The newsletter revolution will not be emailed
4 min read

The newsletter revolution will not be emailed

Recent software updates are a reminder that there is no such thing as a neutral platform.
The newsletter revolution will not be emailed

A song to read by: "The Deadbeat Club," by The B-52's

What I'm reading: "The Wretched of the Earth," by Frantz Fanon

“Famous last words”

Last week, Apple announced that as a result of a software update, inboxes using Apple Mail will soon eliminate pixel-tracking, effectively rendering it impossible for email senders to determine whether or not recipients have opened their emails.

Then, on Monday, The Los Angeles Times published this piece, detailing the challenges newsletter writers have faced trying to decipher the algorithm that Gmail uses to sort users’ emails into various folders. Gmail labels certain emails Promotions, others Primary, and yet still others disappear into the ether.

Since moving to Ghost, which uses the email service provider MailGun, I have encountered similar problems, as Gmail regularly flags the test email I send to myself as “suspicious,” with a big yellow warning. A number of my subscribers have mentioned having trouble finding my newsletters. (More on this later.)

If you have signed up for a newsletter in the last year, you might have received detailed instructions from its sender on how to ensure that future missives find their way into the right section. (“Click the three dots in the top right … ” )

This is because, despite the many claims suggesting that email avoids algorithmic intervention and bypasses the gatekeeping powers that be, the medium is still at the mercy of the platforms that provide it.

A business model built on sand

If Apple decides to change its privacy policy, the shift upends the business strategies of every email publisher who measures the success of a newsletter by its open rate. If Google decides to tweak the algorithm it uses to sort your email, its criteria can be the difference between prompt readership and newsletter limbo.

In short, many of the same problems that afflict publishers on the open web still affect them in their inboxes, just to a lesser degree.

Until recently, many who write about media have dismissed this dynamic, mostly because email still represents a lesser of two evils when compared to trying to hack it on the internet.

But recent events have made it abundantly clear that, in shifting to prioritize email, publishers might simply be jumping out of the frying pan and into the fire. So long as Apple, Google and Microsoft still control the vast majority of our inboxes, newsletters will remain subject to the caprice of the platforms.

The Los Angeles Times article quotes Justin Duke, the creator of the email service Buttondown, whom I interviewed almost a year ago. (And got drinks with while I lived in Seattle; he’s a great guy!)

Duke told The Times a version of what he told me last year: That email is not the solution we are looking for; it is just the closest approximation we have.

People have turned to email because it avoids algorithms, but in fact it only minimizes them. We turned to email because it is direct, but in fact it is still mitigated by email service providers and inbox platforms. We turned to email because it offers us a chance to read great writing without wading through the morass of the web, but in fact the email-reading experience remains clunky and disjointed, at best.

In short, like Churchill said about democracy, email is the worst vehicle for online communication, except for all those other forms that have been tried from time to time.

Personally, I have begun considering a switch to other email providers, as I slowly but surely try to worm my way out of the grasp of private technology companies. But even then, what we want is not a better kind of email, but an entirely new kind of way to consume great writing.

Ideally, this technology would allow me to receive writing directly from the people who created it, with no intermediary forces, in a pristine reading atmosphere. I want no advertisements involved, nor do I want my privacy abrogated. I want to be able to store and access the writing at any time from any device, as well as to easily share it with friends or on social networks.

Perhaps this whole newsletter revolution is reaching its next stage: beyond the inbox. Email has always been an imperfect proxy for the independent writing renaissance, and I for one would welcome an open-source, ad-free, anti-growth product that met these needs. Wouldn’t you?

But so long as private tech companies control the means of communication, email will continue to suffer from all the same maladies as the rest of the internet. To truly break free from tech overlord oversight, we need to think outside the inbox.

Some good readin'

— I am contractually obligated to share the latest Ben Smith article. (New York Times)

— I wrote about Money (fka Money Magazine) for Adweek! (Adweek)

— Amazon deliberately discourages its production workers from remaining with the company, because it is more productive to replace people than maintain humane working conditions. (New York Times)

— I will admit: I am reading too much New York Times, but Ezra Klein makes great points about the American fondness for (other people's) poverty. (NYT)

— The Study Hall Digest has been on a tear recently. (Study Hall)

— If you haven't read this insane ProPublica piece, you should! It's big enought that it might actually lead to changes in tax policy. (ProPublica)

— America's very American drinking problem. (The Atlantic)

Cover image: "Self portrait," by Jean-Michel Basquiat