why newsletters will save humanity

This article first appeared in modified form in the Maven Game newsletter. Sign up here.


You ever get one of those spam calls for credit card consolidation where the recorded voice says “Hello…” followed by a long pause so, just for a moment, you think it might be a real person?

Similarly, newsletters incorporate some elements of personal letters like using the recipient’s first name with a merge field. But then they frame the message as though it’s been written to a mass audience as opposed to a single person. And of course they never really ask you how you’re doing.

A skeuomorph is a holdover, a design element that was necessary in a previous version of a thing that remains in future versions as a decorative element, generally to stir a sense of familiarity.

This has long been common in architecture—the Greeks unnecessarily incorporated certain features of wooden structures into newer stone ones even though they didn’t, strictly speaking, do anything. We still do it with modern buildings.

More recently, Apple under Jobs was famous for digital skeuomorphism: wooden shelves in your iBooks collection, the leather texture in your iCal calendar, volume control knobs in GarageBand.

Newsletters still feel skeuomorphy in that tension between one-to-one letter and magazine column. Are we writing to a person or a group? Do we “automatically personalize” or just publish an essay via email regardless of who gets it?

As the medium evolves, we will find new norms and practices specifically suited to this new thing that we call newsletters but are really something new. Newersletters.

You see, I’m bullish on newsletters. I love writing the Maven Game, for one. I also love reading other people’s newsletters. (Do you write one? Let me know about it.)

Previously, I’d coined the acronym AD HOC for Algorithm-Defiant Human-Only Curation. I saw this concept as a needed counterbalance to the way social media steers our attention and shapes our narrative based on algorithms the cumulative effect of which no one really understands.

At the time I thought there was something in the idea for book publishers, but only this morning did it strike me that newsletters represent perfect AD HOC:

  • You, the reader, decide which newsletters to read and, more often than not, the decision to subscribe to one is based on word of mouth.
  • You receive each newsletter when it’s sent, whether or not some algorithm thinks it’s worthy of your attention (aside from spam filters, and false positives aren’t a huge problem nowadays).
  • You can forward or save the newsletter locally—it isn’t trapped in some ephemeral online landscape. And you can read it with plain old e-mail software, without worrying about whether some API change is going to lock your favorite reader app out of some closed system.
  • You can unsubscribe at any time and never, ever see that newsletter again. (Don’t get any ideas!)

When you compare newsletters to pretty much everything else you read online nowadays, isn’t the whole thing just beautiful? The newsletter-er is completely free to decide what to share with you. No algorithms, nothing tailored to your interests or adjusted so as not to disturb your delicate little political/religious/cultural/economic belief-bubble.

Also no publisher or editor or sales department or any other vested interest.

Newsletters, fundamentally, are personal. Even though they completely aren’t, [FIRST NAME]. (By the way, how’s [SPOUSE FIRST NAME]? What about [CHILD FIRST NAME 1, fallback: PET NAME]?)

Some newsletters to try

10 things for writers this week by Chantel Hamilton

Electric speed by Jane Friedman

Hack Education Weekly Newsletter (HEWN) by Audrey Watters

Orbital Operations by Warren Ellis

E-180 Fortnightly Links

Your newsletter needs a name, call me Jocelyn by Jocelyn Glei

Metafoundry by Deb Chachra

The Maven Game by David Moldawer (wink)

No point trying to summarize these. If you want to dive into AD HOC, go sign up and see what you get. You read this and I find them interesting, so maybe you’ll find them interesting. The transitive property of curiosity.

These are all idiosyncratic and scattered, sometimes boring, often fascinating. In the end, reading newsletters like these always beat what I find skimming Facebook and Twitter.