The Hot New Medium is ... Email

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[ Tue. Mar. 31. 1998 ]

"List publishing is not merely information delivered to your mailbox, it's the devolution of mass media into the hands of everyday people. And its growing faster than the web."

by David S. Bennehum


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 derive power from the social network to which they connect you. As in the real world, it's strictly invitation-only.

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 Èlite 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 de_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 de_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 Èlite, some of whom were identi_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.

"The Model is creating reputation," says economist Hal Varian. "Lists are about relative status."

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 (, 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.