Ten Years of the Listings Project: An Interview With Stephanie Diamond

by Paddy Johnson on September 16, 2013 Interview

Stephanie Diamond’s Listings Project is having a very special 10 year anniversary. Today, she launches the Listings Project website, a weekly listserv of art-related job and real estate classifieds. (AFC staffers can thank Listings Project on both fronts, on more than one occasion).

The project’s website now no longer lives on her artist website and will allow listers to do all the things they normally do; create listings for Diamond’s mailer. The site is also a fanbase for testimonials. By popular demand, the Listings Project will remain a bare-bones email.

Diamond’s listings are a little like e-flux or early Rhizome, in that it’s an intimate emailing list amongst a self-selecting community of creatives. And unlike something like Craigslist, Diamond considers the Listings Project a work of art; in keeping with a lot of her documentary and social practice work, she curates each posting and personally corresponds with every one of her posters. That’s evidenced by countless personal testimonials from posters who’ve gotten married, coordinated Sandy relief, or read religiously, just to keep up with the community. Over the years, the Listings Project has grown into an international artist base, and Diamond’s full-time job. I visited her apartment a few months ago to talk about how it’s evolved.

I visited your studio a while back, and at that time, your studio was filled with boxes, which were filled with photographs. You had more photographs than anyone I had met, period. You could pull out a photo and say, “well this I took when I was four.” 

Do you see Listings Project as an extension of that kind of documentation?

I still have that photo. I think [my archiving] was like a living Facebook in some ways; I would shoot everything everywhere I went. I was not the first person at all to shoot food, but I was definitely shooting food a long time ago [laughs]. Y’know, I have crazy photographs…For me, the camera was like another way to interact, another language. Because, I mean, I can take very beautiful photos, but I don’t care about that,  or how they’re printed, nothing; just “this really happened,” like I saw this weird thing, or I ate this weird thing, like let’s interact with it or let you interact with it.” And then you have a response. So most of my exhibitions are a newspaper, or a billboard, or a big, interactive event with photos. Listings project is really part of that. It’s not a photograph, but it’s a very similar effort to connect and be with people. So by the time Listings Project came about, it was my community that responded to make it work.

How did you get started with the listings?

So in 2003, I was living in Queens and desperately wanted to live closer to NYU, where I was at grad school. So I emailed my artist friend list, maybe 50 people, asking who knew of a place to live. People wrote me some great listings, and they sent me to great places, and then I found a space– not through the emails, but independently. But people kept sending me listings that were so good, and so, in the spirit of who I am, I would compile them and send them out to my friends. And then, this is why I go back to talking about how I began as an artist– people took notice that I was sending these listings, and they knew my network, so they sent me listings to forward. And that’s when it began, because I was no longer soliciting for myself or others, but people were soliciting me to enact my group of emails to help them.

What has been the growth of your website? It started off with 50 people and now it’s… huge?

I had no idea it would get this big. It grows by around 1,500 a month, and I get between 60-100 listings a week. It started with 50 people in 2003; now there are almost 40,000 people worldwide.

And worldwide, majorly. There are people in Berlin, the Netherlands, New Orleans, China, Japan, Alaska, Chicago. The numbers keep growing. The open rate– the “click rate”– for a newsletter is usually 8%, minus 35%, which, from hearing from all the experts, is HUGE. People are reading this thing and using it. I get thousands of hits a month. I still personally respond to everybody and read everything.

It started out really just with artists, and then I switched over to this newsletter service. I used Constant Contact when I switched over, it brought all of my email addresses from my email account into this provider, and I was no longer able to make folders. As a huge archivist, I have folders for everything on my computer, and there are categories for everything.

So this is basically a tracking of the development of the business.

Yes. And also how it’s grown.

Are you supported wholly off Listings Project?

It’s still completely free to receive, but it’s $20 if you post. I started charging just two years ago, so it was free for years. That’s how I’m able to make a living off it.

As it got bigger, I did this huge survey, asking “What do you guys want? What do you need?” People offered a lot of suggestions, and I wanted to keep it a free resource. I thought I needed to keep it free to survive, actually.

I tried these two different ventures to fundraise that were successful– not at raising money, but successful in other ways, like making a beautiful plate with Sanford Biggers, or doing a huge interactive event at Scope. It was fun, but it was not a fundraiser. And then I got laid off from my job teaching at Parsons, so I became desperate for money. It was either charge or go broke.

Was it hard to make the decision that you would charge people $20?

It was so excruciating. The list was free for eight years, and I thought in order for me to be a community-based person, I needed to keep providing. But eventually I needed to be provided for; eventually, there needed to be an exchange. I was getting exhausted, I was overwhelmed, I was constantly giving and sharing and putting in so much work into the list, and not getting what I needed…it got to the point where it was like, continue doing the list for free, or not eat.

The coolest thing about listings project is that it’s allowed me to stay and work in the community on a long term basis. Most other instances are shorter term; I would have group exhibitions and community-based projects, where I would get to be with the artists, and I would love it– or I would do a residency, and love it, but then it would just end. Like, when would I see my community again?

Listings project has sustained me through that, because I’m constantly in contact with my community. So when it got to the point where I may lose them, because I would have to charge, I realized, “I’m going to have to try. It’s up to them if they don’t want to pay, but at least let me say what I need.” I was very transparent; I told the list I couldn’t do it anymore. I talked to a lot of people, we did a lot of math, I brought in all these business people to help me see what I should charge. So I did it, and I was petrified.

And then people started writing back…“Congratulations for charging, we’ve been wanting to give you money, you deserve this, of course!” I was shocked! No one complained, but people asked questions. You’ll see, I explained why I’m charging in the FAQ. I did not lose listers, the list got bigger, more robust. And a lot of people say that if you’re charging, people believe in it more.

I really think your work has a connection to e-flux. It’s an email service which seems to have organically become its own business, but it’s a project run by artists with the ethos and the sensibility of artists. And there’s a kind of beauty to it, for that reason. Could you talk a little bit about listings project as an artist’s project?

It’s interesting…the Listings Project is an art piece for me, but it doesn’t necessarily mean I am an internet artist or that my medium is listings project only. My medium, I often say, is people, and so my work– depending on any project, always has to do with people. I often say I’m a hunter and gatherer of people, so Listings Project is a natural, an offshoot of that.

Listings Project is an art piece in the sense that my work is community and social practice-based…but I like to say it’s of an art of people, for people. The experience of Listings Project is the work for me– people are meeting or living together, are making great work because of these spaces. And it’s me, interacting with everybody, and me, personally reading everything. And it’s that personal touch, and connection, and the community, that is the project and the vessel…this very traditional email and website.

Stephanie Diamond at work

What do you do with the archives? 

Just like my photo archive, I keep all my listings. They expire after one week, but if you want to repost you can go back to the website and repost. There are no dead listings on the list, and  within a month, that studio or opportunity is gone, and the roommate has been found. So there is tons of ephemera in that sense…

The stories are fascinating, because they last forever. A lot of people tell me them personally. If a friendship is made, or marriages have happened, it’s beyond that listing which connected them, and I save every single story. I share stories at the beginning of the list, and the website has a section where people can write in. Eventually I want to bring all of us together so we can share our stories, whether it’s through an art piece or through an event, which, for me, would be an art piece anyway.

It also helps in a business way. We can see who’s posting when, how much rents are…I’m able to track how many people are posting when, when are the hot months. So these statistics are kept, mostly just to help the list…I don’t sell statistics or anything like that.

Can you tell me about your decision to keep the archives? You spent a year developing this website, and I thought it could have been very easy for you to say “We’ll just make this an entire social website with community managers or whatever,” but you’re maintaining the email.

I like that question. Earlier I mentioned the survey I did many years ago, when I found that the list was growing. And I realized that I didn’t want to make decisions without my listers because it wasn’t just me anymore…it was actually us needing each other.

So I worked for a year with a survey expert, and we did focus groups and phone calls. People said “Do not make this a website. Do not make this another craigslist. We love being able to read this email on our phones, on the fly…it’s just plain and simple. There’s no bells and whistles, we have exactly what we need. Keep it this way, please.”

I still go back to that survey to inform me today. At the time, I was open to do anything, and still am, if the majority of my listers want it. I’m here to be of service.

So yes, that’s what people desired, but I also love the intimacy of email and personally writing to people.

I think email is the most intimate, personal way to interact on the computer. It’s almost the closest to you and I talking right now; that’s really the basis of the listings project, it’s me, personally there for you. Nothing is automated, in the sense that posts just get on the list without me reading it. There’s an intimacy that’s important, especially when we’re looking for a home, and it’s such a doubtful, difficult experience…people see all these other website, and they’re scammed all the time…

But what I hear from my listers is “I want someone from your list,” or “I have great people from your list,” “I don’t want to use the other ones, I want your list”…and that’s wonderful. And, you know…if you can’t find it of course we’re going to look in other places. But why not also have this nice, intimate situation that’s safe, and comfortable, in the comforts of our own inbox.

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