Get Exclusive: The Digital Alternative to Social Media

Remember the annual family newsletter?

From about the time I was seven or eight years old, I was in charge of writing my family’s annual holiday newsletter—a job I would put on my resume today if others took it as seriously as I did. 

In this snail-mailed update, the newsletter usually followed a familiar recipe; 

  • greetings intro blurb
  • family update paragraph
  • dad paragraph
  • mom paragraph
  • older brother paragraph
  • my own paragraph
  • a conclusion 

I aimed to keep it short enough to only use the front of one sheet of paper—a practice that I feel has enhanced my editing skills to this day.  

Just as we enjoyed mailing this letter out to far-flung family and friends, we also thoroughly enjoyed receiving others. From November through December, we’d fish one out of a pile on the center of the dining room table at a time to read over the morning’s bowl of cereal or on a lazy weekend afternoon. 

Sadly, after a while, most families stopped putting out annual newsletters. 

What killed them? It wouldn’t be going out on a limb to blame the emergence of social media.

Gone are the days are, “I wonder what the Hendersons are up to.” 

Family milestones are simply “reacted” to with the click of a heart-shaped button and a reheated, “So cute,” “That’s fantastic,” or “Thoughts and prayers.” 

In-person conversations and email correspondences have been reduced to, 

“Yeah, I saw that you had posted about that,” and “I know, I laughed so hard when I saw that post…”

Is it possible that too much digital socialization can leave us feeling even more detached from physical socialization than physical detachment? 

I believe so. And I think there is a better way.

Enter: the personal newsletter. 

The Personal Email Newsletter

It works like this: 

The Gist

  • Those who desire to keep up with one’s life the same way they do on social media only simply need to subscribe to their email newsletter through a free online email subscription tool (more about that in a second). 
  • The author of the newsletter keeps their curated group of friends (not to be confused with acquaintances) updated with a periodic email newsletter.

No Hard Feelings

  • The author can choose to deny subscription requests from anyone they don’t feel close enough to receive their updates—no hard feelings.
  • On the flip side, if any reader decides they don’t want to receive these email updates anymore, they simply unsubscribe—also, no hard feelings.
  • Vanity metrics, such as any open rates or engagement, should be avoided at all costs. These newsletters are about the quality of the connection, not the quantity of the readership.
  • Authors should feel free to keep access to their newsletters exclusive. The higher the quality of your relationships with your readers, the more honest you can be in your newsletters. Remember “Dunbar’s Number” —the theory that our brains can really only juggle a maximum of around 150 relationships. After that, it’s wishful thinking. Your subscriber count will likely be many times less than that, but each connection will be of a higher quality. 
  • Do not subscribe to acquaintances with whom you don’t intend to make closer friends. A subscription is no place for voyeurism. Ask yourself, “If I saw them in person in a bar and I was alone, would I feel ok about asking them to pull up a seat?” If the answer isn’t “absolutely,” don’t subscribe to their newsletter.

The Less Frequent, the Better

  • Authors are encouraged to be as light or as deep as they want. Newsletters can cover just the basics, remain lighthearted, or go into deep issues close to the author’s heart.
  • Feel free to respond to someone’s newsletter to spark a friendly email correspondence. Better yet, save your questions about the nature of their newsletter for an in-person interaction—perhaps over a coffee or a pint. Though covid-conditions make this problematic for the time being, there will come a time when questions about a thought-provoking newsletter should result in a scheduled time to grab a coffee or a drink for an in-person discussion.  
  • Authors should strive to limit how frequently they send these newsletters to reduce the likelihood of inundating the readers’ inboxes. Instead of posting any thought you have, consider compiling your thoughts on a single note on your phone or computer and curating these thoughts into your monthly, seasonally, and even annual newsletter.  

The Tools

  • Do not email a list through your email service. Not only does this expose email addresses to others, but it removes their ability to unsubscribe from your newsletters. Failing to use a newsletter service may result in getting your address flagged as spam or even damaging your relationships.
  • TinyLetter: Though a free email service that follows all of these guidelines to the above specifications does not yet exist, I’ve found that TinyLetter is the closest email newsletter tool for these purposes. Its stripped-down nature lends itself well to personal email newsletters. It’s subscription tools allow friends to easily subscribe and unsubscribe as they so choose.
  • The use of mobile note-taking applications greatly aids newsletter development. Instead of feeling the need to post every idea that comes to mind on a social media platform, collecting thoughts in the moment for later posts will result in a higher quality correspondence experience. I prefer Google Keep. Others may like Evernote, OneNote, or Notion. Sometimes, I’ll even journal on a Google Doc kept in Drive on my phone. Whether you use a note-taking app or a paper notebook, the most crucial part is recalling your notes later for future newsletter updates. 

In Conclusion

Moving to a newsletter-based approach to online socialization is meant to use technology as a tool for fostering high-quality friendships, not digital voyeurism or social skimming. While you may not have nearly the number of personal newsletter readers as friends on Facebook, that’s a good thingmost of those people aren’t your friends anyway.

Cheers to cultivating genuine, high-quality friendships.

Ken Lane
Follow Ken