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Blog // Simplicity
November 20, 2021

This Week I Quit Writing Amplifier (Newsletter)

This Week I Quit writing Amplifier, my monthly newsletter. It was one of five newsletters I was writing, and for a while I thought it would be the most important.

How did I talk myself into running five newsletters at the same time? Well, it’s a parable for our age. “Start a newsletter,” they said. “Newsletters are the hottest things right now,” they cried.

Like a fool, I listened.

Two of those newsletters are automated. One delivers every blogpost from this site as an email. We’ll come back to that. Another did the same for the podcast I quit recently. That one’s already gone.

There’s a newsletter I send twice a year to update everyone who has bought my products over the years. And there’s a little experimental newsletter, a curated set of interesting links, which I’m running to test out Revue (which was recently bought by Twitter).

And then there was Amplifier.

Created to be the kind of newsletter everyone would talk about, Amplifier had a (hopefully) catchy title and a clear (and hopefully interesting) angle. It was a newsletter that asks what kind of voices get amplified in today’s culture.

But the idea is one thing; making it work, another.

The Great Newsletter Bubble Of 2020

Every writer I talk to is newsletter obsessed. They are being told to start one, or several. It’s not surprising, since “What newsletter are you enjoying?” has become the new “What podcast are you listening to?” which, of course, was the new “What books have you read?”

The newsletters you read are now a cultural marker, a sign that you are well informed and making smart choices about where you put your attention.

All sorts of publications, from newspapers like the Washington Post to new sites like The Information, offer newsletters. They cover everything from cooking to the creator economy.

The growth of newsletters is driven by new platforms like SubStack, which lets you put a paywall around your newsletter and even offers writers the chance to get employee-style benefits like health care.

While newsletters are presented as a new opportunity for writers, they’re also a reaction to changing conditions in the world of publishing and journalism. In the past few years, many writers have lost their jobs, and freelance opportunities have dried up or don’t pay as well as they did.

Technology is changing as well.

How Google Is To Blame

Go back a decade or so, and readers subscribed to blogs via RSS. There were several ways into this, but perhaps the most popular was Google Reader. You could add the addresses of your favourite blogs, and they all collected on a page, like an email inbox, which you could then access at your leisure.

When Google dropped Reader in 2013, it decimated the blogosphere (as we used to call it). It suddenly got harder to get people to read your posts regularly. This suited Google, since it wanted to be the intermediary in every interaction between reader and content.

Google wants you to find things via search, not via subscription.

This is part of why newsletters became so popular. Instead of the inbox in an RSS reader, newsletters gave access to the inbox in people’s email app. Email is a strong connection you can use to market to your readers if you’re so inclined.

You can see why the suggestion that everyone needs a newsletter has become so popular.

Welcome To My New Newsletter

“Do you have a newsletter?”
“Yes, it’s called The Blog.”

OK, I haven’t had this conversation yet. But I’ve rehearsed it in my mind. It’s the way forward.

Sometimes we take popular advice and use it to build mental cages. That’s what I did with newsletters. I kept adding another newsletter in response to every trend and technological twist.

I had an epiphany listening to someone talk about their favourite newsletters. They said, “I love Cal Newport’s newsletter.” I didn’t interrupt but immediately thought to myself, “Hang on a minute. That’s not a newsletter, that’s just Cal’s blog sent out every week as email.”

Just like I already did!

Sometimes I’m a little slow. I was hearing the advice about newsletters and adding to my already full schedule extra pieces of work, then feeling all sorts of shame that I didn’t do enough to make them flourish. What I didn’t do was ask myself if I had the answer for this trend in the work I was already doing.

And, you guessed it, I did!

Ask Yourself “Am I Already Doing This?”

It’s so easy to assume inadequacy as a default starting point for every new trend we encounter.

It’s the lesson in This Week I Quit and in Digital Minimalism: our lives lose focus and our work fragments when we keep just adding things. Digital technology creates the illusion that infinite addition is possible. You can keep adding apps to your devices forever.

But, as humans, we are not wired that way.

One way to avoid the perils of adding too much to our lives is to ask “Am I already doing this?”

It might also involve a little thinking about the way you do things as well.

When people talk about newsletters, they mean something like a body of content delivered via email. It’s a system that exists because content via RSS is so broken. What people put in newsletters is often exactly the same kind of essayistic writing you find on this blog. And, just as newsletters rose in popularity, they may also lose their lustre in time.

This helped me see that instead of listening to the internet gurus who said “start a newsletter” and feeling inadequate, I should ask how I can make the work I already do fit this current newsletter trend.

Less Is Quality

Instead of thinking I have all these content buckets to fill – five newsletters, a blog, however many social media channels – I’m now looking at this as one main body of work: the blog. Or, to put it another way, the writing.

Obviously, the Amplifier newsletter is finished. So is the bi-annual newsletter. Instead, every six months, I will write a blogpost that contains updates to my work, any new products, or changes to the site, then send that to everyone on the list.

The blogpost equals the newsletter.

And the Revue newsletter has changed to become a curated collection of links related to the reading and thinking that goes into these blog articles.

“Less is more” was Mies van der Rohe’s famous saying. I think of it as “Less is quality”. I’m not really motivated by more. I don’t lie awake at night wishing I had more readers or more followers. But I do worry about not having quality. I want to be a better writer. To have more ideas and also more creativity.

Offering less choice will mean more quality for you.

This Week I Quit is an occasional series about using minimalism and simplicity to foster creativity, productivity, and well-being. The series originally ran from 2016 to 2019, and you can read a summary of that series here. You can find an archive of all This Week I Quit articles here. You can also follow the hashtag #ThisWeekIQuit on Twitter.

Rachel Biel 3 years ago

I think this is excellent advice. I do prefer subscribing to newsletters that I like instead of using the old RSS system, but hate how many people add me on to their newsletters without asking. (I chose to follow you and am liking your posts so far. 🙂 )

You’ve been talking about all the things you are quitting and obviously are cleaning house and streamlining things. I would like to see a post on what you are keeping and why. I am pretty disenchanted with social media in general, but am keeping Facebook because of their tools and the community I already have there. But, most of us despise what they have been doing, so it’s a cringy relationship, but there really is not a replacement that would work in terms of gathering friends, family and business…

I would also like to know what your take is on the trend going on with crypto and block chains. I see more and more artists and organizations jumping in on various versions of it and it’s such a foreign way of thinking for me…. I’m trying to wrap my head around it. I will be 60 soon, so maybe it’s just a generation gap thing, but there is something really dark and impersonal about it that repels me. I’m just curious about whether you have explored that world yet.

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