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The humble mailing list

Email actually predates the Internet. Users of the Internet’s predecessor, ARPANET, developed file-based messaging systems akin to leaving a note on someone’s door. This simple method progressed to full-blown network distribution of messages. Within a few years, 75% of ARPANET traffic was email.

Email evolved into USENET, a lyrical maelstrom of messages distributed in an email-like manner, and containing topics ranging from comics to pornography and everything in between and beyond.

Facebook is now by far the dominant leader in “social” media, connecting a substantial portion of the Earth’s human inhabitants on a daily basis. Email, however, is still around and still in daily use.

While Facebook is extraordinarily good at capturing interactions between people, its sheer size makes it less good at facilitating smaller groups. I tend to think of Facebook as an enormous convention center. I can wander around for hours, ducking into various rooms and seeing what all my friends are up to on a daily basis. It’s algorithmic approach to showing me “stuff that’s interesting to me” is actually very good, but it fails miserably at capturing an entire conversation or detailed back-and-forth between people. The “sound bites” of Facebook keep me connected, but they provide little depth to my imagination or intellectual stimulation.

My mailing lists, on the other hand, are not nearly so good for keeping up with the relatives, but they do provide that in-depth, intimate discussions that’s missing from the broader realm of social media.1

I’m currently a member of several different mailing lists (not even counting those “announcement” type lists that I use to keep up with the latest software releases). Mailing lists have several advantages over something like Facebook for discussion. First, email is asynchronous. I can filter emails into their own folder and browse them at my leisure.

Second, email is complete: I get every single message (unlike Facebook, where an algorithm chooses what it thinks I want to see).

Third, email is personal: each message comes from an individual, and contains his or her unique slant on the content. (I’m distinguishing this from content that comes from, say, a news organization.) In many cases, I have an existing relationship with the individuals sending the emails. In other cases, I have developed relationships with people because of the emails.

Finally, email is permanent. In most cases, emails are archived and are available for years in the future. If they’re not, then I can keep my own copies around, and I have complete access to the information.

While I am a member of many mailing lists, there are two in particular that are most important to me. The first is the Tech Breakfast list; this started a few years ago when I was living in Silicon Valley. A group of us started meeting on occasional Saturday mornings for breakfast, and, since we were all part of “the industry” in the Valley, our discussions were mostly centered around technology, politics, and related topics. It’s an impressive group of people, with members who have been founders or participants at some of the technology industry’s coolest companies over the last 20-30 years, and other who have designed nuclear reactors, built rocketships, and invented everything from file server appliances to egg candling devices to bowling-alley ball return machines. For privacy, the list messages are not archived, but there’s typically a dozen or so messages per week, all of which are interesting. This is a closed list, meaning that you can’t join unless you are recommended or approved by an existing list member.

N.B. I host a number of other mailing lists, including Books, Grump, and No-Reply (a mailing list about nothing in particular).

The second list that I dearly love is the Gunroom of the HMS Surprise. This list was established to discuss “The works of Patrick O’Brian and anything else.” I joined the list sometime in 1995, before there was a formal archive, and my first recorded post was on Hallowe’en of that year. What a fascinating, delightful group of people! I’ve come to know and love many of them, and sadly have watched a number of them depart this life. In addition to discussing the novels of Patrick O’Brian, there have been discussions on falconry, weaponry, distilled spirits, children, grandchildren, music, travel, and the fascinations of meeting other people from other places. Just this evening, we performed a “rolling toast” (6PM in whatever timezone you happen to inhabit at the moment) in honor of the 20th anniversary of the list’s founding (and it also happens to be Admiral Lord Nelson’s birthday).23

The Gunroom list is open and public, and anyone can join by following the instructions here.

  1. Note that Friendfeed, which was acquired by Facebook, had many of the advantages that I attribute to email. For example, everything was visible; there was no algorithm that chose what the system thought I wanted to see. ↩︎

  2. It’s rare that I manage to squeeze two parenthetical clauses into a single sentence, so I thought I’d point that out in case you missed it. ↩︎

  3. It’s rare that I manage to put three footnotes in a single blog post, so I thought I’d point that out in case you missed it. ↩︎

Glen Campbell
September 29, 2015