Personal Newsletters are Social Media at Its Best
A new - old way of staying connected.
In the endless scroll through email, Instagram, and Facebook, I always pause when I see an issue of a personal newsletter: an email from a friend or acquaintance that updates you about their life.
When our time on social media can often make us feel worse, it’s amazing to see content that people love making and consuming. I talked to four people--two college students, an incoming Foreign Service officer, and a freelance journalist-- to learn about how they use newsletters to stay connected.
Mindy and Darcy
On March 17, Mindy Wu woke up to 5 texts about The Adventures of Tin Tin, a children’s book series. It was the morning after Mindy and her friend Darcy Cook had sent out their first newsletter where they asked: “Have you heard of the Adventures of TinTin? Mindy thought everyone was forced to read it in language classes but Darcy thinks it’s niche literature.” The day after, Mindy received 5 texts from friends who had read the series and thought it was terrible that some people didn’t know what it was.
Mindy and Darcy are college students who bonded over their upbringings in small New England towns. “We’re both pretty sarcastic. We’ve got that New England dry humor,” Mindy said.
When coronavirus sent them and over 14 million students home, they decided to create New England News as a way to stay in touch with friends. They added friends to the email list, and soon acquaintances were asking to be added as well.
Every newsletter has a phrase of the week(“I’ll burn that bridge when I get to it”), fun fact(“Darcy once ate an entire raw onion in order to win a contest”), and updates from their lives. In one newsletter, Darcy calculates the amount of the time it’ll take to pull off a Forrest Gump and run from Connecticut to California, and Mindy describes how being an only child has prepared her more than enough for isolation. They also use their newsletter to promote events including a virtual talent show and a Zoom prom.
Mindy and Darcy like that the newsletter allows them to stay in touch with people they might not regularly text and that people can engage on their own time. “I feel like the newsletter is a better version of social media. It’s sent to exactly the people who I want to be seeing it. You can be more honest than you would be on Instagram or Facebook,“ Darcy said.
In quarantine, they’re not doing exciting things that they can write about in the newsletter. “It’s almost centered around how un-fascinating our lives are,” Mindy said. “It’s finding the humorous silver linings in the mundane things you do in quarantine.”
When people reach out to Jasmine Haddaway on LinkedIn, they often ask about how she got the Rangel fellowship, a scholarship that funds graduate study for people pursuing careers in the Foreign Service. For some of these people, she gets the sense that they are only focused on what she can do for them.
“I hate when people network and you can tell that they just want something and they’re not interested in developing a relationship outside of that,” she said. “I’ve thought about how that must feel for people in senior leadership positions with far less time on their hands and how it’s much more likely that they would want to help someone who has made the effort to keep them in the loop and deepen their connection.”
To stay connected with former professors, supervisors, and mentors, Jasmine sends email updates twice a year. She writes a general message about how she’s doing and a personalized note specific to each person. She includes updates about classes she’s enjoyed, places she’s traveled, and things she’s learned. In one email, she writes: “A lot of my time since the summer has been spent reflecting on my priorities and how I want to invest more deeply into my relationships with others.”
Sometimes the updates result in more emails back and forth, but sometimes she won’t get a reply. Even when someone doesn’t reply, she’ll continue to send them emails. A mentor once emailed her to say he’d been reading and appreciating these updates even though he hadn’t always been able to respond.
These emails have made it easier for Jasmine to ask for a reference or favor, but they’re mainly about continuing relationships with people who are important to her. “If they’re on my email list, they have made an impact on my life,” Jasmine said. “I want to thank them, hear from them, and make sure they’re aware of what’s happening in my world too.”
Katie Jane Fernelius, a freelance journalist, realized that it wasn’t only her mom who read her newsletter when she got a reply from someone she hadn’t spoken to in years.
After Katie graduated from college in 2016, she moved to Lagos, Nigeria on a year-long research grant to conduct oral histories with Nigerian women. She wrote an essay in her newsletter exploring her questions about being a white American telling stories in Nigeria. She received a reply from a woman she met at a Model U.N. conference in high school. The woman was born in the U.K. and went to boarding school in Zimbabwe, and said that she’d been talking about these questions with her friends.
“She gave a really thoughtful and exciting response that helped me carry the conversation forward in my own head,” Katie said. “I realized there are other people reading this and these ideas are exciting and we’re all working through them together.”
Since 2016, Katie has continued to send newsletters and now has about 700 subscribers. She also continues to get responses: kind compliments, links to related articles, and comments that lead to longer email conversations.
Most of her newsletters are essays on personal experiences and cultural trends. In her last issue, she wrote about social isolation during the pandemic: “My pupils are going square from staring at illuminated rectangles all day. Statuses and tweets and stories sound like trees falling in a forest of falling trees.”
Katie is careful to check with friends before mentioning them in her newsletter, and to reflect on whether her perspective on a situation will bring value.
“I want to make sure that my thoughts and feelings are useful in telling a story, and don’t displace someone else’s story,” she said. “I want my writing to be a way for people to be more curious and have a more expansive idea of something.”
It’s harder than ever to stay in touch, and personal newsletters are emerging as a new and creative way of doing so. They have helped people like Mindy, Darcy, Jasmine, and Katie connect with others even when faced with physical and logistical challenges.
Like personal newsletters, Glimpse was created as a meaningful way to connect with people. Glimpse is a social app for round-robin, one-on-one video calls in a room. People have used Glimpse for happy hours, networking events, and catch-ups with friends. If you write a personal newsletter, you could even host a Glimpse event for readers of your newsletter.