VSwith paintings. Petroglyphs. Smoke signals. Carrier pigeons. Telegraphs. The express pony. Airmail. Blogs. My space. Human modes of communication come and go, each replaced by new technology and a faster delivery method. But somehow, the humble newsletter survives. In an age with countless ways to reach and bombard someone, newsletters didn’t just last; they’re more popular than ever (and not just as a handcrafted relic kept alive by the same people who keep buying vinyls). More and more writers – including, ahem, excellent ones here at The Atlantic – are vying to woo us with the perfect subject line and the most sublime greeting. When it comes to the latter, we are all chasing the best opening ever, the one Shakespeare gave to Marc Antoine: Friends, Romans, compatriotsâ¦
The Romans created the newsletter. Later in the Middle Ages, newsletters became common forms of communication among extended families, traders, and those seeking to share information in a format that ultimately led to what we know (knew?) like the newspaper. After reviewing the history of this medium, of which I am an assiduous practitioner, I am now convinced that when Caesar said âAnd you, Brute? he was actually asking Brutus if he wanted to subscribe.
Cut to 2020, when the 14 million customers of a single messaging platform called Mailchimp sent out 333,635,013,035 newsletters which, among other things, generated more than $ 64 billion in revenue.
In short: Rome has fallen. The bulletin did not.
How the simple, unassuming newsletter survived empires and technological transformation, not only flaunting the tardigrade’s survivability, but also sort of becoming the cool new thing without too much reinvention at all. ?
The generally digestible length, paired with the simple, minimalistic format – a single page of easily shareable content written on papyrus, pecked on a typewriter, or puffed up on an iPhone – helps explain longevity. But the solid fuel booster that has propelled the newsletter format to the far reaches of the atmosphere for decades since your 14.4K modem first connected to the web, and which has pushed it into the stratosphere in 2021, is the inseparability of the newsletter from its former delivery mechanism compliant with Internet standards: e-mail.
Rumors of the disappearance of email have been circulating for half a century, since the first email was sent by Ray Tomlinson in 1971. Five minutes later, someone promised that their new communications platform would kill the mail electronic forever. How did that happen ? Check your inbox. The email is not going anywhere and does not need anyone to “register” it. To attempt to do so would be like giving mouth to mouth to a perfectly healthy elite athlete. It might be fun, but it doesn’t have to be.
In addition to having a smartly connected future to email, newsletters have the advantage of being personal. A newsletter comes from one person (or at least many think they do), and it ends up in your inbox along with messages from your coworkers, your friends, your mom. Good newsletters also have a reply address. Do you want to answer? Press answer. And when you do, the conversation becomes one on one, not a one-on-one game executed for the retweeting masses.
Newsletters are patient. I’m sending you something, and you can read it when you want and reply (or not) when you want. You can absorb and review newsletter content without the rest of the internet interfering, telling you what to think while throwing up tweets, replies, posts, comments, photos, videos, news and memes at a rate that pulverizes the human attention span. (The second you catch up, you’re already late.) Newsletters are always where you left off. Of course, people are complaining about having too many emails. But compared to everything else online, your inbox is the Walden Pond of the Internet.
Ispent my a whole adult life addicted to the deluge of incoming information. In my new book, Please cry out in your heart: breaking news and nervous breakdowns of the year that would not end, I tell how my relationship – and everyone’s – with the media degenerated in 2020, when the flood turned into a tsunami. The push was damaging my brain, but I couldn’t stop the addiction. At one point in the five-day period between the 2020 election and the 2020 election results, I found myself in a fetal position on the floor of my man cave, moaning through my tears. A newsletter has never done that to me. But news feeds have.
And that, the bane of news feeds, brings us to the best of newsletters: they give you an edge in the field. Thanks in part to mankind’s success against the scourge of spam, the inbox is one of the few places where you actually have control over the flow of information. If you want a newsletter, subscribe. If you do not wish to receive a newsletter, unsubscribe. Mark Zuckerberg doesn’t decide what is most likely to appear in your email flow. The Russians are not setting up a disinformation campaign in your inbox. It’s your inbox and your own private anti-social network. You are the algorithm. This is the main reason why the noisier the rest of the internet becomes, the more popular the silent and humble newsletter becomes. And that’s why, during the pandemic, the Black Lives Matter protests, the presidential election, the Big Lie and the insurgency, as we were pulverized by an unprecedented wave of information, the newsletters seemed like a respite. welcome noise and were suddenly the biggest novelty (but far from the most recent) in the media.
Paid subscriptions are the hottest trend in today’s newsletter game powered by Substack. The company came up with a simple proposition: a tool for creators to create, send, and bill for newsletter content at the perfect time. The Trump years created a unique obsession with the media and raised the profile of countless journalists. Many of these journalists took their high profile and left established publications to speak directly to consumers with their writing. We are witnessing an independent revolution in information dissemination. What we don’t see is a technological revolution. This movement is not about hiring 10,000 engineers to build a new version of human interaction. It’s about communicating with people in a way that they like to communicate. Even with tens of millions of funding and countless copy companies emerging in the space, the core technology of Substack is basically the same as that used by the Romans (just a few Wi-Fi bars).
After a few thousand years, have we finally reached the top of the newsletter? If so, the world’s biggest tech companies just made some really bad bets. Intuit recently acquired Mailchimp for $ 12 billion, the highest amount ever paid for a seeded tech company. In its last round of funding, Substack raised an additional $ 65 million. Twitter has acquired a newsletter company called Revue which is being integrated into the main platform of the company. Google is testing a new newsletter service called Museletter. In his recent event announcing that Facebook changed its name to Meta, Mark Zuckerberg focused on his version of a metaverse, where your avatar interacts with everyone in a virtual world. What he didn’t mention was Bulletin, the Substack clone he had just launched.
Newsletters aren’t the only thing that has survived technology. Irony too. And that brings us to the paradox that all of these big internet companies are throwing out newsletters, throwing a life jacket at us to keep us from drowning in the acrimonious cesspool they’ve created. They spread the disease, and now they’re trying to sell the cure. But newsletters won’t be so easily integrated into the world of social media, in large part because they are so technologically simple, and because they are endlessly the mode of information that consumers choose: some words delivered in a quiet place to read them. The ballots survived the Roman Empire. They could also survive these corporate internet empires.