A lot has been written on social media, polarization, radicalization, fake news, and propaganda. I myself have developed a module on the same and been part of some (stalled) research on it. These days I don’t have any social media presence, but being disconnected is not really a solution. How does one stay up to date with current events without social media? I have an idea: make mailing lists great again.
So for those of you that are not familiar with the concept, before the social media, and even before forums, we had mailing lists. You would sign up and receive relevant updates regularly. I remember extended families trying to communicate over these (to be honest that wasn’t the best use of these). Due to spam being so prevalent, and people’s inboxes being filled with more junk than useful stuff, the mailing list fell out of favor and in time got replaced by the ephemeral feed.
The nice thing about the feed was it wouldn’t clog your inbox the way a mail would. It would show you timely and relevant information and would fade away. The downside was it was often superficial, and would be driven by algorithms that optimized outrage over content quality.
I think this may be the time to revisit mailing lists with a new perspective. The major problems that plagued mailing lists in the past seem to have been resolved. First off, spam is a thing of the past. So inboxes are not clogged the way they used to be. Second, problem is mailing list messages becoming irrelevant over time. In this we can replicate the ephemeral nature of a feed with sieve filters. Most of my mailing list e-mails get deleted after 7 days (and some after a day).
Ok, so we can get something similar to a social media feed with this ancient technology, but what is the advantage to this over simply owning a social media account? Biggest advantage is quality. You get control over which mailing lists you subscribe to. You are not being served content by an algorithm that is optimizing the revenue for the social media company. Second advantage is privacy although this requires some effort on your part. If you carefully use a privacy oriented e-mail provider, aliases, and remote content blocking you can avoid tracking more easily with this setup than in social media.
I must admit Cory Doctorow’s mailing list Pluralist was the initial inspiration for my mailing list revival. Since then I have found a handful of mailing lists in specialized topics I am interested in that deliver relevant content regularly. All in all I am pretty happy with it.