Why newsletters beat social media

There’s been a lot of talk (a lot from me, specifically) on why social media itself is exploitive and the companies who run social media platforms have an unscrupulous business model of selling our privacy and data for profit.

Because these platforms don’t charge users, they resort to advertising and data profiteering. Anytime we’re presented with “free software” we’ve just not taken into consideration the revenue model of the company and where us and our data fit into maximizing their profits.

We may not directly pay for social media, but we definitely pay for it with the trade-offs we make to use it. As Benjamin Franklin once said (probably), software users who trade privacy for functionality deserve neither.

This is where email and newsletters differ entirely and why I think they’re better than social media. Companies who provide us with newsletter and email marketing software charge us for it—this is their business model. They charge well too (i.e. it’s not cheap, especially at scale). I pay over $230/month for Mailchimp so I can keep sending you emails. But this cost (the most I pay for monthly software by a lot) is worth it because it’s doubly profitable: Mailchimp makes enough money from me so they don’t have any need to sell my or my subscribers’ data. And I make enough money from my products by sending emails on their platform to cover the costs and not have to resort to ever selling data from my subscribers either. So it’s a win-win-win!

This is why I care so much about newsletters and almost not at all about social media. You won’t find me on Facebook or Instagram, or even on Linkedin. Yes, I use Twitter, but mostly just to post silliness or snark or connect with folks I know.

I put my “business stock” into newsletters. They have a high return on investment for me, but they also mean that I get to control my own platform. If I didn’t want to use Mailchimp anymore (though I doubt that’d ever happen, since Freddie and me are BFFs), I could export my list and import it into any newsletter software provider that exists easily and quickly—I wouldn’t have to start again and I wouldn’t be worried that Mailchimp would start emailing my subscribers without their consent. Try exporting your “page likers” from Facebook or even your followers on Twitter… oh wait, you can’t do that?! That’s because those platforms own your data and own your social connections, not you. They own the connection you have with the people who connect with you there. There’s no portability and they can absolutely take and use those connections to further their own bottom line. They can also change the way you use their platforms, based on their whims. You want to reach your likers? It’s now $5 or more.

As Craig Mod wrote in WIRED in his epic The ‘Future Book’ Is Here, but It’s Not What We Expected:

We simply cannot trust the social networks, or any centralized commercial platform. Email is definitely not ideal, but it is: decentralized, reliable, and not going anywhere—and more and more, those feel like quasi-magical properties.

Mailing list data is owned by the sender and not governed by changing algorithms. No one company controls email. No single company can get between a sender and their recipient (even though Google tries with those damn tabs and their spam policies).

Connecting and socializing via email serves as a direct connection from writer to reader. We don’t need to pay for this connection, past paying for the software that we use (which is exchangeable, as I stated above). And people can stop the connection at any time by clicking an unsubscribe link. Or they can engage in that connection by hitting reply (replies from you go to my personal inbox, because my newsletter goes to your personal inbox, and I feel like fair is fair).

Email and newsletters also feel like they’re instant but slow enough. Emails don’t go away if you don’t check your inbox for a few hours. Group chats require constant paying attention, to ensure we don’t miss anything. Social media tricks our brains into all sorts of things to keep us coming back. But email is simple: replying quickly, in most cases, doesn’t make your reply any better. It can be quick, but doesn’t have to be. It shows up in a place where most people spend a great deal of time—their inbox—and doesn’t require adding or installing yet another thing to constantly check in on.

Email has been around for 30 years and I can’t see it going away. People keep pronouncing it dead and a few years later it’s still alive and kicking. Like the web, email is one of the few open standards we have left. No one organization or company governs its use, and no one can get in the way of the sender and the recipient.