Christmas in July

If 2020 was the year of the email newsletter, what does 2021 bring?

By Frankie Caracciolo
Illustration by Reyna Noriega

It’s comparatively unceremonious, but one of the hallmarks of life is the coming of age moment when you get your first email address.

Maybe your first email account was gifted to you, maybe you were born with it (weird but fine), or maybe you’re either very old or very powerful and have miraculously sidestepped ever needing an email address save for the 5 or so impersonator accounts opened by hackers in some faraway, unnamed locale who send and receive emails on your behalf unbeknownst to you but very, um, beknownst to the IRS.

Generalizations, like John McPhee has supposedly said, are bullshit. But, really, it’s not too unwieldy to say that most people have at least one active email address associated with themselves. Many of us can cop up to having 3 or 4 addresses even. Some have languished—such is the sad state of my .edu discounts—and others are silos for side projects that went nowhere or, if you fancy, for doing dark things on the dark internet. But it’s in the interest of all the world’s nation and LLCs that we sign up and have an inbox open as an email address is another vertebra of metadata used to track and grant us access to digital portals in a world that is more and more insistent on us having a physical, in-person identity along with a scrutable and culpable and associated (but hopefully not nefarious) online persona as well.

That doesn’t sound too fun, that email address as metadata stuff. Shivers up and down your spine, etc. But, on the level, getting an email address: Now that’s being really online, baby.

That doesn’t sound too fun, that email address as metadata stuff. Shivers up and down your spine, etc. But, on the level, getting an email address: Now that’s being really online, baby.

Last year, I don’t know how many but many people received a notification that something from a Substack address had just hit their inbox. They were hit by none other than a newsletter. Maybe it was mine? Doubtful, but still, I am nothing if not a man of my times. The Substack emails, they come in like line drives to center. Plenty has already been written on the “newsletter revolution” and Substack being among the most visible email/blogging platforms around. Its notoriety accelerated by the pandemic and the being at home indefinitely + idle hands are the devil’s newsletter thing we’ve all been subjected to. There are naysayers, however and some, it seems, are even getting bored of hearing about newsletters.

Not me. Not yet, anyway. If memory serves, at least a couple of blog posts had given over precious server space to a masochistic tendency to which plenty of us are inclined—especially if you’ve any Virgo in your chart. Perpetually, the point of having an email address is to slouch toward inbox zero. Getting there was a weird flex for a different era. And it was okay for a time. Now, the phones want us to have the most. The most apps, the most texts, and the most emails so that we can display our little red notification badges as the new harbinger of clout. Was the point of email so you could have individual notices and chain threads accumulate? Reminds me of how having a print New Yorker subscription is an exercise in learning to literally stack paper?

If you’re reading this Google, I have a solution to build us a bridge back to the inbox zero days and toward our sustainable-or-bust guilt-trap mindset. Let’s call it an amendment to the email industrial complex. A “Recycle” tab or function; a place to deposit all those emails you’ve gone through and know that you’re doing something with your time and energy. Recycling data as a carbon offset rebate or something. We’ll work out the details, email me and we can take this offline.

So many newsletters are plump with niceties and all of them are rule breakers. Whatever happened pre-pandemic is for tales shared on the group chat, slack, or whatever other proverbial campfires we gather around and swap stories of how we used to live. Used to be no mail on Sundays; now, castles made of stacked cardboard packages are the new pillow forts. No CRM or social media manager is shy of programming the provider to send us a missive, a reminder, or a fun little update at the hours we’re most likely to click and engage. I’m avail most hours for an email, tbh. But I didn’t choose that life path to be clear. Life’s not optimal nowadays, it's optimized on our behalf. Tell me to read ‘em and weep now and it hits different.

My brain—and maybe yours, too?—suffers from internesia, a term for the forgetfulness constant web surfing imparts that I was introduced to by og fav Jess Henderson. I had to double-check it was on Jess’s newsletter that I first saw the term—the irony; it’s just truth wrapped in grape leaves embossed with ¯_(ツ)_/¯. We may feel like we don’t know which day it is anymore but. It’s Christmas in July.

Speaking of og favs, Today in Tabs—a formative newsletter from the pre-Trump days (what I’ve defined in my mind as the intern spending his stipend on status-signaling salads days)— is back. And I know this because I open my phone with my face and blamo, there’s another newsletter. I missed it, really. But what more does the world have to say to me? Lots it looks like and, oh, sweet, another newsletter: that sweater I kinda dig is 30% off. The coincidence that this email shows up along with another newsletter from one of my banks informing me that my credit score went up 4 points? No, don’t click just look. We’re four points up and spending 30% less than we would have yesterday. Sweet serendipity. It’s gonna be a great day, I guess. Besides, all the Twin Peaks motivational memes on social keep telling me to give myself a present every day.

It’s kinda sweet how email newsletter curation tirelessly attempts to empower me. I’ve newsletters recommending me things to buy for my cats, my girlfriend, for my mental health, bodily health, and spiritual health, and, of course, to keep fighting against social, racial, and environmental injsutice. I’ve been trying to read the same 1,000-page book for months but rarely do I miss a newsletter with their blocky, clunky, and chunky layouts. I’m partial to the familiarity of templates and unsubscribe language. Email me sometime, I’ll write back.

It’s kinda sweet how email newsletter curation tirelessly attempts to empower me. I’ve newsletters recommending me things to buy for my cats, my girlfriend, for my mental health, bodily health, and spiritual health, and, of course, to keep fighting against social, racial, and environmental injustice.

It can seem like it’s all for me, this reading, clicking, and sometimes purchasing and sometimes keeping items in my cart and fretting over them for hours. In a way, then, if it’s for myself it’s all for Instagram, which is so earnestly trying to be our shopping app of preference, too. Home is where we all still are most of the time, that’s a given. Home is also where we hang up our face mask or PPE after going outside. That, too, is a given. Home is also where we go to read and assess and react to various newsletters selling us on intellectual enrichment as much as the latest firmament of home jawnz.

I know they know your name, but it’s not original, either. Someone else, thousands of someone elses have gotten these same emails. Not that that would stop me since I’ve been on a signing-up spree over the holidays. Newsletters, the gift that keeps on giving. And among the emails I received in exchange for my metadata was one from a well-regarded outdoors gear store based in Britain.

This British jawnz store sign off their emails with an inane Jack Kerouac quote. You know, the one with the "go west" energy about leaving behind your desk and whatever’s unclever and quotidian to you to go climb the “goddamn” mountain. This email, in particular, was titled Public Service Announcement and, rather than offering me 10% (moot given the currency exchange rate) off a purchase I can waylay, was instead a little hand wringing over what will happen after "end of play,” when Europe goes back into lockdown.

Signing off, saying hoorah, that mountain is more important and really, just waiting for you to climb it, is very funny to me since one of the best American rebukes is telling someone (anyone) to "go take a hike."

Unintentionally or not, this email saying "it's not goodbye, just see you later," is also saying in a very British and perhaps unintentional and confused way to "go take a hike." But you can't really fault them. They've got the luxury of distance and smaller mountains than us and thus the fancy for the Kerouac mentality. It’s reminiscent, however, of a headline I saw recently(?) (probably in a newsletter??): "Instagram makes you feel part of the art world—but it's a lie”: artist Rachel de Joode on art and the digital.

Not that I’m alone in my thinking since, on the one hand, a newsletter proclaimed that “Consensus is something of a myth. Atomisation [sic] is as deep as the sea. I think most of us exist in a bubble of one. I don’t think most of us have coherent, consistent views even on the individual level.”

While another decided: “You can pay better attention to better things, you can think more carefully about what you are reading, you can make it all the way through a beautiful and sad article about the intelligence of trees without pausing midway through to read a series of tweets wherein a woman mounts an amazingly aggrieved defense of Spiderman movies. Of course, you can do these things.”

I don’t think I finished reading that particular newsletter, but I clicked through since the subject line informed me that John le Carré had passed.

Hmm. Well. Christmas in July. Next time we’re at the beach maybe we’ll see the plane fly by with a most important banner flapping behind the empennage: Governor… did you read my newsletter?︎