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: email@example.com 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: firstname.lastname@example.org 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: email@example.com 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: firstname.lastname@example.org joined the list," "MEME: email@example.com joined the list," "MEME: firstname.lastname@example.org 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: email@example.com, firstname.lastname@example.org, and email@example.com. 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 can.
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 newsletter."
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 1998.
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 counted.
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 (www.drudgereport.com/) 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 terminals?
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 born.
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 alt.binaries.pictures.erotica and alt.sex 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 cyberspace.
"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 participants.
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 (www.reference.com/). 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 advantage.
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 (www.edge.org/), 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 explains.
"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 redistributes.
"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 system."
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 wither.
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 doppelgänger, I discovered that hundreds of lists that day found firstname.lastname@example.org 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 president.
David S. Bennahum (email@example.com) is a Wired contributing editor.
|LIST NAME||CIRCULATION||OWNER||START||TYPE||DESCRIPTION||HOW TO JOIN|
|Meme||4,400||David S. Bennahum||1995||Virtuous circle; public||Monthly interviews and essays tracking the evolution of cyberspace.||Send email to firstname.lastname@example.org with message "subscribe meme first name last name."|
|Desperado||1,200||Tom Parmenter||1978||Virtuous circle; public||Witty commentary on life and computers; published infrequently, but worth the wait.||Send email to email@example.com with message "subscribe desperado."|
|Politech||2,000||Declan McCullagh||1998||Virtuous circle; public||De rigueur reading for those who love the politics of technology.||Send email to firstname.lastname@example.org with message "subscribe politech."|
|Interesting People||25,000||Dave Farber||1988||Virtuous circle; private||From Professor Farber's omnivorous mind come precious bits of insider information.||Send email to email@example.com with message explaining why you want to join.|
|CyberWire Dispatch||12,000||Brock Meeks||1994||Virtuous circle; public||Acerbic inside-the-Beltway commentary on the latest attempts at regulating cyberspace.||Send email to firstname.lastname@example.org with message "subscribe CWD."|
|Strategic News Service||Proprietary||Mark Anderson||1995||Cash-and-carry; private||Bill Gates reads this technology forecast; for US$195 a year you can, too.||Follow instructions on the Web at www.tapsns.com/s-orders.html.|
|Matrix News||1,000||John Quarterman||1991||Cash-and-carry; private||Unreliable email? Quarterman delivers the detailed Internet Weather Report. A must read for network junkies.||Follow instructions on the Web at www.mids.org/.|
|This is True||156,000||Randy Cassingham||1994||Broadcast model; public||Read about the graduate from McDonald's "Hamburger University" and other strange stories. All 100 percent true.||Follow the instructions on the Web at www.thisistrue.com/.|
|Multimedia Marketing Group||N/A||John Audette||N/A||Broadcast model; public||Dreaming of capturing eyeballs in cyberspace? Wanna-be media moguls swap online marketing tips and tricks on several lists offered by MMG.||Follow instructions on the Web at www.mmgco.com/tools.html.|
|Reference.com||Proprietary||Sift Inc.||N/A||Archive of lists; public||A library of lists, archived and searchable for your delectation.||Follow instructions on the Web at www.reference.com/ .|
|Windows 95 Tips||250,000||PC World Online||1995||Broadcast model; public||Advice on wrangling the beast.||Follow instructions on the Web at www.pcworld.com/resources/tipaday/tipsjoin.html .|
|Digital Dispatch||880,000||CNET||1995||Broadcast model; public||Teasers on what's new on CNET - conference reports, news, and software and hardware reviews.||Follow instructions on the Web at www.cnet.com/Community/Welcome/Dispatch/ .|
|Edge||600||John Brockman||1996||A-list; private||Superagent John Brockman re-creates Dorothy Parker's Vicious Circle, without the food and alcohol.||Visit www.edge.org/ for digital leftovers.|
|Pearls||100||Denise Caruso||1994||A-list; private||The New York Times technology columnist's pearls of wisdom, for friends only.||Not open to the public.|
|Red Rock Eater News Service||4,000||Phil Agre||1993||Virtuous circle; public||The information age is here, and Agre forwards the documents to prove it: first-hand dispatches on the impact of cyberspace around the world.||Follow instructions on the Web at communication.ucsd.edu/pagre/rre.html .|