For years now, I’ve been thinking about using newsletters better. Or simply, using newsletters. Until recently all I had was a pretty dead newsletter on MailChimp — and the ability for my readers to subscribe to CTTS blog posts and a weekly dump of all the links I save to Delicious.
MailChimp is a powerful tool, probably overkill for me, and I never really managed to ease myself into its process. Sending out an e-mail is dead simple, but sending out my newsletter felt like more work than cranking out a blog post.
Two tools caught my eye over the last year: Revue and TinyLetter (acquired by MailChimp, what a coincidence!)
Revue is designed to help you send out curated lists of links. TinyLetter is a barebones newsletter tool, just what I need.
I’ve been trying to analyse my recent excitement for newsletters over the past days. Like others, I’ve been grieving what I think of as the golden age of blogging. I stumbled upon Tiny Letters to the Web We Miss, which I think hits the nail on the head:
Self-publishing online was fluid and inviting in the early years because the community was self-selecting — the sort of people who would know what Blogspot was in 2003. I didn’t worry about my boss finding my blog. I didn’t worry about getting rape threats in the comments either. (Just thinking about how absurd that sentence would have sounded in 2003 is giving me a crater-sized hit of nostalgia.) We didn’t have the same worries over public personas, because the internet felt like it was just us.
Blogging before social media was like drinking with friends. If someone adjacent to your conversation said something interesting, you would pull up a chair and invite them in. Sometimes a friendly stranger would even buy you a drink.
Everybody is here now, it’s not “just us” anymore.
This reminds me of In Praise of Online Obscurity by Clive Thompson, which I wrote about in 2010. At some point of growth, your “community” dissolves into an “audience” (on Twitter, on blogs) or a “network” (on Facebook). Engagement drops. People retreat.
Once a group reaches a certain size, each participant starts to feel anonymous again, and the person they’re following — who once seemed proximal, like a friend — now seems larger than life and remote. “They feel they can’t possibly be the person who’s going to make the useful contribution,” Evans says. So the conversation stops. Evans isn’t alone. I’ve heard this story again and again from those who’ve risen into the lower ranks of microfame. At a few hundred or a few thousand followers, they’re having fun — but any bigger and it falls apart. Social media stops being social. It’s no longer a bantering process of thinking and living out loud. It becomes old-fashioned broadcasting.
This dynamic is behind the somewhat counter-intuitive fact that more followers on Twitter does not mean more influence, and that getting a boost in followers through presence on a list doesn’t mean more retweets or replies.
Already at the time of my 2010 article, this was how I analysed what had happened to blogging:
I think that this is one of the things that has happened to the blogging world (another topic I have simmering for one of these days). Eight-ten years ago, the community was smaller. Having a thousand or so readers a day already meant that you were a big fish. Now, being a big fish means that you’re TechCrunch or ReadWriteWeb, publications that for some reason people still insist on calling “blogs”, and we “normal bloggers” do not recognize ourselves anymore in these mega-publications. The “big fish” issue here is not so much that formerly-big-fish bloggers have had the spotlight stolen from them and they resent it (which can also be true, by the way), but more that the ecosystem has completely changed.
The “blog-reading community” has grown hugely in numbers. Ten years ago, one thousand people reading a blog felt special because they were out-of-the-mainstream, they could connect with the author of what they read, and maybe they also had their own little blog somewhere. Nowadays, one thousand people reading a blog are just one thousand people doing the mainstream thing online people do: reading blogs and the like. The sense of specialness has left the blogosphere.
So there you have it. We “lost” something when the internet went from “just us” to “everyone”: part of our sense of community. People reading my blog don’t feel special anymore. I don’t even feel that special anymore for writing it. Blogs aren’t special. Numbers have declined, and I’m sure it’s not just due to the fact I’m slipping into old-fartdom and neglecting my beloved blog to romp in the bushes with Facebook.
The place where we go to connect online is Facebook, or Twitter, or Google Plus. We spend our time in real-time, and head out to read this or that when a link nudges us. We might be part of communities inside Facebook groups, or small delimited spaces, but overall we are spending our time just hooked into our network.
When I was directing the SAWI Social Media and Online Communities course, I read this article by Rich Millington about the distinction between communities and followings. I formalised a three-way distinction for my classes in the following way.
Audiences: around non-social products, bloggers, authors, politicians, salespeople, “fame”
- attracted by you
- interact with you
- not interlinked
- large scale
Networks: to filter information, connect people, search
- individual relationships
- each node is its own centre
Communities: “a group of people who care about each other more than they should” (Cluetrain)
- common object of interest
- interactions inside the group
- investment of time, emotion, ego
- around social objects and niche services
A few years later (and even as I was using it to teach), it’s clear this typology is a bit wobbly, and many spaces are hybrids. But it remains a useful thinking tool.
When I discovered Twitter, I was spending most of my online time on IRC. I remember that one of my first strong feelings about Twitter was that it felt a bit like an IRC channel which had all the people I cared about and only them in it. (I spent my first few days/weeks on Twitter frantically recruiting.) They didn’t all know each other, and didn’t realise they were rubbing shoulders in “my” room, but for me, it was really as if I had managed to invite everybody to my birthday party.
That’s the network.
Facebook entered my world, and the same thing happened. Life online became more and more about the network. And as the network grew (and grew and grew), all our time and attention poured into it. It’s great to have a place which is populated nearly only by people you know and care about. Facebook does that for you.
Who wants to hang out in blog comments when there is Facebook and Twitter?
As you can see, I’m thinking out loud in this rambly, slightly contradictory blog post. If you can synthesise all this better, definitely have a go at it (in the comments or on your blog — link back!) I can’t quite wrap my head around all this, I feel like I’m still missing a piece.
Back to newsletters.
What newsletters definitely have chance of bringing back is this feeling of small scale. When I write a blog post, like this one, I’m not writing it for a dedicated group of readers anymore. I know you’re still out there, of course, all three of you who actually follow my blog ;-), but I’m also very much aware that I am writing for a whole pile of strangers who will stumble her after a google search. I am writing for everyone.
Email can be very personal. It goes from private space to private space (the inbox). It definitely feels more personal to write than a blog post. But it’s funny, in a way, because this post is going to reach some of you by email, and newsletters are often archived publicly on the web. There shouldn’t be a difference, right?
But there is, because the medium or tool you use really changes the way you express yourself and connect. “Email first” or “web first” does not produce the same writing.
So let’s see what happens with this newsletter experiment, OK? Take your pick and subscribe to:
And seriously, I’m really looking forward to your comments on all the stuff I’ve talked about here.