I despise email with all of the disintegrating bones in my internet-addicted body. Please just message me on Slack, Facebook, iMessage, or even Instagram, and I will be much happier. Email is ugly, breaks a lot, and takes far too much of my oh-so-precious time.
However, email offers something that social media can’t — a clunkiness that can sometimes seem ridiculous, but trades slickness for honesty and accountability. It’s not the platform we need right now, but it’s the one we deserve.
This is a defense of Pitzer College’s Student Talk, and it’s an earnest one.
Student Talk, an open mailing list made up of all Pitzer students and proclaimed by Pitzer’s website to be unmonitored, captures a cross-section of campus buzz, from the mundane to the controversial.
A lot of it is indistinguishable from campus Facebook groups: lost ID cards, event promotion, Intro to Psychology studies. “Eat Fruit for Our Study!” reads one email; “wallet!!! help!!” reads another.
Then there are the gems. For example, someone emailed out their login information for what they described as a more “shame-free” porn site, which only launched a debate into the ethics of the problematic post. And, of course, Student Talk has been the hunting ground for campus agitators seeking evidence of the ‘PC Police,’ those called for being excessively worried about political correctness.
There are plenty of critiques of Student Talk that I agree with, but most of them have to do with what people post to it. Performative allyship, for example, or callout culture (when that’s considered something bad).
Underneath that self-reflecting broadcast of the best and worst of Pitzer, there’s something about Student Talk that doesn’t get talked about. Not free speech. Not censorship. It’s the simple fact, easy to overlook but always in your face, that it’s email, and therefore looks like email. How does that affect how we use it?
In other words, when we say social media is a “public square,” as Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy worded it in a 2017 ruling on the First Amendment, what does it matter what that public square looks like — not to a lawyer, but to a resident?
Public squares are often made of cement. They hurt if you fall down. They weather and degrade. None of these things happen to digital media. But email listservs come close, and Student Talk is a prime example.
Most immediately and most disconcerting, Student Talk looks boring. Names of senders, subject lines, and time stamps are the only things that change — everything else is just lines and gradations, mostly gray. Nobody is forced to have a profile picture, and many don’t — and on a computer, those pictures aren’t even shown in the inbox.
Viewed on a computer, the Pitzer logo at the top left is the only visible branding, and quite frankly it looks horrible. It’s pixelated, squeezed horizontally, and suffocating in the expanding vacuum of its vertical spacing.
It’s a symbol that the system isn’t perfect and is clearly made by humans struggling with mechanical confines.
Facebook, on the other hand, is slick enough to ice-skate on, with as many careful choices as possible to keep you glued and swiping. Image and video uploads float to the top of the feed. A variety of background patterns are available for your post, and key words like “congrats” are wrapped in bright colors.
Moving a bit beneath the surface, the listserv has loyally offered that which Facebook and now Twitter have taken away: chronological sorting. That means everyone subscribed to Student Talk sees the same emails in the same order, regardless of factors like which emails you’ve opened before or read completely, or which other websites you visit.
When it comes to interaction with content, there are three options: reply, reply all, forward. The only way to boost a conversation in the feed is to contribute to it, not just hit “like,” and even that is deprioritized compared to privately responding. There is no one-click option to “share” — only to forward along to another definite context.
There is no secret to virality in Student Talk. There’s no way to game the system because the system is not much of a system at all.
Student Talk makes very few decisions for you, and compared to social media platforms, the lack of those comforts is palpable. But it’s a good sort of hurt.
In short, Student Talk is almost exactly the answer when we describe a form of digital media that allows for discourse. Free speech notwithstanding, email allows for free listening — no bubbles for sound to bounce around with the help of algorithms. Hand-in-hand with that, there is absolute accountability — real names, no impersonation, and a defined environment.
Were Student Talk a public square, it would be one where everyone has a megaphone, but must take turns sharing and wear a name tag.
Facebook, meanwhile, would be a party you have to attend if you have any chance of meeting new people — a party thrown by someone who thinks they’re way cooler than they are and considers discussing racism to be a party foul, while not caring if people keep bringing up the fact they hate Muslims.
And hey, why the hell are that dude’s parents here? And all of his high school friends? And the shoes you just looked at, and the fuckbois from LadBible?
Student Talk isn’t perfect. It’s a bit painful, can take longer than it’s worth, and doesn’t mesh with how we might want to see the world.
But you could use those same words to describe discourse — something that also doesn’t have to be civil let alone addictive, but something that should exist in its own right, free from algorithmic sorting, bouncing imperfectly around the public square with a distinctive lack of sheen.