How Email Has Changed Reading And Writing

Me not reading an email at all

Every day I write an email to 1,750+ people and a few of them write back. It’s an interesting form of writing, both internet and intimate at the same time. Newsletters are also where I get much of my ‘news’ these days. It’s an interesting form of reading, both the dopamine of digital and laudanum of a letter. Do I enjoy it? I enjoy it. Email is dead, and long live email, at long last.

My daughter is six and email is the only connectivity she has. I recently gave her iMessage to chat/call her mother and she didn’t understand that difference. I said, “you use email for more serious stuff and iMessage for chat.” She said, ““but I use email for chat” and it’s true. Email, iMessage, WhatsApp, DMs, it’s all the same basic functionality function. You could have the same conversation on any platform. We just don’t for cultural reasons more than technical. Email is interesting because it went from culturally lame to somehow cool, which is a rare comeback for technology.

Email was exciting once, but as the 2010s dragged on, it became more like a form of ID. Essential, but not fun. You logged in with your email to more fun things, but you didn’t log in to email for fun. A lot of people's emails became like their snail mail boxes, full of bills, receipts, some essential things, and a lot of garbage. Most people have hundreds, if not thousands of unread emails. You have to have an email account, but you don’t have to like it. And most of us don’t. Until the 2020s, ish.

After the US government killed Aaron Swartz and Google killed Google Reader, RSS (real simple syndication) fell into decline. RSS was simple and elegant, a way of ‘following’ websites without checking all the time. It was open and beautiful and tragically not long for this world, like the beautiful mind of its co-creator. RSS still exists, but there is no popular way to use it. Most people instead ‘follow’ things through social media, which leads them astray and angry most of the time. It was a dark time.

Then, surprisingly, email, that literal bin of history, came back as the RSS reader you didn’t know you needed. That’s all newsletters really do, let you follow websites, only through Gmail instead of Google Reader. Like dinosaurs, letters found a way to survive. And with payments clearly integrated, they thrive.

Substack more than anybody is responsible for this, but I trust them as much as I trust anybody. Personally, I pay money for Ghost and don’t tithe VCs rediscovering email, because I fear they’ll eventually get bored and leave me in a bind. But however you send email, a lot of writers are doing it, and getting paid, which is a rather essential part of writing.

Does it work as work? I mean, no, don’t quit your day job. Maybe some 1% of writers, most of them professionally wrong, are balling out, but the rest are just on the daily grind. I’m pretty damn good at writing and possibly historically relevant, but I only make around $450 a month from email subscribers. I could make much more from a bullshit job, if I just could avoid getting fired. I still make much more ($2,000 this month) from Medium, which is some other model of shared subscriptions plus a little bit of VC pixie dust (aka cocaine). I’m probably in the top 1–2% of writers on Medium and I find it insane that ‘starting a newsletter’ is pitched as an income opportunity, with $250 ‘courses’ to help you get started. Seems like there’s more money in the pyramid scheme than in actually building this pyramid of content, which is just a grind.

I won’t get into that anymore, because it’s irrelevant. I spent so many years of my life feeling bad that my life didn’t fit into capitalism, but now I realize that capitalism is fucked up, not me. For whatever reason, I’m cursed to be a writer and — as a medium — email has been a blessing. Because email is letters, and letter-writing has been a dope form of writing since ink was first dipped. I was talking to a poet who researched another poet, and I was surprised that he existed and could also split the bill. I was even more surprised when he told me that the poet he was researching sold his letters to some archive, for good money. That was a thing. Kiddush, what a blessing. Those guys monetized email without even a mailing list.

I think back on history and letters were an intimate, vituperative, and relevant form of communication for poets, scientists, lovers, philosophers, and politicians. I dunno if they were really meant for public consumption, but they got consumed and they changed conversations. With newsletters, you get this chance to writer letters to no one, where potentially everyone can write back. As both a writer and a reader, I find it rewarding.

As a writer — unlike comments — most people that respond to an email aren’t going to be like ‘Fuck you! You’re stupid’ Psychologically, that’s one thing to comment on a website and another thing to email to someone, where they talk with their daughter and check on deliveries. You could, but in practice, people just don’t do it. Hence, I end up talking to a few people who send helpful links, or typos, who are almost uniformly apologetic and kind, even when I’ve completely missed something and need a kick in the pants. It’s a hand on the shoulder instead. It’s friendly. Perhaps that’s my experience and at scale it becomes the traditional blistering, but I can’t really imagine someone signing up to hate someone in their email. Seems exhausting.

As a reader, on the other side, I feel like I can connect with ‘experts’ in the way Twitter used to do, without everybody else on Twitter making me angry. I can correspond with people without actually corresponding. I can go deeper into subjects without subjecting myself to extraneous bullshit. If I read on email, I’m in my email program (Hey) and not A) on a website or B) prey to some algorithm. Nobody is deciding anything for me, I have made a very concrete decision to follow one person and that’s all I get. It’s digital, not a deluge, which is comforting. Feels like water, not getting wasted, which is what I prefer to get out of reading.

Because I am growing old and curmudgeonly, it’s comfortable to me retreat into email. I’d honestly like to retreat into snail mail, or burying stone tablets in the backyard; I’ll get there eventually. I think email has changed reading and writing for the better, if only because the medium is so boring that it allows for the content to be interesting. It feels like the like button overtook actual likable content and sharing overtook caring. But email is just email, and writers can be writers and readers can be readers, without all the other things. It’s nice to have a dumb pipe like email. I think it makes for smart thinking.