Most of us go to our inboxes to read things like personal notes from our friends and family, invitations to birthday parties and weddings, notifications about our bank account balances, and messages from our bosses.
Of course there are also the marketing emails we didn’t sign up for, the sale announcements, the real estate spam. Sending email doesn’t cost much, so people use it to do obnoxious stuff sometimes. If you consider the lowest common denominator, the state of email is pretty bleak. But email isn’t a content type. It’s a medium. And many publishers use mass email as an ideal medium: a way to send messages directly to people who care.
An inbox is a personal space. People have more and more control over them these days, too, thanks to filters, security measures, folders, and tabs. They can keep their inboxes on lockdown, but by signing up for your newsletter, they’re saying, “Come on in; I want to hear from you.” Though your newsletter might have a smaller audience than your blog or website, you have your subscribers’ attention. It’s quite an honor to have someone give you their email address.
People are also in a different frame of mind when they’re checking email than when they’re reading news articles or blog posts. Writers who publish content in different places tend to use email in a way that complements that less critical, more open frame of mind.
A controlled environment
There’s comfort in writing to a known quantity of people. When you send an email newsletter, you know exactly how many people are going to receive it and even approximately when they’ll receive it. Email comes and goes, and that makes it a safe place to experiment with form.
Miranda July is in the middle of a 20-week email series called We Think Alone. Every week, she compiles and forwards emails from the outboxes of people like Kirsten Dunst, Lena Dunham, and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. She provides a simple topic — something like “an email about money,” “an email you almost didn’t send,” or “a sad email.” Subscribers get weekly glimpses into the participants’ lives. The series humanizes these strangers and reminds us how much of ourselves lies inside of our own inboxes. July sends the newsletter as plain text, so the experience almost makes readers feel like the contributors sent the emails themselves. This kind of experiment wouldn’t have the same level of intimacy if it were published on a web page. The messages are context-dependent. The fact that they exist inside your inbox might be why they’re so fascinating.
The Listserve is an ongoing email experiment that relies on its reader base for content. Every day, one subscriber is selected by lottery to send an email to the growing list. There are no rules about what you can and cannot send, but there are norms: be nice, be creative, don’t market your products.
Every Listserve email is different, and many of them are about food (no surprise there; it’s a topic close to people’s hearts). Someone sent a PSA about microwaving donuts. One was a recipe for “the best cookies I’ve ever eaten.” Another was a PSA for a particular brand of chili oil, and then there was a gumbo recipe.
Recently, the chosen writer asked everyone to send him a photo. Any photo. “I promise not to publish or utilize it in any way. I just want to know what your life is like.” Out of context, this kind of request from a total stranger would be weird at best. But we’re all friends here, in this random community of email newsletter subscribers.
Of course some people who get The Call from the Listserve use it as an opportunity to mention their new book. But others get personal. Someone wrote honestly about his struggles with infertility. Someone else wrote about her grandmother, who was recently diagnosed with stage IV lung cancer:
She taught me that even though people might not treat you well, you should still treat them with kindness and dignity ... She taught me patience through knitting and that you can always fix a mistake without taking out the last 10 rows ... She taught me how to shuffle a deck of cards and that you don’t come to the card table without money.
At the end of the email, the writer asked her readers for advice about whether or not she should move back home to take care of her grandmother. She left her email address so people could write back to share their thoughts. (Including your email address is not required, but it’s common practice.)
There have been confusing notes about the philosophy of space and time, lighthearted ones about high school experiences, and earnest ones about how Bitcoin is going to change everything. But the subject matter isn’t why this modern-day listserv is growing. People are opening their inboxes to daily emails from complete strangers not because they have a common interest or because they know what to expect — but because they don’t.
A letter-writing experience
On a basic level, email is the closest thing to a letter you’ll find in our digital world: a sender’s message is delivered by a service directly to a recipient. Even in the case of bulk email, individual messages are technically going to individual people. So it makes sense that many writers are sending good old-fashioned email newsletters to those who want to hear from them.
Jack Cheng is one of them. His Sunday Dispatch always reads like a letter, a comfortably personal peek into his writing process. Even the simple “-Jack” at the end of each email reminds readers that this is a note from a person, not an article from a publication or a message from a business.
In an email titled “The Perfect Wedding,” he wrote about his friends’ weddings, his parents’ marriage, and what those things mean to him. “I’m writing to you on a Monday morning this week,” he began the email, “after coming back on a flight from California last night and lying down to take a nap that lasted ten hours longer than I had expected.” It could just as easily be a letter to his best friend.
The people reading Cheng’s newsletter have given him their email addresses to say, “I want to hear from you. I care what you have to say.” That makes it a friendly environment for personal updates that he might not share on a public site. He’s also writing to a forgiving group of readers. Because it’s something they asked for, they’re not necessarily reading his newsletter as critics. They like him. They make time for him. They want to enjoy his emails. And if at some point they stop enjoying his emails, they’ll unsubscribe.
A forgiving audience makes email an interesting place for writers to try out articles and book excerpts before publishing, share their thought processes, and ask for feedback. Of course it’s also a biased audience, and not a useful sample of any population. People who went out of their way to sign up for a newsletter are likely to go out of their way to provide feedback when asked, but they may be partial. Though it's not a good idea to use them as a singular source of feedback, they sure are nice to come home to.
A straightforward way to share
If nothing else, email is practical in that it allows you to send specific content directly to people, knowing they’ll see it — or at least see enough of it to delete it. Readers don’t have to go looking on your website or come across it on Twitter. For better or for worse, emails wait in inboxes until somebody does something with them.
Journalists like Ed Yong and Ann Friedman use email as a straightforward way to share their work. It makes sense: when a freelance writer contributes to multiple publications, it’s difficult for fans to keep up with it all. RSS feeds won’t exactly manage it, and fans won’t see every article their favorite writers link to on Twitter. An email newsletter is a practical solution for people who want to read all of a writer’s work in one place.
In his newsletter, called The Ed’s Up, Yong shares links to work he’s recently published and other articles he finds interesting.
Ann Friedman follows a similar formula: links to published articles, a reading list, and an animated GIF. She just added a column called “Annsplaining,” which she says is “a recurring series in which I explain concepts you’re already quite familiar with.” Friedman obviously has fun with her newsletter, in hopes that her subscribers will have fun reading it.
The same idea works for curators. JPG magazine cofounder Heather Champ shares her love for photography in a newsletter called Favorites. Anyone can submit images, and every week, she sends out seven or eight of them along with descriptions. And, of course, the Bey Cheat Sheet is the premier email newsletter for Beyonce superfans.
An open invitation
One of email’s greatest assets is the required “reply-to” address. Of course you can use “noreply@” addresses, but that subverts one of the system’s working parts. Senders should be glad recipients can reply directly to emails.
One-to-one replies are much more personal than leaving a comment on a website. Blog and article comments are little performances. Even when a commenter is technically addressing the author, the awareness that comments exist for an audience to see changes the way people write. The closed reply, and its potential for a back-and-forth, same-level conversation, paves the way for a more intimate relationship between writer and reader.
Email is an old-new medium. It hasn’t been around for very long, but its death has been predicted a million times by now. What was supposed to kill it made it stronger — quick conversations have moved to chat services, links are on Twitter, and your aunt is now sharing her vacation photo albums on Facebook. That leaves more space in our inboxes for something meaningful.