In a post-email world, where our inboxes have turned into cesspools of responsibility, the Internet newsletter—against all odds—has made a comeback.
From projects like Listserve and Miranda July's We Think Alone to more personal curations like Rusty Foster's Today in Tabs and Alexis Madrigal's 5 Intriguing Things, people are, on purpose, inviting more email into their lives.
Those who have found themselves sucked into the latest craze might notice that many of the incoming messages have one thing (besides for the email thing) in common. The letters always end with the same three words: "Delivered by TinyLetter."
Owned by MailChimp, a service that helps businesses send those annoying marketing emails currently cluttering our inboxes, TinyLetter is a "more personal version" of the email marketing service, MailChimp editor/writer Kate Kiefer Lee told Fast Company. It's not the only company that caters to individuals, but it bests competitors in some important ways. Letter.ly, for example, has a sparse-in-an-ugly-way interface, and it no longer accepts new customers.
TinyLetter is to MailChimp what Tumblr is to WordPress: It's newsletters for dummies. "I think my mom could use TinyLetter," claims Kiefer Lee. Unlike MailChimp, which caters to businesses and offers all sorts of testing and analytics features, TinyLetter provides just the basics. Writing a message is just like writing an email in Gmail, meaning the process takes only as long as crafting the body text.
Getting people to subscribe to letters is just as easy. TinyLetter provides an embed code for those who want to put a box on their website. Or interested readers can head straight to a letter's TinyLetters landing page, which consists of a short description, a place to subscribe, and a link to previous messages, all against one big, bold, and beautiful image.
Oh, and unlike MailChimp, it's free. The service does have a limit on subscribers to a given newsletter, but the company works with very popular mailers on that.
The user-friendly interface and perfect price point don't deserve all the credit for this "golden age" of Internet newsletters. Google, of all companies, had something to do with the 100,000 people who have signed up for the service, too. (Four thousand of those people send missives at least once a week.) Google Reader's death notice came in March, and the RSS feed croaked July 1. TinyLetter noticed an uptick in users last May. Kiefer sees a connection there: "I can't say for sure that there was a direct impact on signups," she said. But: "It makes a lot of sense. A lot of people used RSS for that sort of thing, to keep up with certain writers."
Journalist Ann Friedman, a pioneer in the medium, created her newsletter as a direct result of GReader's death:
Email subscriptions are particularly attractive to writers looking to grow their fan bases. The messages can make readers feel special. And someone who invited email into their already chaotic inbox is more likely to listen to what you have to say. "Though your newsletter might have a smaller audience than your blog or website, you have your subscribers’ attention," Kiefer Lee wrote in a blog post. "It’s quite an honor to have someone give you their email address."
The medium is equally attractive to readers. Much like an RSS feed, newsletters let fans keep tabs on their favorite people—what they're writing and what they're reading—in a more accessible way than Twitter because email allows people to check in on their own terms. "Email sits in your inbox until you do something with it. You don't have to look at it right away. It just kind of waits for you," said Kiefer Lee.
That feels especially refreshing in a world of social-media driven Internet consumption, which leads to link overload, which results in tabs overload. People crave curation.
Still, these messages risk getting lumped in with the rest of the email cesspool. When looking at an inbox filled with bills, daily deals, cloying messages from mom, and upcoming plane tickets, a newsletter can feel like another chore. As a subscriber to both the Listerve and Today in Tabs, I find myself deleting or skimming 90% of the messages.
And yet, I haven't unsubscribed. Those few gems make the extra inbox clutter worth it—for now.