A revolution against Big Tech may never come. Could a series of smaller interventions take its place?
Every day, the mail still comes. My postal carrier drives her proud van onto the street and then climbs each stoop by foot. The service remains essential, but not as a communications channel. I receive ads and bills, mostly, and the occasional newspaper clipping from my mom. For talking to people, I use email and text and social networking. The mail is a ritual but also a relic.
That relic is also the model for a new personal-communication app called Pony Messenger. Think of it as email, if email arrived by post: You compose a message and put it in an outbox; once a day (you can choose morning, afternoon, or evening “pickups”), Pony picks up your outbound dispatches and delivers your inbounds. That’s it. It’s postal-service cosplay. It’s slow email.
Dmitry Minkovsky has been working on Pony over the past three years, with the goal of recovering some of the magic that online life had lost for him. The work falls into a long tradition, part conceptual art and part whimsy, that emerged in response to the oppressive instantaneity of the internet. In 2007, the Near Future Laboratory made Slow Messenger, an IM appliance that would reveal messages only if you cradled it in your hand; last year, the artist Ben Grosser created the Minus social network, on which you can post only 100 times. Other technologies of unhurriedness include Dialup (a surprise-phone-call app), Slowly (a pen-pal service), and Mail Goggles (a Gmail add-in to prevent email regret).
I used to find such projects appealing for their subversiveness: as art objects that make problems visible rather than proposing viable solutions to them. But now it’s clear that the internet needs design innovations—and brake mechanisms—to reduce its noxious impact. Our suffering arises, in part, from the speed and volume of our social interactions online. Maybe we can build our way toward fewer of them.
Facebook and YouTube and Twitter and TikTok and their ilk are unlikely to reduce engagement on purpose, because their businesses rely on maximizing it. But newcomers don’t have to play by the same rules. Pony offers a modest but realistic alternative: a somewhat novel way of doing one specific thing online slightly more deliberately than you did before. If a thousand such flowers were to bloom, perhaps the internet’s landscape would become more humane.
The “slow internet” emerged as an idea in 2010, just as the combination of smartphones and broadband had become universal enough to make “extremely online” a default way of life. The movement arose largely on blogs—already a slower way of writing and reading than the social networks that would soon supplant them—and came amid a spate of interest in “slow cinema” and “slow food.” “It’s not just about being first and fast and superficial,” wrote the film critic Jim Emerson at the time; “it’s an opportunity to consider a spectrum of arguments and evidence.”
Two years later, and a month after Facebook went public, the writer Jack Cheng blogged a paean to the “slow web,” an aspirational design philosophy that would, in principle, short-circuit the assumptions of an always-online life. He, too, drew a parallel to slow food and its turn away from mindless consumption. The internet had become impossible to keep up with. Everything happened constantly and all the time. Cheng wanted information to present itself when needed, rather than being delivered in a continuous, real-time feed. “Fast Web is built around homepages, inboxes, and dashboards,” Cheng wrote. “Slow Web is built around timely notifications.”
But timely notifications would soon be constant too. As apps began harassing us with invitations to reengage, “timeliness” became just another version of “real-time.” In 2016, when blogs were all but dead, Cheng disclaimed the whole idea: “A number of the services listed below as examples of ‘Slow Web’ are now defunct,” he wrote in an update to his post, “and the ‘Fast Web’ seems today to be even faster, more frenetic, more addictive.” The slow internet was over.
Maybe fastness hadn’t really been the problem. Cheng’s examples of prosocial apps differentiated themselves by function more than cadence: a reminder app that sends notifications for daily tasks (Budge), or a recap of what happened on this date a year ago (Timehop). Pony picks up here, envisioning not just a slower form of computerized communication, but a different one.
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This wasn’t yet clear to Minkovsky when he created Pony in 2019. The first iteration piggybacked on existing email accounts. That was a mistake. “I violated the cardinal rule,” he told me: “Don’t fix email.” Attempts to do so—whether based on robotic filtering or live chat or automated reading—have always failed. Email is the cockroach of internet software, invincible. And in Minkovsky’s view, it will forever be bound up with work: It’s time-sensitive; it has aboutness. (“Emails have subjects,” he told me.) Whether those qualities are good or bad, trying to unseat them is a fool’s errand.
So Minkovsky went back to the drawing board, making Pony a self-contained service. Now the messages appear only in the Pony Messenger app, which means your interlocutors need to have Pony too. As a result, Minkovsky faces the same challenge as the creators of any new communication technology: A service can thrive only once it has recruited a large number of customers. That’s what made postal mail, telephony, email, and later Facebook and Instagram so effective (and valuable): their ubiquity. But the power of network effects also issues a dangerous temptation for technology start-ups. In a noisy market with wealthy incumbents, new players must carpet-bomb the internet for new users, and then ensnare those who sign up in engagement thirst traps. Or at least this has long seemed to be the case.
Minkovsky isn’t a slow-food-style pastoralist but a capitalist. He studied chemistry at the University of Chicago and then worked in finance—“a thing people from U of Chicago do if they don’t know what they want to do.” His spoils from that career allowed him to take the time to make Pony with his own hands—slow software development, you might say—and now he aims to turn it into a commercially viable product with backing from venture capital. “Obviously I’m not going to be able to turn this into Instagram,” he said, “because surveillance capitalism is a bit hard to do when you’re not giving people a constant task or list of things to react to.” But Minkovsky sees other ways of making money, including advertising. He theorizes a possible return of the weekly print circular, for example, via Pony messages.
In other words, the age of megascale may leave room again for mere scale. (“I want Pony to be big,” Minkovsky told me.) And the slow internet may yet be revived as a viable business.
In November, I downloaded Pony and managed to persuade one of my friends—the design futurist and Slow Messenger creator Julian Bleecker—to do the same. I’ve set the app to send and retrieve messages at 5:30 a.m., and every few days I wake up to a new missive from my one Pony pen pal, which I read before getting up or over coffee. It’s charming, but we also don’t really know what to say or how to say it. How do letters work, again?
To overcome the anxiety, Julian adopted a stiff-collared, 19th-century epistolary style—“I trust you and your’n are faring well and have avoided thus far the horrible pestilence that invades the calm of social life.” I responded in kind, and now we can’t seem to shake the affectation, even though both of us find it embarrassing. (My editor fell into the same trap when we tried to edit this article via Pony, which suggests that it’s an affectation all users must adopt for a time.)
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Perhaps that’s because the form and content of communications are tightly coupled. What one thinks to say, let alone manages to express, arises from a technology’s constraints and affordances. The brevity of Twitter, mated to its firehose constancy, makes dashing off random notions without a second thought easy—for better and for worse. Email’s imposition of a subject line, its longevity as a tool, and its popularity in workplaces and commercial relationships make it more transactional than personal.
The internet has made all information feel like a flow of the same type of material. In a way, that is the promise and consequence of digitization—everything is bits, software eats the world, and so forth. But not all data are the same, in nature or purpose. A retail receipt is not a love letter. A work task is not a joke meme. A pornographic image is not a family photo. A “slow internet” framing makes it easy to confuse a tempo for a purpose. By forcing me to receive messages no more than once a day, Pony invites me to ponder what sorts of exchanges might thrive under those conditions. Julian and I have begun sketching notes for creative projects we can’t seem to move forward via other means. My editor and I have discovered that a Ponyful of editorial notes can prove more tractable than a barrage of Google Doc comments or Slack bullets.
That doesn’t necessarily mean that Pony improves collaboration—the point isn’t to build a better email, or to improve Slack or Gdocs, but to find gratifying matches between human goals and technical tools. Minkovsky told me that he has found Pony most useful not for communicating with people he already emails or texts, but for corresponding more effectively with the handful of friends to whom he rarely reaches out. “The people I’ve given up on,” as he rationalizes it—the ones who might get only an annual happy birthday greeting.
If Pony is neither email nor its aspirational successor, what is it? Minkovsky has been marketing the app as “mindful messaging,” a notion that gives me hives. “Mindfulness doesn’t mean much to me personally,” he admitted when I challenged him on the packaging. Minkovsky’s family emigrated to the Baltimore area from the Soviet Union when he was a young child, and he repeats a line from his post-Bolshevik grandmother as a possible clarification: “If you’re eating, focus on your eating.” This is his hope for Pony, that it might help people do the thing they’re doing when they do correspondence.
But my experience with Pony, and Minkovsky’s stories about his own, suggest that we don’t really know what we’re doing when we correspond, and we don’t really know what we want when we dream of ways to slow things down online. We’re not recovering some imagined, primordial state of full attention and deliberateness, nor are we abandoning the purported evils of email or Facebook. Faced with an internet that is much too big and much too fast, we’ll never find a big and fast solution. Any progress will be earned, one day at a time.
A revolution against Big Tech may never come. Could a series of smaller interventions take its place?