It all happened so quickly, about a year ago today. One minute, hardly anyone had heard of the ad-free social network Ello. The next, it was a viral sensation, spawning countless think pieces on its chances for survival. Then, as quickly as it appeared, Ello faded from the spotlight. Now, only a year later, Ello is nearly forgotten, filed away with other would-be Facebook killers like the open source Diaspora and the near-dead Google+.
All three are still around, but needless to say, none has managed to lead a mass exodus away from Facebook. Meanwhile, the conversation among Facebook’s critics seems to have shifted from trying to replace the service with something better to pressuring the company to improve its privacy protections and ditch its real-name policy.
But one service has quietly emerged as the go-to alternative to Facebook and other big social media sites: the email newsletter service TinyLetter.
Your list of email addresses is yours in a way few things online ever are.
The site, owned by email marketing company Mailchimp, has managed to avoid two of the biggest pitfalls of other Facebook alternatives: technical complexity and the empty room problem. First of all, it’s incredibly easy to use. Sending a newsletter is as simple as posting a status update to Facebook. Secondly, you don’t have to convince people to install yet another app in order to build an audience. Anyone with an email address—which is pretty much everyone, despite many efforts to kill email—can subscribe to your newsletter.
Journalists and techies have flocked to TinyLetter in recent years, slowly building its reputation as the hippest place to publish online. But it’s also starting to catch on outside the media and technology bubbles with newsletters dedicated to yoga, poetry and music, among other things. Today it has more than 161,000 users creating newsletters and more than 14 million subscribers to those newsletters, says Mailchimp’s Kate Kiefer Lee.
Yes, this means TinyLetter isn’t about to catch up with Twitter and its 316 million active monthly users, let alone Facebook’s 1.5 billion. But it doesn’t actually have to displace social networks to succeed. Rather, it provides a viable way for people to reach an audience without depending exclusively on Facebook or anyone else’s closed platform.
Just a Newsletter
Mailchimp doesn’t bill TinyLetter as a Facebook replacement, nor was it ever meant to be. When entrepreneur Philip “Pud” Kaplan created the site in 2010, he told TechCrunch he thought of it as an alternative to blogs. In the early 2000s, Kaplan ran Fuckedcompany, a site that tracked the demise of tech companies during the dotcom crash of the early 2000s. Fuckedcompany had an email newsletter that reached thousands of people, and Kaplan wanted a way to reach a large audience without the work that goes into maintaining a personal blog.
Of course many other mailing list applications also exist, but Kaplan was frustrated by their complexity. What sets TinyLetter apart is its simplicity. TinyLetter offers limited analytics and doesn’t include advanced features such as the ability to send messages to a select portion of your audience. But this lack of options also makes it far easier to use.
“TinyLetter appealed because I didn’t want to start, you know, a mailing list,” explains Fusion editor-in-chief and former WIRED contributor Alexis Madrigal, who publishes a newsletter called “>RealFuture. “I wanted to start a newsletter.”
The service soon attracted high-profile users such as Digg co-founder and former Google Ventures partner Kevin Rose. It was sold off to Mailchimp. But there was no real “viral moment” for the site. Instead, it’s been a slow, steady build. Journalists like Ann Friedman and Madrigal boosted the service’s visibility, as did programmer Rusty Foster, whose daily newsletter on the best and the worst of the internet, Today in Tabs, became a Newsweek online column before being picked up by Fast Company. But none of the newsletterists we talked to for this story could remember exactly where they heard about the service.
“Somehow, my fingers knew to type in that URL when I woke up one morning and decided to make the thing,” says Madrigal.
“Why TinyLetter?” is an easier question to answer than “why email newsletters?” For many users, social media has become impersonal. Facebook algorithmically curates what we see, while Twitter overwhelms us with a firehose of fast-moving content, and LinkedIn is, well, LinkedIn. The most important part of the email newsletter’s appeal is that it still feels intimate—even if you are sending emails to total strangers. “Email is a weird medium, it’s both personal and massive,” says Foster.
Though it’s harder to get people to sign-up for an email newsletter than it is to follow your Twitter account, email readers tend to be more engaged. Your status updates may breeze right by your friends—if they see them at all—but people tend to pay far more attention to their email. “Almost 16 thousand people have somehow found their way to subscribing to my newsletter,” Madrigal says. “And on an average day, maybe 51, 52 percent of them open it. That’s pretty amazing to me.”
Part of that has to do with the fact that people don’t have to remember to visit yet another site. “Email appeals to my laziness,” Foster says. “You can just subscribe, and neither one of us has to do anything again. If you don’t like it, you can unsubscribe.”
But it’s more than just a better way to reach people. For years, geeks and activists have called for more decentralized alternatives to social media. Email, the original social media, is about as decentralized as it gets. “Even though I’m going through TinyLetter’s system, it feels like I have more control than I would using something else,” says Deb Chachra, the author of the technology criticism newsletter Metafoundry.
Email, the original social media, is about as decentralized as it gets.
Opting for the simplicity of TinyLetter instead of using a self-hosted option like PHP Newsletter or Sendy does mean giving up some control. If TinyLetter goes away, all your links to your sign-up form on their site will break, as will any archives you host on their site. But look at this way: If you decide to leave Facebook, you can’t import your Facebook friends into Twitter. But if you want to leave TinyLetter, you can export your subscriber list and easily import it into another mailing list system. Your list of email addresses is yours in a way few things online ever are. Even a domain name, which can expire or be seized, is less permanent.
TinyLetter is completely free. For now at least, Mailchimp is simply running TinyLetter as a kind of public service for the eclectic mix of people using it. The most obvious business rationale for the service is that it could serve as marketing for its paid mailing list services, which provide more in-depth analytics, list segmentation features, and the ability to send far more emails per day. But Lee says there’s not much cross-over between TinyLetter users and Mailchimp customers.
Mailchimp doesn’t even get much, if any, data out of running TinyLetter—Lee says that TinyLetter’s data doesn’t feed into Mailchimp’s analytics at all. Nor is advertising in the cards, she says. “It’s important to all of us that people feel like TinyLetter is a safe place,” she says. “They write to a known number of subscribers, they know who is subscribing, they trust us not to do anything with their accounts, so we’re very mindful of that.”
And if that ever changes, it will be easy for users to move on to the next thing. And that’s what makes email the ad-free Anti-Facebook we’ve been waiting for.
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