For the last year I’ve been writing a weekly newsletter that goes out by email. Yes, email. Here’s why and what I’ve learned.
I started writing Elements & Embodiment after reading a cluster of books that started unbreaking my brain from the damage done to it by digital platforms. The books were Digital Minimalism, Work Clean, Deep Work, The Shallows, and some others. The platforms are the big ones, the usual suspects. I did the digital detox outlined by Cal Newport in DM and learned there are two worthwhile, practical reasons for me to be on those platforms: 1. To know when and where my local friends are having music/culture/community events. 2. To learn of articles friends and colleagues are reading. Anything else is outside my values, health, and capacity. I know I sound like a Luddite.
A fix for the first point is easy: I now jump onto The Platform that May Decide The Election once a week and do one set of actions: I click on events, see where my friends are DJing or going to events that look fun, log those into my personal calendar, and them I’m out. No posting, no liking, and very little scrolling.
To fix the second point, I started using a RSS feed to bring relevant articles to me outside of these platforms. I should have done this a long time ago. What comes to me is actually better than what I could get via friends online. I now get posts from design blogs, music sites, The Anarchist Library, the usuals like The New Yorker, and I don’t get that same Education Week article across my feed 10 times in three days.
To keep track of this content, I started using a Pinboard to bookmark sites and articles that come my way through email, imbedded links, and really anywhere. The platform isn’t flashy (it’s been called “social bookmarking for introverts”), and it doesn’t need to be. I no longer have browser tabs open to articles and readings that I hope to come back to at a later point but usually don’t. They’re all in one place now. I occasionally schedule some time during the month to dig through what I’ve bookmarked. I often find things I didn’t know I had bookmarked. Or I’ll click on a tag I’ve generated – like “Dilla” – and see that all those would-be-open browser tabs have amounted to an interesting micro-archive on a topic. Pinboard sometimes feels like my record collection: I’ll go digging through it and find good stuff I somehow forgot I had.
So what do these other tools have to do with the newsletter? A good amount. But one other point first. I started writing and sending out the newsletter before telling anybody about it. That means it was going out to nobody. It felt right, trying this thing out and perhaps finding some kind of groove before letting others into it. I started sharing it on other platforms at issue #6 and letting people know they could sign up to receive it.
These other changes meant that over the past year, my primary way of communicating with folks “out there” was the newsletter. No Facebook posts; not a lot of tweets.
What I didn’t expect was how special this would feel – writing to a small group of people who signed up to read outside of the digital gaze. This felt different from people who read tweets or Facebook posts. In those places, it seems – at least to me – that we’ve fallen into a kind of entanglement with one another by the algorithm coaxing us into hitting the friend or follow button. Typing your email address into the newsletter “sign up” field isn’t a heavy lift, but there’s more intention behind it and more of a willed decision compared to those other places. I know people want to be there and – just as important – can not be there if they no longer wish.
Knowing that a specific group of people might be expecting something from me in their inbox each Monday felt like a healthy push forward to write and finish an issue each week. What this push often did was send me digging through my Pinboard, reading articles I had bookmarked on the fly but not yet taken the time to read, and picking out connections among them to share. Maybe it was something on John Brown. Maybe it was a profile of T La Rock. Maybe it was a story about the ghostly radio broadcast outside Moscow that nobody claims to run. What’s in my Pinboard has reminded me how much I like to read permiscuously, far outside of any degree I have or subject I teach.
Digging into the archive often sent me searching for more on a topic to fill out a newsletter. So I’d plan to share some of Lorna Simpson’s collages because my RSS feed pulled an article from The Paris Review about her. But then I get to searching around and find another piece on her upcoming show in Hong Kong, and I’d be learning more about an artist or topic than I had when I started. In not too much time, an issue would be coming together, like #29. Sometimes an issue was on one topic, like OG Village Voice articles or John Brown abolition art. Other times – most times, actually – an issue was an assortment of treats, like issue #20: Myths & Proper Covers.. The tagline of the newsletter is rather accurate: my weekly path through art, education, culture, and more.
I’ve been slipping into the past tense above because after one year in, I think the newsletter may have run its course with respect to what it has done for me. Or maybe it’s this season we are all trying to survive, literally and morbidly. The way to find out for sure is to take a step back and see how it feels. 📝