Dead letters

Cory Doctorow
10 min readOct 10, 2021

Email could be the last federated internet technology — but it isn’t.

Vintage engraving of a dead letter office where postal officials struggle to decipher addressing information; captioned “Who is it for? A scene in the dead letter office experts trying to decipher an illegible address”

It feels like only yesterday that we were living through the Substack bubble, as mailing lists enjoyed a new renaissance (rebranded as “newsletters”), a tangible expression of the techlash and our collective disgust with the platforms and their attempts to enclose the internet and convert it to “five giant websites, each filled with screenshots of text from the other four.

In the abstract, mailing lists/newsletters represent the promise of a return to a Jeffersonian internet, where each of us can garden own little patch, not subject to the whims of third parties. That, after all, is the original design brief of the internet, to be an “end-to-end network” where any party can connect to any other party without needing permission from anyone else.

That’s the promise of newsletters. The reality is a lot messier — and more alarming.

In early 2020, I left Boing Boing, a website I wrote on for 19 years, helping to build up a media platform that was not reliant on social media platforms for its audience (which isn’t to say we were fully insulated from Big Tech’s choices; periodic algorithmic changes at Google could have a huge effect on our reach and fortunes). The reasons for leaving were complicated, but ultimately, it was time. I’d done one thing for 19 years, now I wanted to do something else.

That something else is Pluralistic, a blog that publishes in daily(ish) editions consisting of 1–10 articles, ranging from brief blog mentions to 2–3,000 word essays. Pluralistic doesn’t have a couple decades’ worth of readership behind it, so I set about to find ways to reach readers that wouldn’t make me a digital sharecropper inside someone’s paywall, with an archive that could be vanished in an instant if a company kicked me off, or went bankrupt, or sold out, or “pivoted” (ugh).

The strategy I embraced is called “POSSE” — Post Own Site, Syndicate Everywhere. A POSSE publication has an official, canonical home on a server of the author’s control, but everything that appears on that permalink site is also published simultaneously on other platforms, to reach readers where they live.

For me, that means publishing the canonical day’s edition on a self-hosted WordPress blog on a server that my…

Cory Doctorow

Writer, blogger, activist. Blog: https://pluralistic.net; Mailing list: https://pluralistic.net/plura-list; Mastodon: @pluralistic@mamot.fr