Home/Alan Jacobs/The Lure of the Newsletter

The Lure of the Newsletter

I was talking with my students yesterday about how often people prefer friendsourcing to crowdsourcing: asking someone you know and trust about the best Mexican restaurants in a given town, or which books on Gerard Manley Hopkins are most helpful, or what you should listen to next if (God forbid) you really like Mumford & Sons. Google — and Yelp, and iTunes, and many another data-driven instrument — wants us to believe that such recommendations are best made algorithmically, but that really only works well if you’re a Standard American, perched comfortably at the top of the bell curve of distribution. If your preferences are at all eccentric, you’ll find algorithms inconsistently helpful at best and downright unfriendly at worst.

Algorithms also tend also to produce too many results, leaving you still a good deal of material to sort through and rank. You end up reading more than you want to read or even have time for. This is likely to be true even for your own self-built RSS feed. Wouldn’t it be nice to have someone — some really intelligent person — to do your filtering for you? Wouldn’t it be great to have someone to whom you could truly say “Your ideas are intriguing to me and I wish to subscribe to your newsletter”?

For instance, think about how much gets written about baseball every day. More than I could possibly read, even among the dozen or so sites that I have subscribed to via RSS — or had subscribed to, until I discovered The Slurve, the fabulous daily newsletter created by Friend of TAC Michael Brendan Dougherty. I’ve removed all those baseball sites from my RSS feed, and just wait peacefully for The Slurve to show up in my mailbox in the morning. You really should subscribe if you like baseball.

The problem is, now I wish I had a Slurve for everything. An intelligently curated — I hate that word when it is misapplied, which is usually, but there’s a proper use — an intelligently curated daily (or even weekly) newsletter on soccer, and one on academic life, and one on the digital humanities, and one on the arts….

One more point to note: the email newsletter is one of the oldest forms of digital news distribution, like the listserv, which Farhad Manjoo has praised. It may well be that we came closer to getting the problem of digital news delivery right fifteen years ago, and have left the better solution behind in favor of shiny happy Apps. But I should stop here lest I fall into full-out Grumpy Old Tech Man Mode.

about the author

Alan Jacobs is a Distinguished Professor of the Humanities in the Honors Program at Baylor University in Waco, Texas, and the author most recently of The Book of Common Prayer: A Biography.

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