Nathan Hwang

Mail It and They Will Come

I’m replacing my moribund social network presence with an email newsletter.

The newsletter is actually three different newsletters, which differ mainly in how often they are sent:

The content of the newsletter is currently a grab bag; I’ll talk about notable life events, announce anything I made, and comment on what I read/watched/played/listened to over the previous time period (the previous month, if you’re signed up for the monthly, etc). Sample emails are linked to on the sign up pages for the monthly and quinquannual newsletters, if you want to take a look at what you’re getting into before you sign up.

Also note that the newsletters are planned to be around the same size, despite being sent at different frequencies. This means the less frequent newsletters will focus on the larger picture and omit smaller tidbits. If you want to know about every mediocre paper I read, then choose the monthly; if you want to know when I get married (ha!), choose the semiannual.

Of course, opting out is super simple, since I outsourced the actually-send-emails-to-people part to TinyLetter, and sending email is their bread and butter.

Wait, Email? But Why?

There are many reasons to move away from existing social networks, which are afflicted by filter bubbles, rampaging toxoplasmosis memes, an Eternal Summer[3], and trends towards ever simpler content[4].

However, none of these reasons are the ultimate motivation behind moving to a newsletter platform; instead, it’s a selfish concern. When I want to show people a thing I made, then I want to make sure you all see it. However, posting to a social network means an intermediary gets to decide whether anyone will see it in the first place. For example, the YouTube teaching phenomenon CGP Grey discovered that not all of his videos were being delivered to all his subscribers. Here the label “subscriber” used by YouTube heavily implies that one wants to see everything the subscription offers: it’s not expected that a magazine subscription delivers only 9 monthly issues in a year. And yet, YouTube switched to an algorithmic delivery model anyways. What hope do mere “friends” and “followers” have?

On the other hand, it’s obvious the algorithmic approach has good results, since so many services are adopting the model. However, it primarily has good results for casual consumers trying to tame their social media fire hoses. For me, it means I have to think about whether I need to tailor my messages to appeal to a black box in order to make sure even the people that want to see what I’m doing can do so. Even if I resist this tailoring pressure, I might unconsciously fall prey to a simpler trap, with a simple percolation of dopamine upon getting more Likes subtly leading to shorter and simpler messages digestible on the toilet.

It turns out that CGP Grey’s story has a happy ending: he simply made his own email feed to make sure people got updates, a way to let people state “yes, I really do want to see everything Grey makes makes”. I’m skipping past the “become mildly famous in any way” part and going straight to the email newsletter, and optimistically predicting that I’ll be doing enough things to be a fraction as interesting as CGP Grey or Gwern (who also has a newsletter).

To forestall an obvious question, it’s true, an email newsletter isn’t really social. I don’t have a space in which to “engage my followers”, and I think that’s fine. Want to talk about or comment on something in one of my newsletters? Shoot me an email, hit me up on text, or call me up. Let’s grab coffee, perhaps mull over ideas while grazing on lunch (note I mostly expect my irl friends to take me up on this: feel free to ask me otherwise, but temper your expectations).

Perhaps it’s a quixotic quest to wrest control away from the current crop of too big to fail social networks. But, I want to try something different. At least when I rant to my grandchildren about the time before Twitbook mediated all social interactions, I’ll know why only 20% of them see it.


[1] Quinquannual is the correct spelling, which can be derived by analogy from biannual and biennial, which mean twice a year and once every two years respectively. Google currently corrects the spelling of quinquannual to quinquennial, probably because no one actually does things 5 times a year.

[2] A friend jokingly suggested doing it quinquannially, because… honestly, issuing a quarterly report is about the most corporate thing I could do. It’s a heap of pretension on an already pretentious process (I know what people want, and what they want is more of me yelling on top of a non-standard soapbox! And I’ll deliver it to my “mindshareholders” in my quarterly report!). I wouldn’t be surprised if I burst into flame after sending the 3rd such newsletter, because the universe would realize what I was doing and bend the rules to spontaneously combust me. So, what can I say? Gods bless my weird-ass friends.

[3] By analogy to the Eternal September, when the floodgates of the internet opened up and more new people “got online” than could be assimilated into the existing internet culture and etiquette. The Eternal Summer, then, is the constant influx of photos from friends and acquaintances on vacation; with just 52 friends posting pictures from 1 week of vacation each, there’s always a vacation happening in your feed. This is thought to depress people, who measure themselves against a mosaic of their friends and find themselves boring in comparison. Yes, I’m coining a new phrase for an existing concept, sorry.

[4] The super obvious example of social media forcing simpler communication is Twitter limiting messages to 140 characters. Another example, based on personal observation, is that years ago I used to be able to respond to Facebook posts with science fiction short stories I would write on the spot; I tried the same exercise a few months ago, and everything was devoid of creative handles off which I could hang a story. What stories can you pull out of someone’s vacation photos, without layers of plot contrivance, without pissing off someone that just wanted to share photos with his mom?

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