Tiny Letters to the Web We Miss

Something is missing from this blogger reunion in our inbox

It has been more than a decade since I last saw a web ring. The Internet of Newsletters hints at something interesting about the rise of TinyLetter over the past year. A specific group of people are signing up for the service. They met over blogs several years ago, or even earlier, at IRL meet ups for various Usenet groups or events organized by NTK.

NTK (Need To Know) is even resending their 15 year old archive of newsletters through TinyLetter.

Typically, individuals sending newsletters include updates like links to recently published pieces and upcoming speaking engagements, but with notes and backstory, recipes and other details that make each letter feel like a friendly missive rather than self-created PR for his or her personal brand. There’s usually a title like The Ann Friedman Weekly, Stay Awhile, and Listen! by Jamelle Bouie, or Sarah Jaffe’s A Different Class.

Another type of newsletter has taken off recently, aggregating links like Rusty Foster’s Today in Tabs, Alexis Madrigal’s 5 Intriguing Things, and 5 Useful Articles by Parker Higgins and Sarah Jeong. This what Jason Kottke and Things Magazine have done for more than a decade on the web. Who? Weekly from Bobby Finger and Lindsey Weber —all about “wholebrities” the not particularly famous people who somehow make their way in celebrity gossip magazines — definitely would have been a blog ten years ago (or a zine twenty years before that). A couple of TinyLetters are written in a voice that I haven’t heard since the early years of blogging. Dan Hon’s Things That Have Caught My Attention and 6 by Charlie Loyd write commentary that is somewhere in between editorial and diary, for friends and potential friends.

I knew what a blog was in 2002, I knew what it was in 2008, which was slightly different but still definitely a “blog.” Now, I have no idea what the word means any more. It isn’t something that runs on Wordpress, because that is now the CMS for almost 20% of the web. It isn’t a place for short links, because that is Twitter. Tumblr and Instagram took over for photoblogs. And those long personal essay/personal rant posts that people would write every once in a while — those are happening here on Medium instead of our own websites. Specific products are driving the content.

TinyLetter isn’t driving the content as much as it is driving the newsletter trend. The format can be used for multiple purposes just like blogs used to be. Two recent experiments with newsletters include the art projects What Price Love by Melissa Gira Grant and We Think Alone by Miranda July.

Rebecca Greenfield, writing for Fast Company, traces the return of the internet newsletter to the death of Google Reader. A representative from TinyLetter told her that there was an uptick in users just as Google pulled the plug last year. Some of us switched to other RSS readers, nevertheless a number of bloggers saw their community and traffic take a hit, and posted less as a result. (By the way, Aaron Straup Cope has a tool to read TinyLetters with RSS). Sara Watson told me TinyLetter is one of the sponsors for “99% invisible,” a podcast with an audience of a number of bloggers and former bloggers. There’s another reason why people are turning to newsletters to publish content now: it is a not-quite public and not-quite private way to share information.

Some newsletters even have rules for subscribers. The author of one newsletter says you can tell you friends about it, just don’t link to the TinyLetter on social media. This can’t be enforced, but it adds a layer of secrecy. It is in the spirit of those Witch House bands that picked unicode names that (at the time) couldn’t be googled like //▲▲▲\\\ or GL▲SS †33†H. These TinyLetters nearly recreate the community we had before blogging splintered in several directions.

In 2003, the internet felt like it was just us.

Self-publishing online was fluid and inviting in the early years because the community was self-selecting — the sort of people who would know what Blogspot was in 2003. I didn’t worry about my boss finding my blog. I didn’t worry about getting rape threats in the comments either. (Just thinking about how absurd that sentence would have sounded in 2003 is giving me a crater-sized hit of nostalgia.)We didn’t have the same worries over public personas, because the internet felt like it was just us.

Blogging before social media was like drinking with friends. If someone adjacent to your conversation said something interesting, you would pull up a chair and invite them in. Sometimes a friendly stranger would even buy you a drink. Bit of trivia for readers: two writers for The Message first met, when one paypaled $5 to the “Tip Jar” of the other. (Answer in the comments.)

DC Metro Blog Map circa 2003. (Accessed through Internet Archive)

A lot of what I’ve written here could be applied to the concurrent recent spike in people on Twitter creating locked accounts for friends only. And I wonder if the rush to podcasts had happened now, instead of seven years ago, would we have seen the same enthusiasm as we do for TinyLetter today? It only takes one extra step to make it harder for the trolls and/or bosses to stumble in.

NotifyList and TinyLetter are basically the same thing but a decade apart.

We subscribe to newsletters because we like someone and take interest in their unique points-of-view. Unless I am mistaken, hate-subscribing isn’t actually a thing. Besides, the person running the list can always blacklist unwanted subscribers. There must have been at least one intra-TinyLetter flame war, and if sub-TinyLettering people isn’t happening yet, surely it will.

But newsletters aren’t discussion lists. It is one-way communication. No one sees the replies but the sender. This is great for avoiding trolls, not so good if you miss the days that the comments section might be as worthwhile as the original post.

In rare (and increasingly rarer) unguarded moments on Twitter, typically late on a Saturday night, I sometimes post something anxious, something about my life, something that’s not my professional face, but a glance at what I really think about. A few of the strangers that favorited those tweets have gone on to be close friends of mine. Newsletters filter out unwanted attention, but they might be doing this too well — filtering out the likeminded people we want to stumble upon these slightly less censored thoughts.

Oh, the other problem — I have no idea what TinyLetters link to my posts. Let me know if this piece made it in your newsletter.