Why Newsletters?

A tentative answer

This week, I am going to depart from my usual menu of musings on teaching and technology. What I want to share with you is some news from the growing newsletter community. You might think - are you serious? There is nothing new about newsletters. Actually… it turns out there is.

I think we can all agree by now that “social media” is a mess. Whether I am referring to Facebook or Twitter or any of the others, these apps have become in large part a cesspool of misinformed and misdirected anger at some part of the world that is unfair to the poster. And the algorithm is designed to hook you in and keep you there. And sell you stuff. Using data that you probably wish they did not have. It has become, in short, the polar opposite of the utopian goal that we heard so much about as the internet was first spreading around the globe. It has divided us more than brought us together. And this is partly the doing of the engagement algorithm but also the toxic danger of anonymity (or at least distance) - it seems to bring out the worst in people. Our students are deeply affected by the ubiquity of social media, and this is important for us to understand about them and their lives.

One of the other problems of course has been that so much social discourse has been reduced to short, pithy, meme-laden shorthand for complex stories and emotions. It is easy and quick, but mostly empty calories. Our students swim in this muck every day, and our goal in teaching often is to help them slow down and read deeply. It is increasingly a challenge, and even more so if we are not doing it ourselves - we may not be setting a good example. It has sucked us all into the vortex at times - go ahead, you can admit it (I am) - and wasted countless precious moments of our lives on relative trivialities.

Newsletters originated as marketing tools. If you had a product, you obviously want to sell that product to people. But even better is when you can build and maintain a relationship with your customers, because the best source of new customers is old customers, particularly when you have built trust with them. Newsletters helped with that - a lot - and still does. A lot. It seems like once a year I have to go on an unsubscribe binge to get away from the product-related email newsletters that clog my personal email box. This is particularly true after some online holiday shopping has - voluntarily or involuntarily - caused my subscriptions to double. Early January is a good time to do this unsubscribing, I have found. The marketing newsletter can contain things we want to know, but they are ultimately marketing tools, and thus not very interesting.

But newsletters are increasingly being used in a really interesting way - for long form writing. Yes, this is not new - I have subscribed to a writer who writes about writing for at least four years, maybe longer. He is a former editor at a large publishing house, and brings that editing perspective to the creative process of writing. Once per week, in a thought provoking way. I enjoy it, and it makes me think.

About a year ago, I started hearing about a new-ish platform for people who want to write and publish newsletters, called Substack. There are several such platforms, such as TinyLetter, Ghost, and Mailchimp. They all have different cost structures, but Substack does two things right: 1) the tools to support your writing and management of the newsletter are well designed, and 2) it is free unless you want to charge for your newsletter, and then they take 10% of whatever you decide to charge. Simple, clear. Easy to use.

The founders of Substack are transparent about what they are trying to do:

Breaking off the engagement
For nearly two decades, social media giants have showered us with content while accepting nothing in return – other than our engagement. Now, with the normalization of online vitriol, the skyrocketing rates of mental distress linked to social media, and the surrender of intimate information to unaccountable cor…
Read more

In short, they are trying to save the Internet. To wean us away from the advertising and algorithm driven models of social media, and encourage us to move towards reader supported (i.e. paid for by each reader) long - or at least longer - form writing. The idea is you subscribe to those writers who you trust, and who are writing about things you are interested in, or want to know more about. Over time (or sometimes right away) you pay for it, and thus support this sort of more considered, thoughtful, nuanced, writing than social media has ever given us (or likely ever will, since they are so invested in the damaging model they created).

As you know, I am a big believer in learning by doing, so I started 2021 with a goal of learning about newsletters by creating my own and committing to write a weekly newsletter for one year. I am now on week 45, and - having taken a few weeks off in July - have written 41 newsletters, all of them delivered reliably on Saturday morning. I have discovered a few things in this process. First, as many writers say, it helps to formulate and refine one’s thinking about a topic by trying to write it down on a disciplined schedule. Often when I finish one of these missives - despite the uncomfortable press of the weekly deadline - I am grateful that the process has helped me articulate my thinking on the subject (whatever it was), and feel like I understand it better. Second, I hope that is true of you too - my readers. That is, when I hear back from readers that something I have written has helped them understand a topic better, that is the best feeling. (So, smash that like button - if you do!) Third, the weekly discipline has helped me produce over 35,000 words. Most people who call themselves writers struggle to find time to write, and for me sometimes months can go by without much to show for it. The weekly discipline has helped with that - at the least it is clear to me that this is much more than I would have produced without the newsletter and the audience it has afforded me. Finally, being part of the newsletter community has introduced me to some writers I would not have known about otherwise, and I have enjoyed reading their work immensely. Over the next several letters to you - in the Letters of Recommendation section below, I will be recommending other newsletters that I have subscribed to, and have been enriched by reading.

You might just want to delete some of those marketing newsletters, and curate a set of newsletters you actually want to read. Just a suggestion.

Where to from here? I am not sure. I have considered making it a paid newsletter in 2022, but making every issue free. That sounds contradictory, but it is not really, and many Substack writers do this. They set it up so someone can pay if they want to, but the newsletter itself is not restricted to paying customers only. And it is only a few dollars a month, so they are not doing it for the money, but rather to support the whole idea that we need to move away from ad-supported free content (and all that has done to us) into a pay-for-what-you-appreciate model. And to let the writer know there are readers who appreciate what they are doing.

On the other hand, I might just meet my goal of doing this for one year, and stop. Or change the focus of the newsletter. Please let me know what you think I should do by leaving a comment below. I would appreciate hearing from you.

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Letters of Recommendation

Over the next few weeks, I will be recommending a few Substack newsletters - other than this one - that you might want to check out. All offer a free tier of content so you can decide for yourself whether to support it or not longer term.

Q of the Week

The Q of the Week this week is a Quote from Robert Friedell’s book Zipper, about the history of the development of the zipper:

Our technologies and artifacts are, in the last analysis, extensions of our selves and our capacities. Therefore, the pursuit of novelty and its successful integration into life are the central means by which we cope with being human.