The New Social Network That Isn’t New at All

By Mike Isaac March 19, 2019

SAN FRANCISCO — My favorite new social network doesn’t incessantly spam me with notifications. When I post, I’m not bombarded with @mentions from bots and trolls. And after I use it, I don’t worry about ads following me around the web.

That’s because my new social network is an email newsletter. Every week or so, I blast it out to a few thousand people who have signed up to read my musings. Some of them email back, occasionally leading to a thoughtful conversation. It’s still early in the experiment, but I think I love it.

The newsletter is not a new phenomenon. But there is a growing interest among those who are disenchanted with social media in what the writer Craig Mod has called “the world’s oldest networked publishing platform.” For us, the inbox is becoming a more attractive medium than the news feed.

The shift toward newsletters is part of a broader change. For years, Mark Zuckerberg, Facebook’s chief executive, asked us to live in a more “open and connected” version of the world. And billions of us did, posting status updates, photos and videos on the social network and flocking to other services like Twitter, where I post regular messages about my mood, personified in photos of my dog.

Now, more of us are moving toward private modes of sharing: a Slack group instead of a tweet; an encrypted Signal message instead of a status update.

Even the titans of public sharing have recognized the shift. In early March, Mr. Zuckerberg said that Facebook would focus on private conversations rather than public posts in the future.

For me, the change has happened slowly but the reasons for it were unmistakable. Every time I was on Twitter, I felt worse. I worried about being too connected to my phone, too wrapped up in the latest Twitter dunks. A colleague created his own digital detox program to reduce his smartphone addiction. I reckon he made the right choice.

Now, when I feel the urge to tweet an idea that I think is worth expounding on, I save it for my newsletter, The Dump (an accurate description of what spills out of my head). It’s much more fun than mediating political fights between relatives on my Facebook page or decoding the latest Twitter dust-up.

The inbox, instead of the News Feed, is becoming a more attractive medium.

A new crop of start-ups like Substack and Revue has emerged to cater to this desire to make direct connections with others online without the noise that comes with Twitter or Facebook feeds. They do it by making it easy to start a newsletter, offering dead-simple writing programs and insights into what’s getting read. (I use Substack, and I tend to find out immediately when my writing is terrible, either via the company’s analytics system or from reader emails urging me to stop being weird.)

Christopher Best, Substack’s chief executive, said the company’s creation was driven by feelings like the ones I was having. “We felt this growing sense of despair in traditional social media,” he said. “Twitter, Facebook, etc. — they’ve all incentivized certain negative patterns.”

What firms like Substack and Revue make possible is more personal than the wave of newsletters that emerged in the early 2000s from companies like Daily Candy, Flavorpill, Nonsense NYC and Oh My Rockness. Those brands mostly blasted lifestyle content out to the masses, targeting city residents with disposable income and attracting millions of dollars in venture capital, said Naveen Selvadurai, an entrepreneur and partner at the start-up incubator Expa.

More recently, media start-ups like The Skimm, a daily newsletter started by two former NBC producers, have grown from dozens of readers to millions. (The New York Times is a minority investor in The Skimm.) Axios has tapped into the newsletter market with a focus on politics and business. Other big media companies — Vox, BuzzFeed, CNN — have latched on to the trend as they seek a deeper bond with readers.

Newsletters could be a more reliable means of increasing readership for major publishers whose relationships with social networks have soured. Remember when Facebook moved away from promoting videos on the platform? Or when it decided to show more posts from friends and family, and de-emphasize content from publishers and brands? With every shift, big media companies had to adjust.

“Publishers have learned the hard way that traffic from social media is too volatile,” said Martijn de Kuijper, Revue’s chief executive.

For me, a guy writing dispatches from home in his pajamas, email offers a more personal connection between writer and audience. Since beginning The Dump, I’ve traded emails with people who might have followed me on Twitter but felt more comfortable talking with me one on one.

That direct connection creates a sense of loyalty between writer and reader that can be difficult to achieve on websites or social networks. Establishing such a bond, Mr. de Kuijper said, increases the likelihood that people will read you what you have to say.

Most enticing of all, I own my audience for The Dump, which I created using tools from Substack. And in contrast to what happens if I quit Facebook or Twitter, I can keep my fans — an ample email subscriber list — if I decide to leave Substack’s service.

Mike Isaac calls his newsletter “The Dump,” which he says is an accurate description of what spills out of his head.

“You don’t have to fight an algorithm to reach your audience,” Casey Newton, a journalist who writes The Interface, a daily newsletter for the technology news site The Verge, told me. “With newsletters, we can rebuild all of the direct connections to people we lost when the social web came along.”

It can be more than just a creative endeavor: Newsletters can make a fine one-person business. Writers can charge readers to a monthly fee for their newsletters. Substack takes a cut of that fee; Revue charges writers using a tiered-pricing system based on the size of newsletter’s subscriber base.

Luke O’Neil, an independent writer, charges $6.66 a month for a subscription to his widely read, offbeat newsletter, “Welcome to Hell World.” He has 4,000 subscribers, 700 of whom pay for his regular dispatches.

“I want to be myself, which is weird, angry and aggressively depressed,” Mr. O’Neil told me. “It turns out, there are enough people out there who also like the same things I do. With a little luck, it just might work.”

My newsletter is free and I may never charge for it (it is, after all, an experiment and I have a job at The Times). But it could help me promote my other work, like a book I’m completing or my Times articles.

Using this method of private sharing is already affecting the way I post things publicly. Since January, I have consistently tweeted 15 to 30 percent less each week than I did the week before, according to Twitter’s summaries of my account activity (some of my followers may be grateful). I’m also using my smartphone less.

To be clear: I don’t intend to give up my low-grade Twitter addiction. I have built meaningful friendships on the platform, and it’s been a pathway for people to discover my work.

But perhaps next time I want to muse on something more nuanced, I won’t immediately blurt it out to the Twitter-verse, only to be lost in a sea of other tweets, or to have Twitter make money off my ideas by sandwiching it between ads.

Instead, I’ll save it for my newsletter following — the one that belongs to me.

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