cavi panels. rocks. smoke signals. the carrier pigeon. telegrams. Pony Express. airmail. blogging. Myspace. Human communication patterns come and go, each being replaced by new technology and a faster delivery method. But somehow, the humble flyer survived. In an age of countless ways to reach and bomb someone, newsletters didn’t just last; It’s more famous than ever (and not just because some artisanal relics have been kept alive by the same people who kept buying vinyl LPs). More and more writers – including, ahem, some excellent writers here at The Atlantic – are vying to seduce us with the perfect subject line and the finest salutations. When it comes to the latter, we all chase the best opening ever, the one that Shakespeare gave to Marc Anthony: Friends, Romans, Citizens…
The Romans brought the newsletter into being. Later, in the Middle Ages, newsletters became popular forms of communication between extended families, merchants, and those looking to share information in a format that eventually led to what we know (know?) as a newspaper. After reviewing the history of this medium, which I frequently practice, I am now convinced that when Caesar said “Et tu, Brute?” He was actually asking Brutus if he wanted to sign up.
Cut to 2020, when 14 million customers of a single email platform called Mailchimp sent 333,635,013,035 newsletters, among other things, which generated more than $64 billion in revenue.
Too long story short: Rome fell. The newsletter has not.
How did the plain and simple newsletter transcend empires and technological transformation, and not only showcased the potential for tardigrades to survive, but somehow become the cool new thing without much innovation at all?
The normally digestible length, along with the simple, minimal format — one easy-to-share page and content written on papyrus or embossed on a typewriter or on an iPhone — helps explain its longevity. But the solid-fuel drive that pushed the newsletter format to the edge of the atmosphere in the decades since a 14.4K modem first connected to the Web, and propelled it into the stratosphere in 2021, is the newsletter’s inseparability from the old-internet standards delivery mechanism: email .
Rumors of email’s demise have been circulating for half a century, ever since Ray Tomlinson sent the first email in 1971. Five minutes later, someone promised that the new communication system would eliminate email forever. How did that go? Check your inbox. The email doesn’t go anywhere, nor does it need anyone to “save it”. Attempting to do so would be a mouth-to-mouth resuscitation for elite, healthy athletes. It may be fun, but it’s not necessary.
Aside from having a future intelligently connected to email, newsletters benefit from being personal. The newsletter comes from one person (or at least many feel like it), and it lands in your inbox with messages from your colleagues, friends, and your mom. Good newsletters have a reply address, too. Want to reply? hit reply. And when you do that, the conversation becomes face-to-face, not a one-on-one game made for retweet fans.
Newsletters are patient. I send you something, and you can read it when you want and reply (or not) when you want to. You can absorb and consider the contents of a newsletter without the rest of the internet chime in, telling you what to think as you post tweets, replies, posts, comments, photos, videos, news and memes at a pace that crushes human capacity for attention. (The second you catch up, you’re already late.) Newsletters are always right where you left them. Sure, people complain about having too many emails. But compared to everything else online, your inbox is the Walden Pond of the Internet.
meI spent Addicted to the flood of incoming news. In my new book, Please Scream Inside Your Heart: Breaking News and Nervous Breakdowns in a Year That Will Never End, chronicling how my relationship — and that of everyone else — with the media turned out in 2020, when the deluge became a tsunami. The increase was ruining my brain, but I couldn’t get rid of the addiction. At some point during the five-day period between the 2020 election and the 2020 election results, I found myself in a fetal position on the floor of a man’s cave, moaning in tears. The newsletter has never done that to me. But the news feed.
And this — a news briefing epidemic — brings us to the best of news releases: it gives you a home court advantage. Thanks in part to humanity’s success in combating the scourge of spam, the inbox is one of the few places you can actually control your information feed. If you want a newsletter, subscribe. If you do not want a newsletter, unsubscribe. Mark Zuckerberg can’t decide what’s more likely to appear in your email flow. The Russians don’t set up a disinformation campaign in your inbox. It’s your inbox and your own anti-social network. You are the algorithm. This is the main reason why the quiet and humble newsletter is getting noisy in the rest of the internet. Which is why, during the pandemic, the Black Lives Matter protests, the presidential election, the Big Lie, and the rebellion, when we have been crushed by an unprecedented onslaught of information, newsletters felt like a welcome respite from the hype and suddenly the biggest new (but far from recent) thing in the media. .
Paid subscriptions are the hottest trend in the newsletter game today, powered by Substack. The company delivered a simple offering — a single tool that allows creators to create, send and charge for newsletter content — at the perfect moment. The Trump years created a unique obsession with the media and raised the profile of countless journalists. Many of these journalists have taken their stand and left established publications to go straight to the consumer with their writing. What we’re seeing is a revolution in independent news delivery. 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 connecting with people the way they like. Even with tens of millions of dollars in funding and countless counterfeit companies popping up in the space, Substack’s core technology is essentially the same as the Romans (give or take some Wi-Fi bars).
Two thousand years later, have we finally reached the height of the newsletter? If we had it, the world’s biggest tech companies just made some pretty bad bets. Intuit recently acquired Mailchimp for $12 billion, the largest ever paid to a bootstrap tech company. In its latest funding round, Substack raised another $65 million. Twitter got a Newsletter company called Revue which are incorporated into the main articles of association of the company. Google is testing a new newsletter service called Museletter. At his recent event announcing that Facebook had changed its name to Meta, Mark Zuckerberg focused on his version of the metaverse, where your avatar interacts with everyone else in a virtual world. What he didn’t mention was Bulletin, the Substack clone he just launched.
Newsletters aren’t the only thing technology has survived. As well as sarcasm. And this leads us to the paradox that all of these big internet companies are launching newsletters, throwing us a life jacket to keep us from sinking into the ruthless cesspool they’ve created. They spread the disease, and now they are trying to sell the cure. But newsletters will not be easily integrated into the world of social media, in large part because they are so technologically simple, and because, time and time again, they are the style of information consumers choose: some words are delivered to a quiet place to read. Newsletters outlived the Roman Empire. They just have outlived these corporate internet empires as well.