A Guide To Our Golden Age Of Internet Newsletters
by Aleksander Chan
Something has happened to my inbox. My weekly Goop, from the desk of the ever-radiant Gwyneth Paltrow, has taken on a newfound novelty. It feels special again.
Like many, I initially subscribed to the newsletter “ironically,” as in, “This is fun to laugh at myself laughing at how out-of-touch this celebrity is!” Sometimes I scroll through, most times I don’t. But the other week, she sent out a back-to-school shopping guide. I read (viewed?) it on my phone waiting in line at the grocery store. I thought the tape dispensers the Goop team thought I should buy the kids that I don’t have were sleek and pretty and certainly looked like something unnecessary I would buy, but I didn’t buy them. Then I deleted the email and that was that.
And what a summer for email! Just as the NSA has made us all surrender our deluded fantasy that our email was ever safe in the first place, Miranda July made it cool again to add your email address to a mailing list with her “We Think Alone” lit project, in which she doxxes semi-celebrity private emails. Email is slowly rediscovering its capacity to be special, even maybe right as it’s about to become nothing more than an app.
Yes, Americans overall spend too much of their lifetime sending, reading, and answering emails. But soon Facebook and Twitter and Instagram and other social media will overtake email for the amount of time we lose to them. Because that’s the whole point.
Social media’s entire conceit is for it to never end, ephemera ad infinitum. Email exists to end; to be cleared, filed away, archived, deleted.
And the email newsletter is the most special of all emails. At their best, they’re a miniature rush: This isn’t something I have to deal with. This is for me — to enjoy, to ignore, to save for later, and then to be completely done with. Even though we curate and polish our social media profile to project the person we want the world to see (or hope they see), those outfits deny us agency. Control is vaporous. With Miranda July’s “We Think Alone,” I have reclaimed a small sense of digital self-ownership, NSA probes notwithstanding. I’ve read one of them. It was great. Kirsten Dunst really is killing it with her tart, blithe diction. But actually I’ve decided to save them all up and enjoy them all at once. Can you do that with tweets? Sure, you can stick them all into a Storify, but you have to read them. You have to know their contents and decode their subtext (and accompanying subtweets).
For all the shit we give email and all the hell it puts us through, more should be said for its passiveness. Because email also functions from a previous draft of the social contract that does not makes demands. When you have 5,000 unread emails, you in fact have options: They can be read, they can be replied to, they can be deleted. When the little red icon on your iPhone’s mail app reads “5,000,” or you have “35” apps that need updated or you have “notifications,” that is a demand to be acknowledged. They demand to be engaged with, contextualized, understood. You can ignore all of it, but it would defeat the purpose of even having any of it.
There’s also something happening right now with Kindle Singles and writing on the Internet of various lengths, shapes, and forms. The Guardian calls them “bookeens,” which is not a thing that will catch on. But I think we can include this new wave of newsletters as part of this wave of undemanding, hand-delivered, user-friendly storytelling. So if you’ve been reading and enjoying “We Think Alone” (or maybe you haven’t subscribed yet and need convincing), consider this passel of email newsletters to pick and choose from. They are sorted by frequency and all serve different purposes. Some of them are newsy. Some of them make you buy things. Some of them are funny — where else but Goop can you get luxury products sandwiched between spiritual advice? Some of them can be sad. Choose your own adventure.
We Think Alone (subscribe)
Read it: Commuting, waiting for something to happen, when you should be doing something else.
Every week has a theme — “an email about money,” “an email that mentions Barack Obama,” “an email you decided not to send” — that July’s Rolodex of famous (kind of) friends sends in fitting the description. It’s like when your friend forgets to log out of their Gmail account on your computer and you accidentally read one of their emails, but if your friends were Lena Dunham, Kirsten Dunst, and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar.
We LOL Together (subscribe)
Read it: On Friday at about 4:30 when you’re just pretending to work.
A riff on July’s project (“an email about someone famous,” “an email where you LOL”) by Lindsey Weber and Bobby Finger that actually feels more perceptive about human emailing behavior than “We Think Alone,” if only because those celebrities don’t seem to understand how email even works. And there’s plenty of actual LOL-ing in “We LOL Together” because of how casual its approach is — people send funny screenshots or single-sentence jokes or links to insane stories.
Ann Friedman (subscribe)
Read it: Saturday morning in your underwear with a cup of coffee or tea or whatever.
Sunday mornings are for the New York Times (and its associated magazines), doing laundry, and maybe brunch if you can stomach another frittata. Saturday mornings are for tracing the treasure map of links and fine reads curated by Hairpin chartmaker (and no pants wearer) Ann Friedman. Without her, I would have never known about this video of RuPaul trying to convince Henry Rollins to believe in love while driving in an old Volvo.
Warning! Ann uses TinyLetter, which has a maximum subscriber size, and they’re now apparently working out how to add more people. So too with The Best of Journalism, Conor Friedersdorf’s list of, you guessed it, which you should subscribe to, if you could, although it is $1.99. UPDATE: yay, this is fixed! JOIN AWAY! These are both great.
Harper’s Weekly Review (subscribe)
Read it: During your first email purge of the day.
Reminiscent of Slate’s late, great Summary Judgment and Today’s Papers columns, a rotating cast of Harper’s staffers streamline the week’s news into flavorful, bite-sized chunks. Each edition contains three paragraphs: whatever seemed to dominate the headlines, a smattering of national headlines, and a roundup of fascinating, often bizarre global stories (“Austrian molecular biologists successfully grew miniature human brains in a laboratory”). The Weekly Review’s best feature though, is how precisely it can pull a news thread along:
A remote-controlled-helicopter enthusiast decapitated himself in Brooklyn, and Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg was revealed to have traveled by helicopter to last year’s Burning Man festival in Nevada in order to serve grilled-cheese sandwiches.
Letters of Note (subscribe)
Read it: To be transported to a time when your correspondence wasn’t littered with emoticons.
Letters of Note is an irregular but kind of weekly “attempt to gather and sort fascinating letters, postcards, telegrams, faxes, and memos,” from Chekhov to E.B. White and other pillars of the white canon.
For reading delight, there’s Longform, Longreads — which has been pioneering subscriber-only things to read, like first looks at unpublished writing — and Byliner used to have a newsletter but hmm. Also there is Daily Lit, which is basically books by email? And Tor does all this for those who love science fiction.
Daily Digg (subscribe)
Read it: When you’re eating lunch at your desk or when you’re desperate for actionable blog content.
Remember Kevin Rose? I certainly don’t. New Digg is great. Their newsletter is a digest of nerdy (“How to Survive Without Water”), tech-y (“The Strange Story of Skype”), and slightly off-kilter news links (“Can Math Predict War?”). It’s best experienced in reverse: when you read it, scroll immediately down to the bottom to see whatever wild wire image they’ve chosen to close out the email and then sort through the handful of links. Best of all: it comes at like 7:30 a.m.
Now I Know (subscribe)
Read it: Whenever you damn please.
This is like the daily featured Wikipedia article but with better fact-checking. Culled from the website of the same name, you get a heaping of random knowledge that you didn’t even know you cared about. Like, did you know about the history of collecting driving data, or why grass smells the way it does when you cut it, or that 18 college football players basically beat themselves to death in 1905? NOW YOU KNOW. (See?)
Muck Rack Daily (subscribe)
Read it: Immediately to see if you’re the day’s “featured journalist.”
Are you a member of The Media? Do you care and/or are interested in the internal gossip of The Industry? Is Mediabistro’s biweekly who’s hired and fired newsletter “Revolving Door” not fast enough for you? Do you crave validation from your peers as rendered in a pretty HTML email format instead of a mass of tweets? This is for you. But it’s also fun! They have daily trivia: Did you know Emily Blunt introduced Stanley Tucci to his wife?
Read it: When you’re bored or the book you’re reading just isn’t working for you.
For the McSweeney’s family diehard, you get all your propaganda, direct marketing, and baity deals on subscriptions. All their new books, when they’re coming, how to buy — cha-ching, you’re done. (It’s also fun to pretend Dave Eggers writes all the promotional copy himself. Can you imagine?) But! There’s also excerpts and teasers from forthcoming issues of McSweeney’s and The Believer, and they’re usually pretty enticing, like Rashida Jones waxing on her childhood home: “And the soundtrack was always on point, because it was mostly my dad’s shit.”
Read it: When you’re about to go on vacation or when you need a little more to get free shipping on Amazon.
This is technically also an app (but what isn’t “also technically an app?”), and also it is Amazon, but I like this as someone who doesn’t read enough/has a desire to read more. It tells you about the new books that you should be reading but also some books you actually might want to read. There’s also monthly poems that seem to oscillate between plainspoken and inscrutable, but they’re written by the Goodreads community so you feel compelled to cheer for them like you do in public theater adaptations of Broadway shows. Bonus: this newsletter has the best banner ads.
Aleksander Chan is a writer and editor in Austin. He wrote this watching You’ve Got Mail. Special thanks to Ann Friedman and Veronica de Souza for recommendations.