The unmediation of newsletters

Perhaps there is something impersonal about personalisation. With the focus often being on the rapid networking and targeted filtering of social media, it’s interesting how the newsletter has had a resurgence in popularity. The turn to newsletters, relatively dusty fossils of our fast moving media times, probably couldn’t have been foreseen 4 or 5 years ago. Yet platforms like Substack, which only launched in 2017, and Ghost have grown significantly in a short period of time. This has led to questions about what this will mean for writing, journalism and media more broadly.

The size of the industry is now striking. Looking at Substack, it is the increase in people paying for newsletters that is particularly notable. The chart below, taken from Statista, shows the number of people paying to subscribe to newsletters on Substack. It covers less than a three year period, yet it shows a rise from 11,000 paying subscribers to 500,000. It also indicates a doubling of paid subscribers in the three month period between December 2020 and February 20211. Quite a rate of growth. Of course, the paid subscription is only part of the story. There are vastly more subscribers for the many free newsletters that are available. The number of paid subscribers gives an indication of the size of this business, it also hints at the scale of activity around newsletters. It's hard to be sure of the exact scale though, I can’t find a statistic anywhere for the total number of active newsletters on Substack.

There seems to be two things going on in this apparent rise of the newsletter. First, the ongoing erosion of news publications and magazines means that lots of writers are looking for new spaces for their work. As well as providing a space, the newsletter’s potential for paid content means that it provides an alternative to the dwindling opportunities in established outlets. In terms of the media environment, some would suggest that the newsletter is suited to our polarised times, with people able to follow the newsletters that fit their views, and so on. Although, it has also been argued that newsletters are offering a less polarised space than social media. I’m not sure I’ve seen anything yet that really offers a detailed insight into the exact role that newsletters are playing in these changing media or how readers are reacting to and consuming newsletters. Perhaps this will come. The other thing to note here, is that the use of newsletters in their current incarnation is often closer to blogging and might be seen more as a resurgence of those cultural movements from the early 2000s onwards.

It could be that the other force driving writers toward newsletter uptake concerns the vagaries of social media visibility. It seems that some disaffection with social media is building. The more people use these platforms the more they are likely to become aware of its limitations and the potential of these media to limit their voice rather than providing the promised amplification. Grudges with algorithms grow. I know that most writers who use newsletters will also then use social media to promote the content, but what the newsletter does is use an old media form that isn’t sorted by algorithmic filtering or the network effects of social media. If you post something to a newsletter list, you know that it is very likely to reach those people on that list and that they are likely to see it (the delete button allowing), however it might circulate after that point. You don’t need to worry about it being edged out by some stickier content. So newsletters carry the appeal of bypassing algorithmic invisibility. As people come to experience algorithmic filtering they are likely to feel they are more often on the losing side. The newsletter might appeal in these terms.

The newsletter also doesn’t require a shared temporality in the way that social media does. The desired rhythms of social media, as Elinor Carmi has described them, don’t need to be matched. With social media you are going to need potential readers to check their feed sometime close to the thing being posted, whereas the newsletter can sit in an inbox, waiting to be found. Of course, that then puts the newsletter into the pile of email, which is itself a problem. With the vast amounts of emails that lots of people get, the newsletter always runs the risk of being deleted without opening. It also requires the person checking their inbox to reach the newsletter at a moment when they are prepared to stop and read (unless they click through and save it as a web page to read later, or have some other such practice for keeping content for a better moment). The newsletter may escape the rhythms of social media but it doesn’t escape the defining rhythms of everyday life that Henri Lefebvre wrote of.

What we are seeing here is another way that platforms are enabling different network structures to develop. With newsletters, as with messaging focused platforms like WhatsApp and WeChat, the focus is upon more direct and less dispersed networks. It might only become clearer over the next couple of years if this will remain the case. The limitations of newsletters themselves might yet become an issue. It’s also not clear at the moment if writers will stick with these more personal media or if they will seek to return to more established types of publications. I notice that many of these established media outlets also have their own newsletters, and often even have a range of newsletters that focus on different topics. So the newsletter format is stretching into different publications and different parts of the media.

The expansion of newsletter providers, such as Substack, along with the routine use of newsletters would suggest that they might persist. This is in part a consequence of the draw of the newsletter as a format, but it might also be a result of both the erosion of established print media and a rumbling disaffection with social media invisibilities. Together these are pushing people toward newsletters. That combination of forces is likely to mean that this is a longer term change.

Where we are used to the march of remediation, the return to newsletters is perhaps, on the surface at least, something closer to a form of unmediation. It is not a removal of mediation, of course, but the newsletter format is perceived to provide a means of sanding away some of its layers. This, of course, is not really unmediation, it instead provides a sense of being less exposed to the vagaries of algorithms (even if that content then finds an audience by circulating through those very filtering media when shared and so on). Absent of obvious filtering, we can at least pretend that the newsletter is somehow more of a meritocracy. It could be that other trends in media might also feel like they are less mediated. In the context of algorithmic systems, the impression of unmediation is a powerful thing.

Another way to think of this is to see it as a pursuit of the personal without personalisation. The newsletter represents a kind of personal engagement with media - a newsletter is selected to be followed and the individual then reads what they want of those issues delivered to their inbox, with a sense of some sort of connection between the author and reader likely to emerge. Personalisation on the other hand, is automated, predictive and somehow colder. It's about using data to anticipate what might be read and to shape encounters. However accurate the perception might be, the newsletter is likely to be seen to offer the personal without the mediating factor of active and automated personalisation processes. The unmediation of newsletters is tied into this notion of the personal and the unfiltered.



The first thing that struck me about this chart was the neatness of the numbers. In the information for the chart Statista note that the ‘figures were rounded by the source’.