at Stanford University,
     catalogs lists of lists. There are 120,000 lists in their
     directory. Of these, approximately 4,000 are archived at Sift's
     Web site ( Zoken believes the key to
     overcoming the problem of small lists is aggregation. "One of the
     things we realize is that a large number of lists are run as
     labors of love, and the list owners do not have time to find
     sponsors. We provide the ability to aggregate all the small lists
     into large lists for advertisers."

     Sift divides lists into categories, such as health, gardening,
     automotive, and consumer electronics, and offers this bundled
     package to an advertiser. Within three months, 300 list owners
     agreed to join Sift's Direct Email Network, which Zoken launched
     in August 1997. During those months, Zoken delivered 25 campaigns
     for 18 advertisers, including Cisco, PointCast, and Money Mailer,
     a cooperative coupon company, to approximately 100 lists with
     200,000 readers between them. "List owners approached us," Zoken
     says. "They were looking for sponsors, and they knew us as a
     company that did ad banners on the Web and archived mailing lists
     as well." Because it evenly divides the revenue with the list
     owner, Sift has gained a measure of credibility and a reputation
     for being list-owner friendly. Typical costs are 10 or 20 cents
     per reader spread across several lists in a single category. For
     individuals maintaining lists at universities or nonprofit
     institutions a donation can be made to that organization, based on
     ad sales.

     "For companies like Cisco, the campaigns have been very successful
     because the people are focused when they are reading email, and
     the list owner can say a few words about the sponsor. Some
     campaigns have driven as much as 15 percent of the readers to the
     advertiser's Web site," Zoken says.

     List owners with the easiest time finding sponsorship are those
     with existing brand names. PC World magazine, for instance,
     publishes 47 lists. The parent company counts more than 600,000
     individual subscribers and delivers 2.5 million emails daily. Its
     most popular list, Windows 95 Tips, has more than 250,000 readers.
     Then there's Netscape Tip of the Day with 155,000 and Windows 95
     Shareware Pick of the Day with 170,000. Not surprisingly, PC World
     has been extremely successful at selling ads on its lists. The
     lists charge between 3 and 7 cents per impression, so a single day
     of ads on Windows 95 Tips costs $7,500.

     "The lists grew much more rapidly than we anticipated," Declan
     Fox, product manager for PC World's list publishing, tells me. He
     says PC World began publishing newsletters as a way to drive
     traffic to its Web site. "Everybody thought that email was too
     simple," Fox says, recalling the time they began publishing the
     daily Windows 95 Tips to coincide with the release of Windows 95.
     "They wanted everything on the Web with the graphics and the
     banners, and all this would be cool. And there was the emergence
     of all these hyped push technologies like PointCast and Marimba.
     Everyone was saying how it was going to be like television. We
     underestimated the power of word of mouth and the ease of use of
     email." According to Fox, list publishing is taking over PC
     World's strategy for building relationships with people in
     cyberspace, vying with the Web as the primary means of reaching
     out to a potential audience. "The whole model is accelerating.
     It's moving away from the periphery," he adds. Fox says the
     company's lists are growing in circulation at a rate of 10 percent
     a month, while PC World's Web site's pageviews are increasing by
     around 4 percent.


     Some list owners don't care about selling ads or subscriptions,
     and they don't value volume, either. For them, their lists are
     about density - a tightly packed nucleus of powerful people. These
     A-lists are impossible to join unless you have clout in some way.
     That's because A-lists derive their power from the social network
     with which they connect. If you're not in that network in real
     life, you can't get in online, either.

     A-lists exist all over the world. Usually they're private - the
     board of directors of a corporation might be on a list, or the
     clients of a particularly successful consultant. Whatever the
     membership, A-lists reinforce the feeling of inclusion. It's one
     of the perks of success.

     "People are asked to join the list," John Brockman says of his
     élite Edge list, which goes out by email to around 1,000 members
     two or three times a month. "It started as an outgrowth of what I
     call 'Third Culture intellectuals.'" Brockman defines Third
     Culture intellectuals as "people who are doing empirical work and
     writing books about it, as opposed to people dealing with
     opinions. These are people who are creating and changing the
     world." Brockman, the literary agent known for a client list thick
     with scientists, pundits, and philosophers, likes to define his
     clientele as a clique that also happens to be changing the world.
     His Edge list is an outgrowth of years of tireless networking that
     began when he ran The Expanded Cinema Festival at Filmmakers
     Cinematheque in New York in 1965 at the age of 24.

     Edge allows networking among this élite, some of whom were
     identified as the digerati in Brockman's book by the same title.
     The list has a simple format: a single member is either
     interviewed by Brockman or asked to write an essay. For instance,
     Stanislas Dehaene wrote an essay on numbers and the brain, which
     in turn was critiqued by Edge members George Lakoff, Marc D.
     Hauser, and Jaron Lanier. It's a brilliant format, partly because
     of who's on the list - Richard Dawkins, Freeman Dyson, David
     Gelernter, Nathan Myhrvold, and Naomi Wolf, to name a few. And
     since Brockman's business is brokering book deals, it's an
     outstanding means to stay on patterns of thought. If an idea hot
     enough to be a book emerges on Edge, Brockman has first-mover

     This isn't Brockman's primary motive, however. "The purpose is to
     create - to arrive at an axiology of the world's knowledge. Get
     the brightest people in the world in the room and have them ask
     the questions they are asking themselves. They get to try out
     ideas on a group of peers who are not in their own discipline.
     They get to be tested and challenged. It's very vigorous - and
     very entertaining." The public is permitted to view archives of
     Edge on Brockman's Web site (, which, in turn,
     allows him to ventilate some of the ideas in the public sphere.
     But Brockman's list would collapse were the hoi polloi allowed in.
     It's unlikely that people like Nathan Myhrvold have the time or
     interest to listen to just anyone with email. The moment Edge
     moves away from being the A-list, it collapses and becomes a
     B-list, otherwise known as a chat room.

     Denise Caruso, a technology columnist for The New York Times and a
     visiting scholar at Interval Research Corporation in Silicon
     Valley, also has an A-list. But unlike Brockman's Edge, Caruso's
     list is entirely private - limited to friends. There are no
     archives. There is no incentive to forward anything to anyone,
     because Caruso treasures her email privacy. "My list is half
     jokes, half interesting stuff that comes across my desk," Caruso
     says. As a high-profile journalist, Caruso has excellent inside
     sources willing to feed her information anonymously. Like Declan
     McCullagh and Brock Meeks, her list is part of a virtuous circle,
     albeit a small one. "If there's a hundred people on it, I'd be
     surprised. My little nickname for it in Eudora is Pearls, as in
     pearls of wisdom. Everybody can tell when I catch up on my email,
     because they get 10 or 20 messages in a day. I send something to
     the list at least five times a week. It's easy. It's fun," Caruso

     "What's interesting to me is the scale. The smaller the list, the
     more it does what email is supposed to do: make you feel connected
     to people in a way that would only be possible in face-to-face
     contact or by telephone. It feels personal, like there can be
     emotional content in what you write. I am not too shy on my list
     to say I am sad or disgusted or scared. I feel that is all right
     with the people who are close to me. But as lists become bigger
     and bigger, it is hard to do."

     In Caruso's case, she could let in thousands of people. Unlike
     Brockman's Edge, Pearls does not relay the writings of list
     members to other list members, so enticing writing from luminaries
     is not an issue. The same people, with their insights and access
     to interesting information, might continue contributing, even if
     the audience grows larger. But for Caruso the list is not about
     extending power into other mediums, such as books. It's there as a
     social tool, to stay in contact with people she cares about. "It's
     that minute in time when you get to make a connection with
     someone, even though it's not having dinner together, or picking
     up the phone, which is the best thing. It's an intimate list of
     people I feel close to."

     Virtues of the idea trade

     The taxonomy of lists - the virtuous circle, cash-and-carry,
     broadcast, the A-list - reflects an emerging theory of the
     economics of list publishing. It's one where the reputation and
     attention derived by a list translate into a complex series of
     benefits for the list's owner, from power to influence opinions to
     indirect financial rewards (speaking engagements, book deals, a
     better job) and qualitative life improvements that come with a
     discovering a new, highly enjoyable activity. I spoke with Phil
     Agre, an associate professor of communications at the University
     of California at San Diego, about his analysis of list publishing.
     Agre is more than a theorist. He runs a list of his own called Red
     Rock Eater, a virtuous circle with 4,000-plus subscribers who
     funnel information to Agre that he, in turn, filters and

     "I have to establish myself as a brand name to have an impact on
     the world, and to do that I have to develop a following. The list
     definitely helps with that," Agre explains. As a tenured
     professor, he says, money is irrelevant. "The way I think about
     what I do is: I am an intellectual. I am a college professor.
     Society allocates a lot of resources for me to read and talk to
     people. With my list, I am trying to redefine the role of public
     intellectual." Although money is not a motive for Agre, he
     acknowledges that he does receive something of great value from
     Red Rock Eater - the attention of people around the world.

     "We are brought face to face with the importance of brand names,"
     Agre says, describing the dynamic of attention on the Internet.
     "If the credibility of information is important, then the brand
     name is important. My reputation is on the line." Agre's tenure
     allows him to experiment with the economy of deep cyberspace. Some
     theorists argue that in deep cyberspace, far from the traditional
     money economy of the outside world, we can witness the hatching of
     a new economy, what theorist Michael Goldhaber calls the attention
     economy. In the attention economy, information is so plentiful
     that it's become cheap. Goldhaber argues that one asset in
     cyberspace that remains scarce, and therefore valuable, is
     attention. His conclusion echoes Phil Agre's experience running
     Red Rock Eater. "The attention economy," Goldhaber wrote in
     "Attention Shoppers" in Wired's December issue, "is a star

     Goldhaber predicts a future where directing attention is all
     important. Through cyberspace, people will have the opportunity to
     create entourages, becoming "microstars." In turn, the value of
     money will diminish. What remains will be influenced by the
     attention you generate. The more attention you receive, the more
     money will follow. For Goldhaber, money will eventually disappear,
     replaced by an economics of attention swapping. List publishing
     appears to be a prime example of this attention dynamic. Unlike
     Web sites, which are static, requiring your attention to travel
     towards the object, email works the other way around: it is
     attracted to your attention. The barrier to attraction is much
     lower here.

     "The economy of attention has become a big buzzphrase these days,"
     Hal Varian tells me. He's skeptical of how Goldhaber is so quick
     to predict the demise of money as the prime element in the
     economy, whether "old" or "new." Varian is the dean of the School
     of Information Management and Systems at the University of
     California at Berkeley and the author of several books on
     economics, including the forthcoming Competitive Strategy for the
     Information Economy (Harvard Business School Press). His specialty
     is the new economics of information. "In Silicon Valley you hear
     about getting mindshare, which is just a sexy phrase for getting
     attention. The issue is getting attention, but at the end of the
     day it's the dollars that come from it that count."

     Varian agrees with Goldhaber's assertion that in cyberspace
     information is so plentiful that it becomes cheap. Because it's so
     plentiful, however, Varian argues that in cyberspace what becomes
     valuable is not merely capturing people's attention, but
     establishing a reputation. "Information is what economists call an
     'experienced good,'" Varian says. "You have to experience it to
     understand it. Other goods, like toothpaste, you experience once
     and it's understood the next time. Information, though, is
     different every time, which is why reputation becomes critically
     important." Varian presents a picture of deep cyberspace where
     reputation, built through word of mouth, attention, and consensus,
     is the new asset that generates value, such as power, influence,
     and money. "The model is creating reputation," Varian says,
     describing how list owners parlay their credibility into other
     assets. "These mailing lists are about relative status." It's a
     blander phrase than Goldhaber's microstars, but it conveys the
     same idea. Reputation has to be taken in context, and each list
     provides an environment of its own for reputation to grow or

     Few lists have the same sterling reputation as Dave Farber's
     Interesting People. Farber, whose experience with list publishing
     goes back 22 years to the inception of MsgGroup, speaks with
     passion about the kind of world lists can foster. For him it's not
     so much about fighting for attention. "Darwinian economics say
     what I should do is maneuver myself into a position to make
     maximum return for myself in either money or power. So my list
     would be centered around what is good for me," Farber says. "But
     what's happening with Interesting People is that, yes, there is a
     payoff for me - people know me in this area, and I am able to get
     my opinions out there - but I think it's more than that. I am
     doing a service to a much bigger society without all the spin that
     comes with actually making money with it." Farber shares the
     assumption that economists like Goldhaber make - in the
     industrialized world, we are approaching a time in which
     satisfying material needs won't be much of an issue - but reaches
     a different conclusion.

     Instead of everyone fighting to cling to a slice of the world's
     attention, Farber thinks the economy of cyberspace is pointing
     toward a new revival of communitarianism. "We have a precious
     thing in the network and the culture we are developing," Farber
     says. "Lists reflect the culture of democracy. It's the ability to
     walk outside the conventional mechanisms we have - press, video,
     television - and develop a different vehicle for informing people.
     It's something we haven't had since the last century," Farber
     says, describing a time when newspapers and pneumatic-tube
     communication systems in England provided an extraordinary
     diversity of opinion. "The economics of the Internet is partly
     spinning toward organizations that will present experiences to
     you. I hear people talk about it as entertainment and grabbing
     people, like television. But if this turns the Net into what
     happened to my television set, I have no use for it. It shortcuts
     the hopes we have for this, the hope that we can create a world
     culture on top of the local culture."

     After my brief frisson with President Clinton's cybernetic
     doppelgaenger, I discovered that hundreds of lists that day found as a new subscriber. We'd all, in our own
     way, shared a moment of exhilaration, none of us aware that we
     were all victims of a vast prank, all equally deceived. We'd
     experienced the thrill of one grand vote of confidence, followed
     by dozens of smaller votes - votes that, like the president's,
     were all forged. As I removed dozens of phony subscribers from
     Meme, each felt like a tiny stab, a pinprick of disappointment. I
     took solace knowing they were forgeries. Besides, who knows? Maybe
     the president will subscribe tomorrow. Maybe he's on now, hiding
     behind an innocuous address. It's the sort of thing list
     publishers live for. On the Internet, no one knows you're the

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