When I hopped onto social media in those heady, ancient days of 2006, I felt like a starved person placed in front of a sumptuous buffet. Suddenly, here was a smorgasbord of information, news, and opinion – and I couldn't get enough of it. How times have changed.
Now, information glut is the problem, and the result is something American psychologist Barry Schwarz once called the tyranny of choice – there's so much, you don't even know where to start. Strangely though, as Twitter, Facebook, and a steady diet of Buzzfeed and Upworthy overwhelm us, we might find reprieve in an old Internet form – the newsletter – and with it, a sign of how digital culture might be entering its next phase.
In the early days of the Web, newsletters or "e-blasts" were everywhere. You signed up with an e-mail address on a website, whether for news or deals or summaries, and got an e-mail sent right to you. Long before the days of social media, this kind of personalized delivery was an exciting prospect, quite different from the top-down distribution of information we were then used to.
But with the arrival of blogs, then aggregators, then social media–not to mention mountains of e-mail – getting one more tidbit in your inbox started to seem pointless, especially when you could get more than you ever needed simply by checking just a few sites.
Yet, now, the newsletter is seeing a small, but significant resurgence. Consider: Rusty Foster's Today in Tabs has become a must-read for people interested in the general cultural pulse in North America. Atlantic tech editor Alexis Madrigal's Five Intriguing Things lives up to its name on a daily basis. Maria Popova, better known as Brainpickings, and many more people are now sending out missives filled with links and ideas. It might be niche for now, but amongst early adopters, it's a growing trend.
What happened? Some of it is practical. With the death of Google Reader – a service that let you read multiple sites in one place – lots of people simply moved on from that tech to newsletters, replacing mass delivery with a more focused one. Additionally, the service Tinyletter came along and has made reduced the barriers to creating and receiving newsletters.
It's more than just pragmatics, though. A newsletter is a way to follow the news and ideas of people you find interesting without having to hope they reach you through social media or checking a site every day. If perhaps we've started to gravitate toward following writers rather than publications, then the newsletter is a reflection of how digital technology breaks down the containers in which we get the stuff we want. Instead of "push media," in which media organizations are flooding their feeds with what they want you read, the modern newsletter is form of "pull media," in which you rope in what you are into.
Yet, the newsletter is also an interesting antidote to social media itself. In fact, I'm not sure if it's even "social." Instead, there's a kind of intimacy between writer and reader, what feels like a one-to-one connection between an author and your inbox. It means that, devoid of comments or the sometimes-vibrant-sometimes-deafening ebb and flow of Twitter or Facebook, the newsletter is focused, quiet – somehow more like print, or at least a kind of midpoint between it and digital.
It suggests to me that social media is at a kind of inflection point. We are realizing that what we have now is good at some things – crackling real-time debate, keeping in touch with friends and feeling connected to a scene – but perhaps not others, like focusing in on what's important without all the accompanying noise. Maybe the newsletter is a sign that we need a little more balance to how we get information online, some of it in that rushing flow of social media, and some of it in less chaotic, more ordered form.
In a sense, if social media is a cascading river, then things like the newsletter are like little docks along the banks. Just as the ballooning of the TV dial saw people pick their favourites and stick to them, the newsletter as pull media works to help people find and focus on their favourite things. Rather than feeling drowned by the stream or stuffed by the buffet, it seems we're now gravitating toward "information moderation" – something that, in our age, seems like a good thing.