WPI's potpourri list


Filed under Musings;
2 comments.

My first salaried job out of college was teaching 11th-grade tech writing. The high school was run by my undergraduate alma mater, WPI (Worcester Polytechnic Institute), which gave me access to all the college's facilities and resources.

It also meant I had a wpi.edu email address that was subscribed to various internal mailing lists. Some of those lists were for the administration to make announcements that would affect all employees. Other lists — like all-staff — were not so moderated and were used liberally by anyone on campus for any purpose… especially to sell things.

This was 2004, almost a decade after Craigslist was founded, yet employees of WPI found it easier to use the campus as their marketplace. Anytime anyone had anything to sell, from cars to Red Sox tickets, they would broadcast an email to all faculty and staff. Waves and waves of employees hawking their goods — and interested parties accidentally clicking "reply all" — were inescapable.

For me, the final straw was the email offering pellets for a pellet stove. I'd already scheduled a meeting with the school's IT department, so I tacked onto the agenda a brief discussion about what I saw as abuse of this email list. It was a friendly conversation, as I recall the IT staff being as exasperated as I was. But they pointed out that the volume of for-sale emails demonstrated interest in using the list in this fashion, and they didn't want to shut down that tradition without providing an alternative outlet. Would it be another email list? Would it be opt-in or opt-out? Would it be reasonable to point WPI's less tech-savvy employees to the school's Usenet newsgroup dedicated to this purpose? These questions went unanswered in my two years as an employee.

That was 14 years ago. At some point since then, WPI finally solved this problem. Their news office recently published this reflection on their solution:

It needs no introduction (but we’re giving it one anyway). It’s an automated legend, known for flooding email inboxes from Goddard to Gateway and beyond. It’s where you can find an antique record player, a pasta roller, vintage video games, and hot tubs, all in the course of a single afternoon. You know it, you love it, or you just might want to be unsubscribed from it.

It’s Potpourri.

The news article goes on to describe the sort of things you can find on the Potpourri list:

here’s nothing quite like logging into your email on a Monday morning and sifting through the latest Potpourri offers. You never know what you’ll find: some days it’s bat boxes, bikes, and weighted blankets; others feature requests for graphing calculators, Commodore or Apple II computers, or mercury (this is WPI, after all).

It's unlikely a school as cutting edge as WPI still owns or operates Apple II computers, but given the interests and longevity of its employees, I'm not surprised that their personal retrocomputers might pop up on Potpourri.

If only I'd been around to see it! Even I could've tolerated the occasional stove pellet if it meant some rare Apple II gear. I hope WPI's current employees appreciate the growing pains that led them to this opt-in bounty.

  1. Only in Education or Government jobs would such time and resource-wasting be tolerated, or even up for debate.

  2. Nah. I currently work in neither sector, yet my company's Slack has plenty of channels for co-workers to discuss their dogs, travels, and video games. Such interactions are healthy for building community and morale. That's just good business.