The Subversive Genius of Extremely Slow Email

Every day, the mail still came. Postal carriers drive their proud truck down the street and then climb each slope on foot. The service remains necessary, but not as a channel of communication. I receive advertisements, bills, mostly, and occasional newspaper clips from my mom. To talk to people, I use email, text messages, and social networks. Postage is a ritual, but it is also a relic.

This leftover is also a template for a new personal communications app called Pony Messenger. Think of it as an email, if the email arrives in the mail: you write a message and put it in the Outbox; Once a day (you can choose “pickups” in the morning, afternoon, or evening), Pony receives your outgoing consignments and delivers your incoming rides. This is. It’s a postal service cosplay. It’s a slow email.

Dmitriy Minkovsky has been working on Pony for the past three years, aiming to restore some of the magic that life has lost on the internet. The work falls into a long tradition, part conceptual art and part whim, that emerged in response to the oppressive moment of the Internet. In 2007 the Near Future Lab made the Slow Messenger, an instant messaging device that only detects messages if you hold them in your hand; Last year, artist Ben Grosser created the Minus social network, which you can post to only 100 times. Other technologies that don’t rush include Dialup (a surprise phone call app), Slowly (a messaging service), and Mail Goggles (a Gmail add-on to prevent email regrets).

I used to find such projects attractive because of their subversion: as technical things that make problems visible rather than suggesting viable solutions to them. But it is now clear that the Internet needs innovations in design – and brake mechanisms – to reduce their harmful impact. Our suffering stems in part from the speed and volume of our online social interactions. Maybe we can make our way to fewer of them.

It is unlikely that Facebook, YouTube, Twitter, TikTok and their ilk will intentionally reduce engagement, because their business depends on maximizing it. But newcomers don’t have to play by the same rules. Pony offers a modest but realistic alternative: a fairly new way to deliberately do something online a little more than you did before. If a thousand such flowers blossomed, perhaps the internet scene would become more humane.

The idea of ​​a “slow internet” emerged as an idea in 2010, just as the combination of smartphones and broadband became global enough to make the “ultra internet” a virtual lifestyle. The movement originated largely on blogging – indeed a slower way of writing and reading than the soon-to-be-replaced social networking – and came amid a flurry of interest in “slow cinema” and “slow food”. “It’s not just about being first, fast, and superficial,” film critic Jim Emerson wrote at the time. “It’s an opportunity to look at a range of arguments and evidence.”

Two years later, a month after Facebook went public, blog writer Jack Cheng wrote a paean on the “slow web,” an ambitious design philosophy that, in principle, would always shorten the assumptions of life online. He also drew comparisons to slow food and its avoidance of mindless consumption. It became impossible to keep up with the Internet. Everything happens constantly and all the time. Cheng wanted the information to present itself when needed, rather than being delivered in a continuous, real-time feed. “The Fast Web is built around home pages, inboxes, and dashboards,” Cheng wrote. “The slow web is built around just-in-time notifications.”

But timely notifications will also be fixed soon. When apps started pestering us with calls to re-share, “timing” became just another version of “real time”. In 2016, when blogging was nearly dead, Cheng denied the whole idea: “A number of the services listed below as examples of the ‘slow web’ no longer exist,” he wrote in an update to his post, “and ‘Fast Web’ today seems to be faster, more crazier, more addictive.” The slow internet is over.

Perhaps persistence wasn’t really the issue. Cheng’s examples of positive social apps differentiate themselves more by function than by rhythm: a reminder app that sends notifications for daily tasks (Budge), or a summary of what happened on this date a year ago (Timehop). The foal moves here, imagining not only a slower form of computerized communication, but a Different One.

This wasn’t clear yet to Minkowski when he created Pony in 2019. The first iteration took place on existing email accounts. This was a mistake. “You broke the cardinal rule, don’t fix email,” he told me. Attempts to do so – whether based on automated filtering, live chat, or machine reading – have always failed. Email is the Internet software cockroach, invincible. And in Minkowski’s view, the work will be linked forever: it is time-sensitive; have about. (He told me, “Emails have topics.”) Whether these traits are good or bad, trying to get rid of them is a fool’s errand.

So Minkowski went back to the drawing board, making Bonnie a stand-alone service. Now messages only appear in the Pony Messenger app, which means that your interlocutors need Pony as well. As a result, Minkovsky faces the same challenge as the creators of any new communications technology: the service can thrive only by recruiting a large number of customers. This is what made postal mail, telephony, email, and later Facebook and Instagram so effective (and valuable): they are ubiquitous. But the power of network effects also creates a dangerous temptation for tech startups. In a bustling market with wealthy incumbents, new players must blow up the internet for new users, and then fall into the trap of those who sign up for the traps of a thirst for participation. Or at least that seems to have been the case for a long time.

Minkowski is not a slow shepherd but a capitalist. He studied chemistry at the University of Chicago and then worked in finance – “something people from the University of Chicago do if they don’t know what they want to do.” The spoils of that career have allowed him to take the time to make his own Pony – you might say software development is slow – and now aims to turn it into a commercially viable product with the backing of venture capital. He said, “Obviously I won’t be able to turn this on to Instagram, because surveillance capitalism is a little hard to do when you don’t assign people a fixed task or list of things to respond to.” But Minkowski sees other ways to make money, including advertising. He theorized about the possibility of the return of the weekly print publication, for example, via dowry letters.

In other words, the age of enormity may leave room again just for scale. (“I want a big pony,” Minkowski told me.) And the slow internet may be resurrected as a viable business.

In November, I downloaded Pony and managed to convince one of my friends—future designer and Slow Messenger creator Julian Bleecker—to do the same. I set the app to send and retrieve messages at 5:30 AM, and every few days I wake up to a new message from my pen friend Pony, which I read before getting up or having a coffee. It’s charming, but we also don’t really know what to say or how to say it. How do messages work again?

To overcome anxiety, Julian adopted a rigorous style of message from the nineteenth century—”I trust that you are well and have so far avoided the terrible pestilence invading the tranquility of social life.” I answered similarly, and now it seems we can’t get rid of the sympathy, though we both find it embarrassing. (My editors fell into the same trap when we tried to edit this article via Pony, suggesting it’s an effect all users should embrace for some time.)

Perhaps this is because the form and content of communications are tightly linked. What one thinks to say, let alone be able to express, arises from the limitations and possibilities of technology. Twitter’s shortness, paired with the steadfastness of a Firehose hose, makes shedding random concepts without a second thought—for better and for worse. The imposition of subject line email, its longevity as a tool, and its popularity in workplaces and business relationships make it more of a take on it in person.

The Internet has made all information appear to be a stream of the same kind of material. In a way, that’s the promise and consequence of digitization – everything is bits and pieces, software eats the world, and so forth. But not all data is the same, in nature or purpose. A retail receipt is not a love letter. Job assignment is no joke. A porn picture is not a family picture. The “slow internet” framing makes it easy to confuse the rhythm for a purpose. By forcing me to receive messages no more than once a day, Bonnie invites me to think about the kinds of exchanges that could thrive under these circumstances. Julian and I have started drawing notes for creative projects that we don’t seem to be moving forward by other means. The editor and I have discovered that a huge number of editorial notes can be more traceable than a barrage of Google Docs comments or bullets on Slack.

This doesn’t necessarily mean that Pony improves collaboration – the point is not to create better email, improve Slack or Gdocs, but to find a satisfactory match between human goals and technical tools. Minkowski told me he found Pony most useful not to connect with the people he already emails or texts, but to communicate more effectively with the handful of friends he rarely communicates with. “People I’ve given up on,” he justifies – those who might only get an annual happy birth day greeting.

If Pony isn’t email nor his ambitious successor, what is? Minkovsky has been marketing the app as “conscious messages,” an idea that gives me hives. “Vigilance doesn’t mean much to me personally,” he admitted when I challenged him on the packaging. The Minkowski family emigrated to the Baltimore region from the Soviet Union when he was a young child, and he repeats a line from his post-Bolshevik grandmother as a possible illustration: “If you eat, focus on your food.” That’s his hope for Pony, that it might help people do the thing they do when they’re messaging.

But my experience with Pony, and Minkovsky’s stories of his, suggests that we don’t really know what to do when we get along, and we don’t really know what we want when we dream about ways to slow things down on the Internet. We are not recovering some imagined primal state of complete attention and willfulness, nor are we giving up on the purported evils of email or Facebook. In the face of the internet that is too big and too fast, we will never find a big and fast solution. No progress will be made, one day at a time.


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