The Newsletter Network Effect

Instead of ‘subscription fatigue,’ we’re probably seeing the opposite.

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When journalists flocked to independent newsletters last year, it seemed like the rush to the inbox would hit an inevitable limit. Readers would tire of signing up and paying for email, industry experts said, and the movement would fizzle.

Well, in the year since, the opposite has happened. As more writers began using email to publish and distribute their work, readers grew accustomed to finding quality news in their inboxes. And rather than grow tired of subscribing, they actually became more likely to seek multiple newsletters once they got used to reading one. 

“Subscribers to one Substack are more likely to subscribe to another,” Substack spokesperson Lulu Cheng Meservey told me. “And people are more likely to subscribe to a new publication if their email and payment information is already saved from a previous subscribe.”

I call this the “Newsletter Network Effect.” It’s not a perfect term, but what’s happening with newsletters is mirroring what happens to social networks as they expand. Just like each member of a social network makes the network more valuable, every additional newsletter writer makes reading news and analysis in the inbox more commonplace by introducing the behavior to new audiences. 

This phenomenon has paved the way for more independent writers to make a living, and it’s also shifting resources in larger media companies toward email. The New York Times, for instance, rolled out more than a dozen subscriber-only newsletters last month. Puck, a new digital media company, decided to debut with personality-driven newsletters ahead of a website. And Vox this week acquired Hot Pod, a newsletter about podcasts. The acquisition likely won’t be the last time a big publication buys a smaller newsletter. 

As a newsletter writer myself, I of course have a point of view on this. But I’m also a newsletter reader, and a relatively new one at that. I wouldn’t touch news in my inbox not long ago, preferring to read on the web or save for later. But now I’m subscribed to 30 newsletters on Substack and plenty more from established publications. My Gmail “Updates” tab is the place I go to read.

Gmail’s secondary tabs — like Updates — are starting to resemble Google Reader, bringing back memories of the beloved but defunct RSS reader. Compare the two products side by side and you might be surprised by the uncanny resemblance. I asked Google if it had any further plans to build around this experience, but the company declined to share.

Speak to anyone who works in tech, and they’ll tell you the most difficult part of the job is building new behaviors. More than coding or designing a great app or service, to break someone’s routine and get them to do something new is eminently difficult. Which is why most startups fail, no matter their product’s merits.

This is why I’m excited to be in the newsletter business right now. Reading in the inbox is a burgeoning new behavior that many — myself included — are just starting to develop, one that will get further entrenched as people stack up good experiences. It’s a good time to be writing for the inbox, and it’s a great time to be reading in it.  

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The value of time off 

This week is Big Technology’s first back after a long August away. For many months ahead of taking a break, I was pretty vocal about the need for employers to grant extended time off to employees who worked through the pandemic. And being that I run this newsletter on my own, I was lucky enough to grant myself a breather

Now on the other side, I can promise you this: After taking one month off this year, the work you see from me in the next eleven will be superior to what it would’ve been without. In the United States, where we too often tie self-worth to work, the idea of extended time off can be heretical. But I think it’s time for us to ask what our society and economy might gain by embracing a summer holiday.

News Briefs

Facebook Is Making Camera Glasses, Ha Ha Oh No (BuzzFeed News)

Facebook today announced a $299 pair of smart glasses, built with Ray-Ban. The glasses are a technological feat — they take crisp video and look like an ordinary pair of sunglasses — but it’s hard not to hate them. The glasses raise an array of privacy concerns, further transform our normal daily activities into content opportunities, and are especially fraught coming from Facebook. It’s surprising that a respected brand like Ray-Ban would attach its name to the glasses, it’s a major reputational risk. Katie Notopolous at BuzzFeed News (who’s generally been a fan of Facebook’s hardware efforts, like Portal) captures the concerns well in her review.

Amazon starts making its own TVs with new Fire TV Omni and 4-Series (The Verge)

Facebook isn’t the only Big Tech company releasing hardware this week, Amazon is getting in the game with its own television sets. Building televisions is not typically exciting, because the sets are cheap and commoditized. But Amazon’s product is interesting because integrates so many Amazon products. Think about this: People who buy these TVs could be watching Prime Video on an Amazon-built set, with a Fire TV interface, using Alexa voice commands to flip through channels, while monitoring what’s going on outside their homes in picture-in-picture with Ring. That’s wild.  

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This week on Big Technology Podcast: How The Music Industry Predicts The Future — With Zack O'Malley Greenburg

Zack O'Malley Greenburg is a music journalist who's spent time with everyone from Katy Perry to Kanye West. He joins Big Technology Podcast to discuss how the music industry seems to go through every major technology-driven shift before everyone else, including the decline of brick-and-mortar retail (see: Tower Records), to the rise of streaming content (Spotify), and even NFTs (WuTang's Once Upon a Time in Shaolin). Greenburg also discusses how he's applied lessons from some of the world's most successful musicians in his own career.

You can listen on Apple, Spotify, or wherever you get your podcasts.

Thanks again for reading and see you next Thursday!