By TEDDY WAYNE
“If there’s one silver lining in this whole thing: Donald Trump has cured my Impostor Syndrome,” Maris Kreizman, the editorial director of the Book of the Month Club, wrote this past week in her personal email newsletter, “The Maris Review.” “If he thinks he’s qualified to run this country, I can do whatever I want.”
Let’s recap — not the election or imposture of Mr. Trump, but the trajectory of the mass-distributed personal update.
In the beginning, there was the holiday letter, an annual mimeographed review delivered by post to a roster of relatives and friends.
Then, from the late 1990s through the aughts, came the periodic mass-email update: often deployed by backpacking or otherwise soul-searching 20-somethings, easy and free to disseminate, with recipients blind carbon-copied to prevent a vicious Reply All cycle.
This was followed by the advent of blogs, and the private suddenly went public. These were soon usurped by social networking applications, especially Facebook, which enabled even the technically challenged to relay news about their lives to a wide spectrum of people, not always their intimates, and at more frequent intervals.
But there was more to come. We now find ourselves in the era of the personal email newsletter, an almost retro delivery system that blurs borders between the public and the private, and mashes up characteristics of the analog and digital ages.
Thanks to, among other services, TinyLetter, a division of the email marketer MailChimp, people who want to apprise a subscriber base of their thoughts and goings-on have a new, straight-to-inbox outlet.
But this is not quite the Wild West of standard social media, in which just about anyone can follow anyone and comment on or repost previous updates. TinyLetter, a free service, caps subscribers at 5,000 per newsletter (users who want more can pay for a MailChimp account), so it is not a platform for celebrities who want to capitalize on their popularity.
With its twee name and Etsy-fied graphic design (the “i” in “TinyLetter” is sometimes dotted with a heart), it’s more of a small-batch brew tailored to the creative class, particularly those seeking to hone their prose skills in a semipublic forum.
The newsletters are titled and usually follow a theme, such as Justin Wolfe’s daily “thank you notes,” nearly all of whose sentences begin with the words “I’m thankful” and which functions as a gratitude journal.
Bucking the stricter limits of Twitter and Facebook posts, these TinyLetters can be any length, and can be seen as an epistolary backlash to the complexity-stunting brevity of social media. Unlike a personal email or postal letter, however, TinyLetters go to multiple recipients, just like that old family newsletter, and a performative element inevitably enters into the composition.
Their creators, though, tend to profess modesty.
“I was a blocked writer and wanted to start writing something that was low stakes and didn’t have to be perfect,” said Ruth Curry, a co-publisher of the independent literary imprint Emily Books.
Ms. Curry’s self-explanatorily titled TinyLetter, “Coffee & TV,” “was for my friends who don’t live in New York, and coffee and TV was a way to organize my thoughts to do something that wasn’t just a diary entry, to keep my powers of observation sharp,” she said. “I try not to overthink it. If I knew it was going to be published, I’d be freaked out and probably not do it.”
Ms. Kreizman began her newsletter, which runs down her weekly media diet, after her book based on her popular Tumblr, “Slaughterhouse 90210,” was published and she still had events and writing to publicize. “Of course I couldn’t just do one promoting myself, because that’s stupid, so it became a way for me to weigh in on all the things I loved that week,” she said.“If it were a ton of work, I would stop — this is a little side thing.”
Though Ms. Kreizman’s Tumblr account’s 160,000 followers dwarf her approximately 1,000 TinyLetter subscribers, she prefers the more intimate relationship. And, perhaps, the less passive one: Newsletters have a “push” component, meaning content is foisted upon recipients, as opposed to the “pull” aspect of the typical blog or social media post, where content is made available for people to find of their own accord.
Yet because of the subscription limit and the fact that users can remove recipients from the mailing list, TinyLetters carry a greater impression of privacy than blogs.
“The blog was too public,” said Charlotte Shane (a pen name), a sex worker who had maintained blogs that usually featured anecdotes about her work. So she switched to “Prostitute Laundry,” a TinyLetter that she wrote from 2014 to 2015.
“I felt like people took advantage of my self-disclosure and vulnerability there — they would write crazy emails that were unhinged and entitled and abusive,” Ms. Shane said of her blog. “TinyLetter did a good job mitigating that. There’s a sense of intimacy that’s reciprocal with delivering an email direct to your inbox.”
The partially closed format also helped further protect the identities of her anonymous clients, and she appreciated knowing exactly who was reading (or at least the email address being used).
Ms. Kreizman said her subscribers take her recommendations seriously, and editors have inquired about writer friends whose work she has promoted. “That’s my favorite experience — doing the book matchmaking,” she said.
There is an old-fashioned aspect to the TinyLetter. Entries can be archived for public consumption, effectively turning it into a blog. But some writers, such as Ms. Shane, do not save them for posterity, so the only way to read certain newsletters is to subscribe and receive them at the moment they are sent.
Thus they hark back to the ephemerality of pre-internet media consumption, when one likely had to buy a periodical to read that specific issue or watch a TV show in its broadcast time slot or else risk missing it forever.
“I liked the challenge of getting people to stick with it without a bunch of back story,” Ms. Shane said, observing that the absence of previous entries for some of her recipients altered her writing style from that on her blogs. “I tried to keep a more coherent, stronger narrative going, so that even if somebody got a letter and didn’t know the particulars of my life, it would be accessible and engaging enough. My blog had less of a narrative — it was more a collection of anecdotes.”
Ms. Shane said she is now “mostly retired” from sex work and has refocused her writing efforts on freelance journalism. She parlayed her TinyLetter’s popularity into a successful Kickstarter campaign, raising almost $28,000, and self-published the 56 entries as a book.
But not everyone’s confidence (or career) will get a boost from the service, which provides click metrics on individual letters and subscribers. You can easily see if a friend you have signed up (or those who have voluntarily subscribed) has no interest in your newsletter. Even worse, users may elect to be notified if someone has unsubscribed, making it harder to opt out without causing some friction.
Understandably, not all TinyLetter writers choose to tick this box.
“There’s enough heartache in the world,” Ms. Kreizman said.