Every week I grab a coffee and read my gazette about dust.
Yes, dust. I subscribe to Disturbances, a weekly email newsletter in which a British cultural geographer named Jay Owens writes about the science, history, and culture of dust. Owens discusses the gritty dirt that blankets Californian ghost towns, links to NASA’s online collection of cosmic dust, and ruminates on the 30-µm/sec. floating velocity of particles in a room. It’s quirky, erudite, and totally spellbinding.
Owens started Disturbances to recapture some of the intellectual jolt she got from her academic work a decade ago. These days, personal blogs have gotten rarer, as everyday conversation has shifted to shorter-form social media. But Owens wanted a place to muse at length on her obsession. “A newsletter is a place to work through stuff, to use as an extended notebook,” Owens says, “and that’s what blogging used to be.”
Newsletters are, improbably, in vogue. As a form, they’re ancient in Internet years—email lists date back to the Arpanet. But six years ago, Phil Kaplan launched TinyLetter, a simple tool for running a newsletter, and a renaissance began. TinyLetter (now owned by mailing-list giant MailChimp) has 191,787 users and adds about 2,000 every month.
Which is to say, this isn’t a new digital gold mine poised to monetize all our eyeballs. Sure, there are some professional-class newsletters. Ben Thompson’s Stratechery costs $100 a year. Lena Dunham’s Lenny Letter has 400,000 subscribers; theSkimm, a news summarizer, has over 1.5 million. But from what I’ve seen, more newsletters are in the long tail—publishing for audiences from the single-digit thousands to the dozens. They’re engineered not for virality but originality: It’s a chance to listen in while someone thinks out loud.
“Email is very intimate,” says Sophie Brookover, who writes—with fellow librarian Margaret Willison— the Two Bossy Dames newsletter, a crackling weekly meditation on pop culture. After blogs, Twitter, Medium, and Facebook, the inbox has become the new site of readerly seriousness: How weird is that?
But it makes sense. Given how much spam and cc’d dreck we get, people fiercely guard the sanctity of their email. They don’t opt to receive more unless they mean to read it. The authors I interviewed typically enjoyed an “open” rate of up to 70 percent, much higher than the average for corporate newsletters, a scant 20 percent. Millennials may not use email for social contact, but they certainly use it, and newsletters aimed at that demographic—Finimize for financial news, Clover for young women—have grown rapidly.
Being opt-in has another benefit: It allows newsletters to stay weird. Social media publishing increasingly relies on clickbaity headlines. Every utterance has been ruthlessly A/B tested for shareability. But newsletter writers already have your attention, so they’re free to be literary and inventive—using allusive subject lines “that nobody would click on were it on Facebook,” as marketing consultant and writer Simon Owens says. “They’re throwing every rule out the window.” Inside, they’re just as eclectic: a mashup of links, ruminations, pictures, and GIFs more like the zines of the 1980s, as Owens puts it.
It’s also a change in tempo. Newsletters mark a turn in our online communications away from the hummingbird metabolism of status updates and toward something more contemplative. The pleasure in reading a newsletter comes from the view into a unitary mind at work—like my single favorite newsletter, Metafoundry, by my friend Debbie Chachra, a materials scientist. Reading it is like being plugged Oculus-style into her brain while she meditates on science and culture. The best newsletters are all like that: places online where one can talk—and listen—in private.