Letter perfect

Just a month into the new year and already we, the true keepers of the Net flame (oh, come on, get all pompous with me), have a couple of honest-to-god victories for the good guys to celebrate. Let joy be unrestrained! Let the dance be unconfined!

No, I'm not talking about etoy. Screw etoy. I'm happy for them and all, but quite frankly they're throwing themselves enough of a party (still in my mailbox, you understand); they'll get along without my hilarity. I'm talking about the real Net old-timers; I'm cheering the risible rise of the e-newsletterists.

"Risible"—sorry, I've always wanted to use it in a sentence and you're the one who suffers for it—means "eliciting laughter." And it is to laugh! In case you weren't paying attention, the art of the letterist was declared dead twice over—first when all letter writing was declared dead about a decade ago, and then again when the Web went big. (You didn't just see AOL try to buy the Post Office, did you now? Oh my god, did you?)

Yep, stick a fork in the art of letter writing: For entertainment we have the Web (official motto: We bring you in five minutes exactly what your TV brings you in 30 seconds); for personal expression we have . . . personal Web pages.

And then they went and made Dave Farber chief technologist of the FCC, and suddenly it might as well be spring.

Dr. Farber is a very smart man. A professor in both the Electrical Engineering and Computer and Information Science departments at Penn, he's heavily into research on ultrahigh-speed networking and innovative computer architectures; I also understand him to be a most amusing lecturer and a king of malapropisms (no, you have to look that one up for yourself). I like Dr. Farber, though I have not met him. Instead, I subscribe to his most excellent e-mail list.

I repeat: This busy and erudite man doesn't mess around with Web pages. If I want to follow matters of interest to Dr. Farber (and I do, and so do you; if he were in print he'd be the best technology newsletter in the medium), I read him in boring old ASCII e-mail.

Admit it: If someone cut off your Web access you'd be peevish, but if someone took away your e-mail you'd be lost. If you're reading a thought-provoking writer online on a regular basis, odds are good that you're reading them in, or thanks to a reminder from, e-mail.

I subscribe to a few dozen e-mail lists, but to relatively few newsletters; few writers hold up to the scrutiny. And it's not just verbal virtuosity that makes a newsletter worthwhile. Some writers' voices all but disappear behind their information, like Dr. Farber and Rose Aguilar (News We Can Use); you're left purely with their opinions on what's worth bringing to your attention. Others have charming voices that makes even obscure subjects appealing—law (IP Counselors), children's songs (Terry Kluytmans' KIDiddles Song of the Day), new computer products (Bill Machrone's PC Magazine newsletter). And then there are those who are all sound and fury and opinion—Mike Jasper (Constant Commentary) in my pantheon, and Rageboy (Entropy Gradient Reversal).

Rageboy's the other happy thought for me this week—actually Rageboy's alter ego, Christopher Locke, another person I admire intensely and have yet to meet. (We do, however, frequent some of the same employers.) Locke's cooked up a crazy and brilliant and rather hotheaded business book/philosophy called The Cluetrain Manifesto, and with a few e-mail buddies managed to sneak this madness past a lot of corporate entities who ought to have been very, very afraid of publishing something so smart and obnoxious and true.

And you know what? A lot of people heard about it, thought about it, and contributed our own smart, obnoxious thoughts to the mix because Chris/Rageboy would not shut up about it in his newsletter. Thank god. If I'd been left to discover this online under my own steam, I'd still be clue-untrained. Which is part of the point of newsletters. Sign up for EGR; it'll put hair on some parts of you and blast it off others.

Now more than ever, January 2000 more than all the Januarys that have preceded it, I appreciate the fine art of e-mail, and I appreciate the people dedicated and/or insane and/or opinionated enough to write it and send it to people who ask for it. Take that, AOL!

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