I’ve been thinking a lot, lately, about email newsletters. About blogging. About social media. About using the expansiveness of the internet as a place to exercise your voice.
I believe it’s important to feel entitled to speak up about what you believe. To ask for attention with good intentions. To be unashamed to make noise about stuff that matters to you.
But it’s so hard to find the right volume, the authentic language, and the balance between humbleness and bravado — all of which are essential if you want to make an impact instead of simply spewing air.
I shared an essay on Medium last week about Instagram’s upcoming updates. Supposedly, some soon-to-be-implemented algorithm will contort our feeds out of chronological sequence, so they are instead, according to Instagram, “ordered to show the moments we believe you will care about the most.” We, of course, is the marketing team behind a massive media machine that could not possibly have all of our individual interests — our true and complicated and capricious individual interests — at heart. (Its heart is only a bubbly red cartoon, after all.)
This announcement had the photo-sharing community up in (Emoji) arms for a searing cyber-second. Anyone who uses Instagram in a self-promotional way — artists, entrepreneurs, larger enterprises — got pissed. #Notifications became a trending hashtag, inundated with text graphics that pleaded with followers to activate notifications in order not to miss future posts.
Though I, too, grumbled at the news, something about the widespread panic didn’t feel right somehow. And when I stumble on a trend that doesn’t feel right somehow, like a tiny, uncomfortable knot, I try to untangle it, unraveling all of the easy, surface-level explanations to get to the truth at the center.
And the truth at the center of this particular craze is: we’re scared.
We’re all so scared of falling to the bottom of the heap. Of not being heard — of having to shout even louder to attract ears and eyes. Of not owning the platforms we feel forced to stand upon in order to share what we have to say, and thus never knowing when these platforms might be pulled out from underneath our feet.
Seth Godin’s Friday blogpost was a “rant” (his term, not mine) about Gmail’s increasingly invasive filtering policy. Google shoves so many emails straight into our spam folders without asking us first, which means we wind up missing lots of stuff that we might actually want to read. Facebook, too — and, though he didn’t mention it directly, Instagram — acts as a strict gatekeeper of content, choosing which tidbits make it to the tops of our screens for the sake of its own monetary profits.
My last blogpost email got dumped into most my subscribers’ junk mailboxes. Including my own. My little love note got wedged between Gap and Grubhub, between “OUR BIGGEST SALE YET!” and “Special Invitation!!!”
I already worry about people finding my work in the first place; and then, once they find it, I worry about them taking the time to look at it. To think that the people who find it and look at it and care enough to actually hit a “follow” button might then never see my work again, because Google and Facebook and Instagram say so — well, that simply sucks.
Seth, of course, doesn’t have a huge problem reaching readers. His email list is massive, and his daily blog is one of the world’s most popular. It’s one of my favorites. I like it because it’s consistent. I like it because it’s brief but insightful. Not every single post resonates with me, but that’s okay, because he sends them out so frequently that I know I can count on at least 1/10 being a gem.
Another of my favorite newsletters is by Soul Pancake. It’s called the “weekly SPoonful,” and it arrives every Thursday with five links to genuinely feel-good stories. (Last week, I found my very own article for My Modern Met plopped in as link #3, which was a thoroughly thrilling surprise.) I like it because it promotes the media company’s projects without being pushy, and because it introduces me to heartwarming little tidbits that I wouldn’t have found on my own.
And then there’s Rob Brezsny’s “Free Will Astrology” newsletter. I like it because it is gloriously, deliciously, absurdly, fantastically insightful and delightful. (Even if you think astrology is an utter hoax, you’ll find juicy goodness packed in there, every single week.)
And the smartest sales-oriented newsletter I’ve ever seen is MOO’s “MOOsLETTER.” It always something about a current promotion or a call-to-action to buy the company’s physical products, but other valuable information comes first: business tips and inspiration, tailored towards target customers. I like it because the MOO takes the extra time and effort to be giggle-inducingly clever and as personalized as possible.
And then, of course, there are a few fellow writers’ newsletters I cherish, like that of Erin Kim and Natasha Japanwala and Hannah Brencher. They’re less newsletters and more true letters, and I like them because they’re honest. They might not come as consistently as the other ones, but that’s because the writers deliver only when they have something sincere to share.
I also subscribe to a lot of newsletters that I don’t particularly adore. I’m hesitant to unsubscribe or delete them — because what if, someday, something special comes along? — but I don’t quite care enough to open them when they arrive. And so I plop them into a Gmail folder labeled “newsletters – read later.” I sift through them sometimes, but not often, because I already have enough to do and watch and read on a daily basis. Or I skim them speedily, then hit “delete.”
That’s the problem with the internet: there is so much content. There is so much bad content. There is so much good content. There is just so much content. I can’t possibly consume it all, and I can’t figure out how to filter it effectively without seeing things I don’t want to see and missing things I don’t want to miss. I know I’m passing up piles and piles of stuff that matters. And I know I’m wasting time on piles and piles of stuff that doesn’t.
I can’t filter it all myself, but I can’t trust the mass media machines like Instagram and Facebook and Google to do it for me.
And meanwhile, while I attempt to sort through other people’s stuff, I’m still sorting out how to offer up my own. I’m trying to find my own balance: being heard without shouting, and staying strategic and sincere at the same time.
It’s no wonder we all worry about our voices being buried, when we consider the insurmountable stacks of stuff we’re bombarded with each day. It’s no wonder so many of us — both individuals and larger organizations — cookie-cutter carve our content into the shapes of current trends, choosing easy over clever, predictable over powerful.
We jump on board with the hashtagged trends without even considering why, because we just don’t want to miss the boat, and we don’t want to miss a beat, and we don’t want to risk getting relegated to the bottom of the heap.
In a culture that enables and encourages each and every human to be a storyteller, it’s just a fact that we can’t all come out on top. Most of us will never be recognized by the masses, but will get caught in the middle — between unknown and known, between silent and loud, between amateur and icon.
But what, exactly, is so wrong with that?
We don’t give enough credit to the middle — that halfway-there place that’s not easy, but still accessible. That spot where we’re reaching, striving, stretching far beyond basic mediocrity, even if we’re not quite soaring. It’s roomy in the middle. There is space to keep growing — unlike the tippy-top, from which falling down is the only option. There is accountability to keep creating, motivation to move farther — but not so much reliable attention that we stop experimenting and asking questions.
And besides, the longer we work to hone our crafts and to find the people who care, the more we fine-tune our unique visions, finding the precious intersection between what feels good to create and what resonates with others.
I wonder whether putting success on a pedestal at the tiny pinnacle of the pyramid is almost an excuse. It’s a reason to give up, just because we haven’t reach the top echelons of influence. It’s a way of avoiding doing work that matters, even if only one hundred people hear and appreciate it instead of one thousand.
It is also okay, though, to want to be liked. It is okay to want to be appreciated by more than your mom and your best friend. It is okay to worry what other people think.
When I worry — which I always do — that what I’m saying and sharing is good enough, meaningful enough, and important enough, I remind myself that the instinct for likeability is ultimately a positive one. It’s evidence of empathy. It’s proof that the main point of my work is to connect with other people in a discernible way.
I want to make stuff that matters, and mattering takes time. It takes nuance. It takes practice. It’s an experiment. It’s a dance.
What it isn’t is a race to the top. Nothing real and long-lasting ever is.