Cave paintings. Petroglyphs. Smoke signals. Carrier pigeons. Telegraphs. The Pony Express. Airmail. Blogs. Myspace. Human modes of communication come and go, each replaced by a new technology and a faster method of delivery. But somehow, the humble newsletter survives. In an era with countless ways to reach out and bombard someone, newsletters have not only endured; they’re more popular than ever (and not only as some artisanal relic kept alive by the same people who keep buying vinyl LPs). More and more writers—including, ahem, some excellent ones right here at The Atlantic—are competing to entice us with the perfect subject line and the most sublime greeting. When it comes to the latter, we’re all chasing the best opening ever, the one Shakespeare gave to Mark Antony: Friends, Romans, countrymen …
The Romans brought the newsletter into existence. Later, in the Middle Ages, newsletters became common forms of communication among extended families, traders, and those looking to share information in a format that eventually led to what we know (knew?) as the newspaper. After reviewing the history of this medium, of which I’m a frequent practitioner, I’m now convinced that when Caesar said “Et tu, Brute?” he was actually asking Brutus if he wanted to subscribe.
Cut to 2020, when the 14 million customers of a single email platform called Mailchimp sent out 333,635,013,035 newsletters that, among other things, drove more than $64 billion in revenue.
Extremely long story short: Rome fell. The newsletter didn’t.
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How did the unpretentious and simple newsletter outlive empires and technological transformation, not only displaying the survivability of the tardigrade but also somehow becoming the cool new thing without much reinvention at all?
The typically digestible length, coupled with the simple, minimalist format—an easily shareable, single page of content written on papyrus, pecked out on a typewriter, or thumbed on an iPhone—helps explain the longevity. But the solid fuel-thruster that rocketed the newsletter format to the edge of the atmosphere during the decades since your 14.4K modem first connected to the web, and that has pushed it into the stratosphere in 2021, is the newsletter’s inseparability from its ancient-by-internet-standards delivery mechanism: email.
Rumors of email’s demise have circulated for half a century, ever since the first email was sent by Ray Tomlinson in 1971. Five minutes later, someone promised that their new communication platform would kill off email forever. How’d that go? Check your inbox. Email isn’t going anywhere, and it doesn’t need anyone to “save” it. Trying to do so would be like giving mouth-to-mouth resuscitation to an elite athlete in perfect health. It might be fun, but it’s not necessary.
Aside from having a future smartly connected to email, newsletters benefit from being personal. A newsletter comes from a single person (or at least many feel like they do), and it lands in your inbox along with messages from your colleagues, your friends, your mom. Good newsletters have a reply-to address as well. You want to reply? Hit reply. And when you do, the conversation becomes one-to-one, not a game of one-upmanship performed for the retweeting masses.
Newsletters are patient. I send something to you, and you can read it when you want to and respond (or not) when you want to. You get to absorb and consider the contents of a newsletter without the rest of the internet chiming in, telling you what to think while puking out tweets, replies, posts, comments, photos, videos, news, and memes at a pace that pulverizes human attentional capacity. (The second you catch up, you’re already behind.) Newsletters are always right where you left them. Sure, people complain about having too much email. But compared with everything else online, your inbox is the Walden Pond of the internet.
I’ve spent my entire adult life addicted to the deluge of incoming news. In my new book, Please Scream Inside Your Heart: Breaking News and Nervous Breakdowns in the Year That Wouldn’t End, I chronicle how my relationship—and everyone else’s—with media got out of hand in 2020, when the deluge became a tsunami. The surge was damaging my brain, but I couldn’t kick the addiction. At one point during the five-day period between the 2020 election and the 2020 election results, I found myself in the fetal position on the floor of my man cave, moaning through my tears. A newsletter has never done that to me. But news feeds have.
And this—the plague of news feeds—brings us to the best thing about newsletters: They give you home-court advantage. Thanks in part to humanity’s success against the scourge of spam, the inbox is one of the few places where you actually have control over an information feed. If you want a newsletter, subscribe. If you don’t want a newsletter, unsubscribe. Mark Zuckerberg doesn’t get to decide what’s more likely to appear in your email stream. The Russians are not setting up a disinformation campaign in your inbox. It is your inbox and your own private antisocial network. You are the algorithm. This is the core reason why the noisier the rest of the internet gets, the more popular the quiet, humble newsletter becomes. And it’s why, during the pandemic, the Black Lives Matter protests, the presidential election, the Big Lie, and the insurrection, when we were being pulverized by an unprecedented onslaught of information, newsletters felt like a welcome respite from the noise and were suddenly the biggest new (but far from the newest) thing in media.
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Paid subscriptions are the hottest trend in today’s newsletter game, propelled by Substack. The company offered a simple proposition—one tool that lets creators create, send, and charge for newsletter content—at the perfect moment. The Trump years created a unique obsession with the media and raised the profile of countless journalists. Many of these journalists took their raised profile and left established publications to go direct-to-consumer with their writing. What we’re seeing is an indie news-delivery revolution. What we’re not seeing is a technological revolution. This movement is not about hiring 10,000 engineers to build a new version of human interaction. It’s about communicating with people in a way they like to communicate. Even with tens of millions in funding and countless copycat companies emerging in the space, Substack’s core technology is basically the same one the Romans used (give or take a few Wi-Fi bars).
After a couple thousand years, have we at long last reached peak newsletter? If we have, the biggest tech companies in the world have just made some very bad bets. Intuit recently acquired Mailchimp for $12 billion, the most money ever paid for a bootstrapped tech company. In its most recent round of funding, Substack raised another $65 million. Twitter acquired a newsletter company called Revue that is being integrated into the company’s main platform. Google is testing a new newsletter service called Museletter. In his recent event announcing that Facebook changed its name to Meta, Mark Zuckerberg focused on his version of a metaverse, where your avatar interacts with everyone else’s in a virtual world. What he didn’t mention was Bulletin, the Substack clone he had just launched.
Newsletters aren’t the only thing that’s survived technology. So has irony. And that brings us to the paradox that all these big internet companies are launching newsletters, tossing us a life jacket to keep us from drowning in the acrimonious cesspool they’ve created. They spread the disease, and now they’re trying to sell the cure. But newsletters won’t be so easily subsumed into the social-media universe, in large part because they’re so technologically simple, and because, over and over, they’re the mode of information that information consumers choose: some words delivered into a quiet place for reading them. Newsletters outlived the Roman empire. They just might outlive these corporate internet empires too.
This article was originally published in The Atlantic. Sign up for its newsletter.