How newsletters can help you find your tribe and escape the chaos
Imagine if you could map the internet as though it were a planet. (Okay, yes, in the current state of our lives internet-as-planet might not sound like the greatest idea—inflamed sore as celestial body. But ride with me for a second.)
On this virtual world, Facebook and Google become major continents. Sites like Netflix and Amazon number among its mightiest empires.
And in one tiny, out-of-the-way corner, overlooked by most, would sit a place of quiet riches, what writer Warren Ellis has deemed the Republic of Newsletters.
Once upon a time a newsletter was the spam you got from the businesses you used or the groups to which you belonged. It was the internet’s version of the Sunday ad insert (but with tracking devices).
Today newsletters have become a place where you can find everything from deep cuts on current affairs to mini-retreats.
But today newsletters have become a place where you can find everything from deep cuts on current affairs from experts like tech ethicist Damien Williams or “lovely and/or meaningful things” from culture consumers like digital strategist Laura Olin, to spiritual reflections, like mini-retreats, from a Ronald Rolheiser, O.M.I., Joan Chittister, O.S.B. or Richard Rohr, O.F.M. It’s like all the best speakers from your local bookstore or the 92nd Street Y, delivered every week to your inbox.
Even though blogs have fallen to the wayside in favor of the microblogging of social media, “People still yearn for that larger, expansive, more free-form writing (both as readers and writers),” Anne Helen Petersen, a senior culture writer at BuzzFeed, tells me in an email. “I blogged for a long time, and although I do a lot of writing for work, I missed the unfiltered writing style of a personal blog.” Today she writes a really interesting newsletter about her work in celebrity journalism and life in the Western United States.
At a time where we find our newsfeeds both deluged with information (much of it regurgitated from other sources) and “curated” by others, newsletters also offer the possibility of greater control. “In this age of the algorithm, all these different platforms are trying to dictate to people what they think they’re going to be interested in,” says Wallace Mack, whose newsletter for the black culture podcast The Nod offers stories about everything from his experiences leaving home in rural South Carolina to people’s strong feelings about Girl Scout cookies.
“With a newsletter, you can determine who you’re subscribed to,” he says. “People are moving to a place where they want to be able to personalize their approach to the media they consume.”
I love newsletters for all of that—for the depth and variety of the writing you can find in them, for the ability they offer to create a sort of channel of stories and news of your own.
But what most draws me to newsletters is the admittedly strange sense of a personal connection. We find ourselves today so completely surrounded by shouting and hysteria. Most days it feels like we are castaways on some awful mashup of Lord of the Flies and “Gilligan’s Island.” (Fun fact: Gilligan is really nice until you give him a Wi-Fi connection.)
A good newsletter is like a message in a bottle, a voice that cuts through.
In the midst of all that, a good newsletter is like a message in a bottle, a voice that cuts through. Eric Eddings, co-host of The Nod, describes reading New York Magazine columnist Ann Friedman’s weekly newsletter: “Even though it’s a bunch of links, she describes them in such a way that you feel who she is coming through. And now I’m not just thinking how I might click on two of the articles and keep moving. I’m checking in with a friend.”
Some might read science fiction writer Paul Cornell’s weekly newsletter to find out the details of his next book; what keeps me coming back are the moments he tells stories about being a dad to a young autistic son.
Likewise I look forward to Warren Ellis’s Sunday letter Orbital Operations in part to hear about his latest projects, the talks he has given and the ideas he is chewing on. Usually there are a couple of thoughts in there about the past or the future that I am liable to cut myself on if I am not careful.
But what makes it my favorite read each week is that he writes with such humanity. “Hold on tight,” he often writes at the end. “Everything's gone nuts but it doesn't have to take you with it.” “Keep your head clear, keep shit at bay, turn off the poison feeds, work when you can, take five minutes a day to be where you are, and live your damn life your way and without apology.”
Or, my personal favorite: “Be careful out there, be kind, be prepared, be aware, be informed and be ready to press that little nerve in the side of someone’s neck that kills them instantly. It’s only wise and proper. See you next week, my little death badgers.”
Social media drew us in with promises that it could provide a greater sense of community, and it seems like it should have the capacity to do just that. Yet today much of the online world only erodes our feelings of empathy or connection. (How can you possibly hear anyone anyway over all the screaming?)
Meanwhile I have never met Ellis, I do not know anyone else who reads Orbital Operations, yet each week through his newsletter I feel like I am a part of a little community. We gather in this fragile clearing, delight in the tales of a beloved, insane uncle, and rest in the fact that as crazy as the world may currently be, we are not alone.
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Before newsletters, there was thinking.
In the late 1940s and early 1950s, shaken by the Nazi and Communist experiences, interest in the analysis of propaganda techniques used by demagogues seemed to increase, to the point that academics published pioneering work on the subject, one of the most prolific being the late Professor Leonard W. Doob. It did not seem unusual for college freshmen to be introduced to the subject even in classes under the English departments, to say nothing of classes in psychology. Later, high school students could be encountered who brought home research assignments concerning the analysis of advertising, both in print and on radio and television, which aimed at uncovering the various propaganda techniques used in the sampled ads. By the 1980s, select cadres of elementary school teachers assigned to teach “gifted and talented,” pupils in “extended learning” programs were conducting similar lessons with fifth graders.
So by now one should be able to expect, with confidence, that most adults in the United States have the intellectual tools to analyze critically how they are being propagandized and to discern whether they have succumbed to the techniques to which they have been exposed or, indeed, to which they might have subconsciously sought exposure because of the comfort experienced from hearing confirmation of already held opinions.
Consequently it is probably pointless to present a refresher lesson on commonly used propaganda techniques because most people are acutely aware of exactly which of them they are being subjected to. For this reason it will probably bore a lot of people to scan a refresher that summarizes the widely known techniques, which include: 1) Distraction; 2) Threat Inflation and Conflation; 3) Normalization; 4) Repetition.
In case anyone is still interested, a summary description of Doob’s analytical results can be found on the web in various places. As might be expected, given the time that he wrote many of his analyses, he took the work products of Josephj Goebbels as one of his research subjects. Another, more modern reference is an article by Kelly M. Greenhill in the July 5, 2018, Snapshot Edition of Foreign Affairs Magazine on line. In this case his research subject is the current administration’s efforts in the immigration debate. But the application of these techniques is obviously not limited to political audiences. Audiences interested in products ranging from fast food to pharmaceuticals are the targets of these techniques.
We use monthly newsletters all the time in our business. As Warsaw, Indiana Realtors it's important for my partners and I to maintain "top of mind awareness" with our database. We learned very quickly, however, that the content we send out must me 1) relevant, 2) entertaining, and 3) helpful. Omit any of these critical elements and you've just given your audience justification to hit the mute button (aka unsubscribe).