Three years of The Fragment
I’ve just realised that the 14th of March marked three years since I set up The Fragment newsletter (or blog) on Substack. It began as a small experiment and has stayed reassuringly small. When I started the intention was to provide myself with a space to write whatever I wanted in whatever style or tone seemed fitting. It was a means for sharing ideas or other things that I’d come across that seemed interesting (books, articles, podcasts, etc). It was also a way of keeping the writing moving. Over that period there have been moments when I've had to put it on the back burner - it went quiet a few times due to personal necessity, because of the periods of UCU strike action (sending solidarity to fellow UCU members) or because of the weight of wider circumstances. (Justin E H Smith has just posted some thoughts on his Substack about writing and recent events).
Looking back over that three years, I’ve averaged around two posts a month. It's more than I anticipated and there was never supposed to be any type of schedule anyway. The posts have just arrived whenever I’ve had the time or when, on occasion, I felt like there may be something to say or to share. The approach I’ve taken has changed over that time too. The early newsletters were more about links and information, I’ve moved slowly toward writing them more as short articles and reviews (I never quite plucked up enough courage to post the five short stories I wrote under the working title Tales of the Unconnected).
Many posts have been about particular developments in media and technology, responding to news stories or to things I’ve found in my research, but there have also been a few book reviews as well as the occasional pieces on TV and music. I’ve never really wanted to strengthen the newsletter’s niche, even though this is apparently a recipe for success that is often prominent in newsletter advice. Any niche I go for is likely to get in the way and would miss the point of having an alternative space to experiment with.
I’ll also continue to leave its future uncertain. I operate this newsletter with no structures and no expectations, I find that that means I can avoid it becoming another pressure. I can understand the draw of scheduling things into a pattern, but the problem is that this Substack could quickly move from being a space of creativity to becoming what, in a great piece on burnout culture for the TLS, Irina Dumitrescu describes as a grey figure in a bowler hat. There is no plan and I've resisted thinking of it as a permanent fixture (even if it ends up turning out to be a long term thing). I like the idea that I can end it at any time. I like the idea that it is here only as long as it feels like it has a purpose. There is no pressure in writing a newsletter if you are prepared to stop posting things anytime that it no longer feels worth it.
As well as thinking about this newsletter as a going concern (I wrote here about the place of newsletters in the wider media ecology), the third anniversary has also got me reflecting on writing and why I bother to write in this blogging type of mode. Although Substack is relatively new in many ways it feels like old fashioned blogging. The platforms vary a bit but the feel is quite similar - with that feel of a sort of loose community sharing ideas. So the last three years has really just been an extension of the blogging I’ve done for many years. Blogging has always seemed like a worthwhile use of time.
It’s easy to think that limited time means that this type of writing is a waste of a very rare resource. I do come back to this question from time to time. I always find that blogging actually seems to help things along. Unlike more substantial pieces, because it can be done in little gaps of time it’s useful for exercising the pen. I also find that it helps to keep ideas simmering away and can feed into and inform bigger writing projects. In terms of teaching, it helps to build a stock of examples that can be drawn upon in lectures and seminars. Blogging also pushes me reflect a little on books and articles that I can then work into teaching sessions and supervision. And then there is the sense of community that blogging or newsletters can bring with them. Plus, as I’ve mentioned, newsletters do provide a space for trying things out and for capturing ideas. A little like a notebook perhaps. Whatever they are, they seem useful to me. So it never seems like a waste of time.
That brings me to the question of audience. There is far too much to read out there. Far too much to cope with. As I write this post my subscriber list for The Fragment newsletter currently stands at 901 (it goes up and down). I know that it’s a modest number, thats fine with me, I’m pleased to have any subscribers. Building a newsletter list takes time, especially if you don’t do much to promote it, which I don’t. I really should do more. It is easy to find lots of advice about how to do it - how to get to x number of subscribers in y number of months, and the like. Still, I like the idea of letting it (hopefully) grow over time and of its own accord (see the link above if you want to recommend the newsletter to anyone). Leaving the newsletter as a quiet presence, I like to let people stumble upon it or discover it in some other way. So I’m going to go against the advice concerning niches, schedules and promotion. I’m quite happy to write away in this space for whoever happens to have found their way here.
There may be more to come or there may not. I don’t know what it will be or when I’ll send it. Some interesting looking books that I ordered have just arrived (Algorithms and Subjectivity by Eran Fisher and Revolutionary Mathematics by Justin Joque, plus The Ideological Condition by Himani Bannerji and Afterlives of Data by Mary F.E. Ebeling are on order), perhaps I’ll post something about them. Maybe.
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