Saturday 20th June 2020

Email newsletters, technology and fiction

I’m quietly fascinated by the rebirth of email newsletters.

There was a time, not that long ago, when it felt like we were at war with email. Every email was a shot across the bow. Each one an extra drain on our time. “If someone took the time to type me a 20-paragraph Email, I always felt I had to respond in kind.” Merlin Mann wrote on 43 Folders, “It’s like that horrible feeling at the holiday gift exchange when you realize that the present you brought cost a tenth of what your colleague spent.” Email was an escalating war of attrition.

I don’t know if that’s changed. Certainly, I don’t welcome new messages into my work inbox anymore than I used to. Each is a new, unasked for and unexpected obligation. But maybe we’re better at emails now than we were when Mann wrote that in 2006. Or perhaps we’ve just go used to it; a sort of e-Stockholm Syndrome. Could it also be that we treat emails as optional now? Our inboxes are a river of content that we dip into and out of whenever we feel like it, rather than reading every individual message.

This may explain the rise of Substack, the email newsletter platform I’m seeing more and more and through which you are receiving this email. Perhaps it’s the sites I read, but many finish with a call to action to sign up for their substack. Weirdly, I’ve found myself signing up. I’m actually opting in to more emails. Paul Ford’s Substack, for example, has a feeling of not quite believing email newsletters are still a thing. Even the title of his newsletter is “i absolutely am going to bail on this in a month”. True to his word, after a brief period of hectic posting, he bailed on day 25. But it was fun while it lasted. A weird, slightly unstructured overwritten entertaining mess. I’m reminded of something Elisa Gabbert tweeted this week: “I sometimes think it's easier to have a unique voice if your writing is a little bad.” Maybe email newsletters make it easier to be a little bad.

For those who haven’t used Substack, the best way I can describe it is as Medium for emails. It’s very much a modern web app. One of those nicely designed things with pleasing colours and a custom font. It’s responsive and works on mobile. That sort of thing. I feel sorry for Mailchimp: no longer the hot new thing in email newsletters.

Most astounding to me is Substack’s key feature: paid email newsletters. These start at £3.50 a month. It feels crazy enough to me that people sign up for email newsletters at scale, let alone that they’d pay to do so. I guess paid newsletters will become another side hustle to add to our lists. Somewhere between Uber and Fiver.

I’m not sure I know what to do with a newsletter. It has become a weekly summary of things I’ve written, thought and read. Hopefully it is only a little bad. On the internet, my OneZero column (which has an editor to prevent it being too bad) is usually published every Friday, but yesterday OneZero was closed in observation of Juneteenth and did not publish any content so there is nothing new from me this week. But you can read old articles on Medium and previous copies of this newsletter on SubStack.


Elsewhere

I find the fiction in the New Yorker a little hit and miss. All to often it just seems to be twelve pages about a middle class family who find a raccoon in their swimming pool and then watch the sunrise from the top of a nearby hill.

But this week I came across a couple of stories that I really enjoyed. First Omakase by Weike Wang, author of Chemistry, which is in the running to be my favourite book that I’ve read this year.

I’m guessing you got tired of that, the man said. Dealing with all those rich folks.

No.

It was probably the stress. I bet a place like that made you work terrible hours. All those private parties. People who have nothing better to do with their money.

No.

And not being able to make whatever you wanted. What the customer wants the customer gets. A place that exclusive, you probably got some strange requests.

Yes, but that’s not the reason. I was fired.


Second, The Metal Bowl by Miranda July. Miranda July is always fun, often whacky and this story is no exception. Funny but sensitive at the same time, which is a tough tonal balance to pull off.

I needed quick money so I could get out of a bad relationship—not a lot, just first and last and a security deposit. I couldn’t admit my plight to my parents, because I had already done this and they had written me a check, with great relief, and that was what my quasi-abusive boyfriend and I had been living off for the past six months. He had come up with the ploy.

“Make it sound bad but not too bad. Don’t say I hit you. Say I threw a chair at you or something.”

“You did throw a chair at me.”

“Obviously I wasn’t fully serious when I did that.”


Finally a nice piece in Real Life by Elisa Gabbert, Hoarding Instincts:

Since early March, when a number of basic household necessities — along with small luxuries I’m accustomed to, which seem suddenly necessary — have become difficult to obtain or outright unavailable, I’m feeling the tug of a hoarding instinct. I don’t want the luxuries that feel normal to change. I don’t want what feels normal to change any faster than it already is, especially at home, where I’m safe as long as I never leave.


That’s another lock-down week complete. I hope you all have a happy weekend. Until next time:

Sincerely,

Simon