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The Intimacy Of Strangers' Messages On The Listserve

For their final project, "Designing Conversational Spaces," five New York University grad students created what they call "The Listserve." Members opt to receive one email a day from a randomly selected stranger, often notes of advice and reflection. In less than two months, 20,000 subscribers worldwide signed up. Cofounder Josh Begley picks three writers and tells us why he loves their messages.

Subject: Under the Tree Where It's Safe

"Popular recollections of the 1980s might involve DayGlo and stockbrokers, but for me, that decade's narrative is wrapped up in the concept of being afraid. The milk cartons... created an atmosphere that taught children to look not just before they leapt, but before they even took the most minuscule step toward another person." —Maura Johnston, writer, Village Voice

Begley says: "Our subscribers who are also Village Voice fans reached out to Johnston on Twitter, asking if this note actually came from her. It was great watching the discussion unfold."

Subject: A Bloody Mar/y/ia from Juba, South Sudan

"You can sort out the proportions to taste, but [this recipe] will make you a solid Bloody Maria. Even in south Sudan, you can find most of these things. If you hate things that taste good, you can substitute vodka for tequila." —Christopher Fabian, innovation specialist, UNICEF

Begley says: "One of my favorite things about this entire project is the various geographic locations of our subscribers. I don't know what readers expected to receive from Juba, South Sudan, but it probably wasn't a Bloody Mary recipe."

Subject: Random Beauty

"Google Translate is great. But there are some words of a language that remain untranslatable: Duende (Spanish)—on a translator, it'll show "elf." It is actually the spark of divine inspiration, expressing itself out of one's heart, or the involuntary feeling of awe, in reaction to an inspiring piece of art or music." —Ishita, Calcutta, India

Begley says: "The notion that there are words around the world that can't be translated might be lost on us sometimes. The shorter and sweeter emails, like this one, have been some of the best."

Illustration by Jared Andrew Schorr

A version of this article appeared in the October 2012 issue of Fast Company magazine.