The Top 11 “Hidden Gems” of the Internet

In the Dark Ages of the Internet, pretty much every web site and mailing list was the effort of a small, independent, voice. With even Google now competing against the web sites they spider, giant media companies are taking more and more mindshare (or “eyeballs”) from the independents that forged the online pathways, it’s time to step back and see some of the high-quality sites and newsletters you’re missing when you spend most of your time on Facebook.

Small sites can’t afford to advertise heavily, so this list of “hidden gems” concentrates on sites that are not only high value, but which deliver that value to you with an email newsletter option. These all will make you smarter, better informed, and more of the kind of person you wish all of your friends were like.

The Top 11 “Hidden Gems” of the Internet — small, independent voices not sponsored by a giant media company — were suggested by my readers, and are listed in alphabetical order.

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Ask Leo! —

Everything you could ever want to know about computers, technology, and the Internet. “I want to replace the frustration you feel with the amazement and wonder I feel every day,” says retired Microsoft engineer Leo Notenboom — and he means it. The weekly email newsletter is a great way to dip your toes into the topics, or search the site for expert advice on solving your computer problems.

Brain Pickings —

Founded in 2006 by writer Maria Popova, BP is “a subjective lens on what matters in the world and why” in the areas of “creativity, psychology, art, science, design, philosophy, and other facets of our search for meaning.” The free weekly email newsletter keeps you up to date on what’s being published.

Damn Interesting —

“Damn Interesting is a small, independent project dedicated to the dissemination of legitimately fascinating but obscure true stories from science, history, and psychology since 2005.” DI has an irregular posting schedule (the poor sods still have day jobs), but the email notification list lets you know when something new is posted — and it better be Damned Interesting!

Now I Know —

A daily, NIK sends brief articles on interesting trivia, such as “Abraham Lincoln Created The Secret Service The Day He Was Shot” (but they didn’t start protecting the president until two more presidents were assassinated). And now you know too.

Nutrition Facts —

A nutrition site that isn’t really a front for an expensive vitamin sales operation (or worse). Michael Greger, the New York doctor who scans the medical literature and translates the findings into lay English, donates any income from his books and speaking engagements to charity — I’m guessing to the site, since it is itself a non-profit. The flexible email newsletter lets you choose whether to get updates daily, weekly, or monthly.

2017 Update: Several readers have sent me notes to say that Nutrition Facts isn’t necessarily unbiased — that the author cherry-picks his sources to uphold his stance that a vegan diet is the only way to eat, while ignoring studies that contradict him or (gasp!) actually recommend animal- and fish-based protein sources. I’m not one of the site’s readers: I included it as it was recommended by more than one of my readers, as noted at the top. The bottom line, as always, is you should evaluate any source of information on the Internet with a critical eye. -rc

theSkimm —

Founded by two 20-something producers from NBCnews (who quit to do this full time), theSkimm (as they like to style it) is a daily first-thing-in-the-morning email newsletter to “break down what’s going on in the world with fresh editorial content,” with links to sources if you want to know more.

Think Clearly —

And now for something completely different: yes, it’s an email newsletter, but no, it’s not a bunch of text. It’s rather a picture of a hand-written and -drawn “card” expressing an idea, such as how to master anything (Pick a topic, Teach it to a toddler, Identify gaps in knowledge, Study Source materials, Cycle back to the toddler). It’s not fine art (maybe Dilbert-level art?), but it’s interesting and publishes irregularly — about once a month. (Note: TC author Mathias Jakobsen instituted a $2 “administrative fee” to subscribe to stop spammers from registering — a real problem for email publishers.)

This is True —

The oldest entertainment newsletter on the Internet (June 1994), “True” is “Thought-Provoking Entertainment” — social commentary using short weird-but-true news stories as its vehicle, yet most of the stories are funny so you actually want to read them. You won’t believe what people think they can get away with, yet the stories are true: every one is from a “legitimate, mainstream” news outlet. The weekly email newsletter has a free version, or pay a small fee to get the full version with more stories.

2017 Update: This is True now has a podcast, too. See details at —

This site has a lot of “topic areas” from Beauty to Gardening to Pets. Tips’ roots, though, are helping you to work with Microsoft Word and Microsoft Excel — expert tips on how to use their features to the fullest (pivot tables, anyone?) The site has an extensive archive of their tips and newsletters specific to the version you use.

Wait But Why —

Random essays about random topics by Tim Urban that go into great detail, such as “Everything You Should Know About Sound” or “Everything You Don’t Know About Tipping”. The WbW email list alerts you to new posts “2–4 times per month.”

World Wide Words —

One of the oldest (1996) newsletters about the origins and usage of English words and phrases, Michael Quinion’s WWW only publishes its newsletters approximately monthly these days, so they’re an unexpected delight when they show up. Meanwhile, the web site is a treasure trove of past articles: the kind of site where you pop in …and don’t look up again for hours.

2017 Update: Quinion discontinued his popular newsletter, but the site is still online to provide a very valuable reference.

Thank you for checking these sites out, and for sharing this list of Gems to help bring new readers to these smart and interesting publications.

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Randy Cassingham is the author of This is True, the oldest entertainment newsletter on the Internet. The “Gems” here were suggested by his readers as independent voices worth checking out.