The Psychology Behind The Newsletter Boom — #104
Or, why everyone you know is launching Newsletters.
It's been a couple of weeks without a Thursday deep dive. If I don't have anything interesting to dive into, I won't.
But this week, I wanted to talk about the recent Newsletter revival.
Have you noticed it, too?
After the summer holidays, many people in my online circle started personal newsletters — distributing them through email, LinkedIn, Substack, and Google Drive (!).
They are strategists, experts, or just bored at work. Building themselves up as thought leaders. And I realise I fall right into this category — so this issue is all very meta.
Newsletters used to be very uncool.
Email was always the most old-school of the digital channels — a way to reach the few who didn't know how to use social media.
Sending emails was for boomers.
So, what changed?
The revival of Newsletters (primarily for email, but also broadly speaking) could be explained through three simultaneous trends:
New technology like Substack and Beehiiv has lowered the bar for publishing newsletters and made it "feel cool".
Twitter's ongoing collapse forces everyone who prefers text as a medium to find new ways to communicate.
Newsletters make it possible to make money from the content consumers directly (through subscriptions, not ads), something that previously required knowing how to take a camera.
However, I also think there are three underlying drivers behind the recent Newsletter boom, and I'll get into them below. (Spoiler: Not all are positive).
Zooming out also indicates that there's a bigger macro shift behind this trend. So, I'll end with that.
A. People seem to miss creating long-form content.
In a world where everything is consumed in less than three seconds, it seems like many of us are looking for deeper connections. I know I do.
Two-hour-long podcasts, 24/7 live streams on Twitch, and exclusive group chats for paying members suggest this wish is universal.
Unfortunately — for all the Newsletter creators out there — a decreasing number of people consume written long-form content.
I'm pretty sure most of you don't read this newsletter every week, or read all of it when you do. Open rates on my Sunday emails vary by 20% from a good week to a bad one.
Also, it takes a lot of time to create great emails, much more than most people would ever guess. And gaining a following is slow. So, I suspect many recent newsletter creators will make an effort-impact calculation after a couple of issues and stop.
The fact that we (well, some of us) seem to love sharing our thoughts even though no one is interested in reading what we have to say, feels paradoxical. A substantial mismatch between the urge to speak, and the wish to listen — as typical in email as in life in general.
B. We are trying to escape the noise in our online spaces.
Every time there is an opportunity to communicate with established audiences in a new channel, people take it.
Email feels more intimate and personal. Most of us don't share our email addresses with just anyone. So, the fact that you get to send newsletter content directly to someone's inbox — their most private online space — can feel very special.
But yet again, it looks different on the recipient's side.
The number of cold emails I get daily, and the share of unread emails in my inbox, is starting to make me reconsider if I'm still in charge.
And while filling our inboxes with relevant content might feel efficient, aren't we just creating another information dumpster to dive through on the hunt for what we find truly valuable?
I don't think I'm the only one seeking refuge from the noise — wanting to stay connected on my own terms. The constant search for new platforms is turning us into digital refugees.
But just like we destroy our physical world through excessive consumption and pollution, we also create a digital wasteland with the constant capitalisation of our online spaces.
C. In uncertain times, the perceived value of being "someone important" increases
The final aspect is less about the content itself, but rather about why we feel the need to showcase ourselves online.
In times of inflation, recession, layoffs and AI rapidly disrupting the workplace, many knowledge workers are concerned about their futures.
More people are launching into independent consulting, needing to generate demand for their services. Others try to make sure they have options.
Feathering one's nest.
Since the dawn of the internet, we've learned that we should gather followers online. "You never know when they come in handy".
Having fans a network is increasingly important when job security fades; you never know who you need to know to get ahead.
But also, while consumption of long-form content is decreasing (see point A), we still put a premium on the ability to write well in modern society.
Being a good writer means your thinking is clear, you know how to communicate your thoughts, and you've read enough books. These are all traits that make people assume you're brighter than most.
Newsletters combine the opportunity to build a fanbase and show off your intelligence — a perfect match in an insecure job market.
But is this all?
No. There's one more thing ...
Stuck in a loop of two macro trends: thought leadership and declining mental health
The 2020s are becoming the decade of the "thought leader".
People who say clever things with the aim to make people follow them.
This trend is likely fueled by a media logic that focuses on individuals—constantly feeding us the fame and fortune from optimising our lives for thousands of followers, instead of a handful of friends.
So we (well, not ALL of humankind, but a surprisingly large number of the 2.35 billion monthly active Instagram users) constantly seek stories to tell or opinions to share, that can impress, provoke, or influence a large number of people at once.
Unfortunately ... Egocentrism in adulthood warps our cognitions and harms our mental health, physical health, and interpersonal relationships. (Anyone who's seen depression up close knows how hard it is to interact with somebody trapped in an egocentric state.)
And the worse we feel, the more we focus on ourselves — sharing even more of ourselves online. And while it might feel good in the short term, it ultimately makes us feel worse.
That's a nice downward spiral for you.
This obsession with ourselves is not healthy — not for the individual, and not for society. According to WHO, there has been a 13% rise in mental health conditions and substance use disorders in the last decade.
So, even the data shows we're not doing great.
And I think, rather than trying to make ourselves feel more important, we need to come to terms with our insignificance.
We need purpose-driven leaders, not influencers. We need deep conversations about hard things. We need friends that let us be uninteresting, tired, sad or stupid. We don't need more books on how to make people like us.
And yes, I realise I could focus more on how great it is that more smart people share their thoughts with the world for free.
But that isn't really my thing.
And I'm well aware of the irony in the fact that I just shared my personal views on a random topic.
But I also struggle massively with the thought leadership that comes with being an entrepreneur. It makes me anxious and egocentric.
To conclude ...
When starting this newsletter in 2019, I was looking for a way to push myself to stay up today in my role as a strategist. The newsletter is a tool that helps me spend hours researching every week, and save what I find for later.
Of course, I care that you read what I write and find it valuable. I love it when you share this newsletter with your friends and the list grows or email me about something you read.
Knowing this isn't particularly healthy for me - or the world -makes me conflicted.
But I try to focus on that initial purpose every time I struggle. I truly think that all my research makes me a better strategist, entrepreneur, friend and human.
And if you enjoy reading it, that's just a bonus.
Have any thoughts about today's topic? Just reply to this email, and your reply will land in my inbox.