E L E C T R O S P H E R E  |  Wired 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: georgia6@hr.house.gov 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: mtvyak1@aol.com 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: markoff@nyt.com joined the list" - John Markoff, a New York Times technology writer, just subscribed. It's turning out to be a hectic