Hey! Thanks for reading! Just a reminder that I wrote this some years ago, and may have much more complicated feelings about this topic than I did when I wrote it. Happy to elaborate, feel free to reach out to me! 😄
🎵 The song for this post is Short Skirt Long Jacket, by Cake. 🎵
My word, mailing list software! We have a lot of it! Off the top of my head, I can name:
- Substack (Daniel Lavery, Welcome to Hell World)
- Buttondown (Hillel Wayne's Computer Things)
- TinyLetter (fewer these days, but Data is Plural)
- TIL… Revue?! (T.C. Sottek's Homescreen)
How about you WRITE BLOGS, PEOPLE?!
Okay lol, there are good reasons to not write blogs. This is… more trouble than I think most people are willing to put into it. There's a lot to unpack: why newsletters are a thing again for the authors, why they're a thing for the reader, and why they're getting bigger now. I think they fulfill a lot of what's great about blogs and social media while avoiding some of the major disadvantages of either.
Let's do a bit of an Internet publishing recap: first, there were blogs, which was a great way to get one's message out without a middleman. Blogs eventually became saturated, spammy, and institutionalized in their own ways, but the ecosystem worked well enough for the predominant Internet audience at the time.
Then four things happened from about 2007-2012:
- Social media sites entered the scene (mostly Facebook). The "personal feed" from an aggregator would come from this.
- Cell phones became smartphones. "Browsing the web," would phase out as an activity. Before, virtually everyone on the internet was required to be sitting down in front of a computer, paying attention, and knowing how to use a web browser. People still did this (and do!), but it stopped being the main way to use the web.
- Giant swaths of the general population entered the Internet population. This meant that the Internet wasn't mostly tech-literate, word-loving nerds.
- Internet speeds went through the roof, even on wireless connections. This meant the Internet could finally handle things like video.
With this, it got harder to be a blog, and we had the era of feeds. From a publisher/subscriber standpoint, this changed a lot of dynamics; one of my favorite explainers is this favorite is this old Veritasium video:
tl;dr you have to pay Facebook to reach the people who have explicitly asked to receive your content. And, worse, it won't even do it that well. Also, piracy: people posting videos from one platform and re-posting it to the other let other people profit off your work. Creators… hate this.
But readers? A lot say they hate it, but it is really hard to move people away from feeds. Attention is finite, and it's nice to have a curated list of things to look at that is reasonably good at being interesting. While the ads suck, and you may miss some updates you would have liked to see, I strongly believe they prefer this over having to hunt or manage content themselves. You'd know this if you've ever watched most Internet users manage an RSS reader: they panic at unread counts, realize a lot of what most people post is boring, and have no way to feel communal engagement with the content (they leave comments for authors, or share with friends to put on their feeds).
So to go back to mailing lists, creators like them because:
You can cut the middleman, much like the early blogging days. Before it was editors of Traditional Institutions, now it's the organizations that have SEO or the tech giants who regulate traffic.
You don't have to host or maintain a site. This is pretty big: hosting bill (that goes up linearly with your traffic!), security alerts for WordPress installs, antispam on comments, playing the SEO game. All to make a site that, again, nobody's going to visit.
Better understanding of audience: compared to blogs, you don't have to look at analytics numbers, deal with spammers, worry about users with adblock. You can see how big your subscriber list is and (barring some percentage of them who aren't real) you know its going to a number of mailboxes. I'm sure many of these services offer tracking pixels, too.
Longer-form content. This one is weird, but you can read any of the entries in the examples above and ask how you could do that on a platform like Facebook or Twitter. Blogs could do it, but again, they suck.
Readers like them, too:
Hear directly from the person you signed up for, Facebook or Twitter won't block it.
The "feed" is directly in one that you already have in your day-to-day life (email) and that you can manage the anxiety about (unread counts, no guilt when skipping). Now, as a bonus, you get additional features, like search for old entries in your inbox, or reply directly to the author without having to make an account on the site.
I think they're fun, and subscribe to a few. I've thought of building my own (I
mcfeely.app, after Mr. McFeely from Mister Roger's Neighborhood) and
might still. Email is the cockroach of internet freedom: while Google will
probably make plays to centralize over time, it's one of the few surviving,
successful protocols left. We don't build API's or protocols like we used to
(the Internet getting Clear Channel-ed), so let's bunker down in the one we've
got. It's another reason I like the SourceHut focus on email over pull requests.
Mike Isaac on "the new social network that isn't new at all."
Substack receiving $15.3m in funding. I was initially baffled by this, but now think it's one of two things:
Being well-branded and well-connected means you can convince a rich person that newsletters will be worth that level of investment in the short-term (lol. I mean, look at Medium).
A lot of VC is really just a form of patronage. Someone once said that the young under-50's don't perform the typical noblesse oblige of giving to opera houses or art galleries; they invest in their friend's ventures. Might be what's happening here: someone at a16z reads and enjoys a Substack newsletter or two.
Thanks for the read! Disagreed? Violent agreement!? Feel free to drop me a line at , or leave a comment below! I'd love to hear from you 😄