Culture Vulture

A love letter to e-mail newsletters

Brain Pickings, a website by Brooklyn-based journalist Maria Popova, offers a newsletter self-described as "a free weekly interestingness digest". -- PHOTO: SCREENGRAB OF BRAINPICKINGS.ORG
Brain Pickings, a website by Brooklyn-based journalist Maria Popova, offers a newsletter self-described as "a free weekly interestingness digest". -- PHOTO: SCREENGRAB OF BRAINPICKINGS.ORG

With the social media experience being unfiltered, the e-newsletter lets people opt for something and there is a thrill in opening it

Lately, I've been doing something previously unheard of among the Internet- savvy: I've been gleefully - spam be damned! - signing up for e-mail newsletters.

It started with Brain Pickings, a website by Brooklyn-based journalist Maria Popova, which offers a newsletter self-described as "a free weekly interestingness digest".

A friend had forwarded an issue to me, and I became hooked on the wise advice from intellectuals, ranging from Bob Dylan to Alan Lightman, it contained, all distilled and paraphrased by Popova into salient quotes.

One day, moping around, and contemplating the similarities between writer's block and constipation, I checked my e-mail just as the latest Brain Pickings Weekly landed in my inbox. Its contents - Bukowski's Letter Of Gratitude To The Man Who Helped Him Quit His Soul-Sucking Job And Become A Full-Time Writer, Art, Inc.: A Field Guide To The Psychology And Practicalities Of Becoming A Successful Artist and David Foster Wallace On Writing, Self-Improvement, And How We Become Who We Are - spoke straight to me.

It was balm for my battered, rejection-slipped writer's confidence, serendipitously delivered right when I needed it.

Other beloved newsletters have swiftly followed. I ponied up my primary e-mail address (not the garbage-dump Hotmail one I fill in on lucky draw forms) to get Very Short List, an e-mail that shares arts and culture picks by different curators every few days.

There's literary website Electric Literature's Recommended Reading newsletter, which sends me a free short story on Wednesdays, chosen by the likes of Michael Cunningham and Jennifer Egan.

Similarly, DailyLit e-mails me bite-sized instalments of a book of my choice at a pre-set time daily, so that there's no excuse for me to not finish reading, say, War And Peace, 15 minutes each day.

Meanwhile, I've also signed up for The Weekly Wunderkammer, science-related tidbits compiled by former Bloomberg science reporter Elizabeth Lopatto, and 5 Intriguing Things published by The Atlantic magazine deputy editor Alexis Madrigal. On Portland, Oregon-based writer Laura E. Hall's newsletter on shifting social and technological cultures, Things I Love And Things I Fear, I found links to read up on what happens to abandoned digital cities and the consumption of such "ruin porn", which I hadn't even known was a thing.

All sorts of strange, mind-bending or inspiring information has been coming directly to me, via e-mail, for free. On Fridays, I religiously check my Honeycombers newsletter to get ideas on what to do around town for the weekend. And, for the kaypoh factor, I never miss reading Telum Media's Singapore alert, which updates me on which journalists have switched jobs in the local media industry.

The comeback of the curated e-mail newsletter in a climate chockfull of social media rubbish has not gone unnoticed. In November last year, Fast Company.com declared that "in a post-e-mail world, where our inboxes have turned into cesspools of responsibility, the Internet newsletter - against all odds - has made a comeback", crediting the "newsletters for dummies" service, TinyLetter, for the boom.

Canada's The Globe and Mail highlighted the trend in May this year, calling the newsletter "an interesting antidote to social media": "In a sense, if social media is a cascading river, then things like the newsletter are like little docks along the banks… Rather than feeling drowned by the stream or stuffed by the buffet, it seems we're now gravitating towards 'information moderation' - something that, in our age, seems like a good thing." The trend went mainstream in June, when The New York Times ran a piece headlined For E-mail Newsletters, A Death Greatly Exaggerated.

As writer Klint Finley put it on tech news website TechCrunch, "with the rise of newsletters and Snapchat and 'right to forget' legislation, it feels like we're going back even further, perhaps admitting that this whole web thing, with its search engines and caches and screenshots, were perhaps a bad idea to begin with and it's not to rip it up and start again from e-mail on up".

Much of what we experience on social media these days is unfiltered, uncontrolled. What appears on my Facebook news feed is at the mercy of the company's complicated algorithms that they adjust willy-nilly (and unless you disable it, the site's auto-play function for videos on your news feed further erodes your choice of what you want to see).

And with tons of content out there, mere Google searches are unlikely to efficiently separate the wheat from the chaff. Perhaps it is an illusion, but signing up for a newsletter gives me the choice of actually opting in for something, instead of constantly having to opt out for what is constantly being pushed at me. It's a tad liberating, if I must admit it, knowing that I must sound naff and naive.

The act of opening each e-mail newsletter is overlaid, for me, with the memory of early 1990s, nascent-web e-newsletters - mostly boring b2c (business-to-consumer) e-mails filled with badly formatted text on goods and services you didn't need. That nostalgia, however, is accompanied with the frisson of seeing anew, each time, how far we have come from those primitive beginnings. The new breed of simple and effective e-newsletters are put together by individuals who are often Internet brands unto themselves, possessing their own unique tastes and voices. Some e-newsletters are even a little like secret clubs: Subscribers are asked by the newsletter-publishers not to post links to them on social media.

Opening an e-mail newsletter comes with a mysterious little thrill. It works by way of surprise: What new and delightful corners of the web await me in the signposts contained in this latest missive? And surprise, in itself, is a function of the fight-or-flight response for survival. Scientists at Vanderbilt University have found that we become temporarily blinded by surprise - that surprising stimuli causes us to ignore everything else while focusing on the new item, to process whether it was a good or bad thing.

E-newsletters, then, are perhaps a way of reminding us that we need a way to cut right through the noise of 10 million bloggers chattering away at their keyboards. That, for all the talk of multi-tasking as a way of life for this and future generations, the human mind still wants to be jolted, once in a while, into considering something new with all its attention. That to survive the Internet Age, we must learn to occasionally give in to surprise.

Besides, what's the worst that can happen, should I sign up for way too many newsletters? I could simply let them languish in my seemingly limitless Gmail inbox, ready to be opened - or deleted - whenever I please.

stlife@sph.com.sg