Sunday, June 23, 2013

NaBloPoMo: The Listserve, and Truths

Back in the spring of 2012, I signed up for The Listserve. The idea of the project was to create a email list that would allow one subscriber, each day the chance to send an email to the other subscribers. No parameters, no guidelines. It sounded like an interesting experiment, so I decided to become one of the first 10,000 subscribers who got the first email.

Initially, I was concerned about how the tool would be used. What would people say when given the opportunity to say anything to 10,000 (or more ... now over 20,000) people? A lot of good could come from this list, I though. New ideas. Community. Global goodwill. Rallying around social justice projects. It could help to overcome the silo-experience of social media, where we find ourselves talking to friend lists and reading blogs and following pinterest boards full of people who are just like us. Then again, the users could send self-promoting advertisements, or worse (though I read an article saying they vet email for things like porn or viruses).

I dismissed my concerns by convincing myself that I could just delete the things that didn't matter to me, and ignore the things that were offensive.  (Though Mel posted recently in BlogHer about the complicated nature of internet bystanding, referencing Stupid Stork's post and the lively discussion happening in the comments section--if you haven't read both posts, they are worth your time.)

It turns out, though, that we're a lot less interesting than we hoped we were.  Most people seem to be posting platitudes, advice about being kind and good to yourself and making the most of life and not worrying about time and doing what you love and ... well, you get the idea.  Once in a while there's a post about a project, a new business or an experiment.  One person posted that she was going to send something, via snail mail, to everyone who replied to her; she later updated everyone, letting us know that it would probably take years.  Some have posted about nonprofits to support.  Some people just introduce themselves.  A surprising number of people seem to be untethered (in the sense that they are currently traveling, or haven't yet settled down, or are in-between places), which could be attributable to the mean age of the subscriber pool, or to the type of people who would self-select to be part of this distribution list, or to something else entirely.  Overall, though, there isn't much, if anything, that's provocative.

People tend not to use the platform to talk about their experience of being a subscriber, either, or what it's like to be the recipient of these daily messages.  I don't get much of a sense of ongoing conversation.  Which isn't terribly surprising, given the format.

But the other day, a post caught my eye.  It was from Brazil, after the protests erupted.  The author, "Stela," described a situation in which people were arrested before the manifestation for possession of vinegar, used to minimize the effects of tear gas.  She went on to talk about the protests' real meaning, that people were protesting their lack of right to protest, and added that these demonstrations were more commonplace than the reader might think, that the "police military forces are a leftover organization from the dictatorial far right military government that took over [the] country from 1964 to 1985. For 21 years, we were stripped of all individual rights, silently tortured and killed, and forced to live in fear. And considering public manifestations of citizens as terrorism was one of their excuses for it."

She ended her message encouraging readers to seek out more information; to make sure that people achieve their right to protest, that their anger and oppression is not covered up by people who are spinning it differently; to make the nation honest through the fear of exposure of its own flaws.

I don't live in Brazil.  I can't speak with any authority about what is happening there.  All I get are the headlines.  I could seek out other bloggers, but the chances of my doing so, without being specifically encouraged to do so, are pretty slim.

"Stela" makes an excellent point: the one thing that governments tend to fear is looking bad in front of international investors and entrepreneurs.  And the claim that civil rights are being violated just so that a country can "look good" for potential investors is entirely believeable, if disturbing.  And her use of The Listserve to plant that seed was, in my view, brave.  While it's unlikely that anyone is going to boycott the World Cup as a result of her message, they might be a bit more likely to read between the lines.

Which brings me to my point.  I think what I've always appreciated most about social media was its potential to bring the world to my doorstep in a larger, more immediate way.  To take a risk (which, in some countries, is admittedly to much risk), and say, "here's what it's really like for me.  Right now.  Uncensored."  It's the same power I always appreciated in the (analog?) humanities: to give me access to voices that I might not otherwise have heard, both so I can identify my own experience in them (i.e. the "support group" phenomenon) and so that I can expand the limitations of my own perspective.  As I think about what blogging has become, just a month before I head off to BlogHer, and read the tweet streams and Facebook posts about branding and parties and platforms, I worry that we've lost sight of this second piece of the potential, that we use our blogs, like the Listserve, for platitudes and introductions, or maybe for creating business and starting projects, and not for the exposure of naked and sometimes large, frightening truths to people who might not otherwise read them.  Much as I'm looking forward to meeting all kinds of bloggers, and I learned a lot from the conference last year, I hope that I get to meet a few more "Stela"s this year, bloggers who are willing to use the platform to take risks, to tell (their) truths, and to make people a little uncomfortable with their way of seeing the world.

What do you think of Stela's message?  Do the bloggers you read tend to write about things that surprise you, or question your ideas, or do you tend to read bloggers who produce content that makes you feel more comfortable?
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  1. Just last night, I was thinking to myself how I started my blog to be a "Stela." And there are times I lost sight of that and other times I've been true to that or at least I have tried. I want to shake people up or at least make them think - while revealing *my* truth. I need to stay as close to that as possible and your post is a great reminder of that for me. And I can't wait to see you at blogher.

  2. Hey response to the comment on my blog, new gig sounds exciting. I hope it is splendid.

    My essays will be in upcoming anthologies from small presses. Nothing too exciting!

    I was looking for your email and can't find it. Mine is gwinne at yahoo.


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