Last month, I wrote about Dave Pell’s NextDraft newsletter and marveled at its success in an age of Tweet overload. Dan Lewis, the author of the only other newsletter I subscribe to, then got in touch asking if I’d be interested in writing about him, too. Lewis writes Now I Know, a daily trivia newsletter that teaches its readers one fascinating thing a day. Just the other day, I learned that the Nazis had designed a chocolate bar that was rigged to explode.
What strikes me most about these newsletters is that they’re finding an audience in an era when we’re all supposed to be communicating and publishing via social media, or, at the very least, blogs. Email is old school, but, as Lewis points out, it has almost universal penetration. For many people, it is also becoming the front door to a more curated Internet experience – one that is crafted by the human hand rather than algorithms.
Lewis, a lawyer and entrepreneur who helped Wikipedia founder Jimmy Wales build the human-mediated search engine Wikia, has a small but dedicated audience. Since launching the newsletter in July 2010, he has signed up more than 53,000 subscribers, and the newsletters enjoy a 43 percent open rate.
These days, Lewis has a job tweeting for Big Bird. I met him last week in New York City to discuss why he believes in newsletters, why the blogroll died, and why he’s bullish on humans.
You write a newsletter that sends out one thing a day to people, which is kind of like the ultimate curation. Why one thing?
Part of what I’m trying to do is pace myself. I look at what I’m writing like Snapple facts, but they’re expanded to about 500 words. I could be on Twitter all day long just sharing facts or whatever, but it’s just not as fulfilling as building an audience of people who are really dedicated to reading what I write.
What’s your bar for fascinating? How do you know when something qualifies for the newsletter?
I’m actually very bad at it, apparently. I have a good gut feeling for whether something will be interesting from a binary perspective – it will be or it won’t be. But if you ask me which will be the most interesting, I have no idea whatsoever.
It’s really weird, right? I usually go by my gut feeling. One example of where I totally missed it was there was one I wrote a few months ago. At the time there were no Starbucks in Norway. It was basically the labor issues in Norway – it was too hard to find cheap labor, and also because milk prices in Norway were too high or something. I wrote it up and I was like, “I really don’t want to send this thing, it’s really not that interesting.” And then one day I didn’t have anything else to publish, so I published this one, and people were writing me back saying, “This is the best thing you’ve ever written, it was fantastic”. And I was like, “I have no idea what I’m doing here.”
How do you go about building an audience for a newsletter?
It’s really very different than what I thought it would be. It comes in waves. There was this one time when someone on Reddit posted one of my articles, and I said, “Hey, I wrote this, this is where it’s from.” That gave me 5,000–10,000 readers in one shot.
I was blogging back in 1998-99, before even WordPress was out. For a while it was pretty easy, because you would just discuss someone else’s blog post, send them an email, they’d write back on a subsequent blog post, and you’d cross pollinate and it was really nice. In the early part of the 2000s, blogrolls were everywhere, and now they’re gone. They don’t exist.
What happened to the blogroll?
Blogging just became way too big, and they just became so cumbersome and worthless. There’s no context given. It’s like, why are these links here? The other thing that happened is that bloggers in general talk about and link to news items that are from mainstream news media, they’re not really talking about what other bloggers are saying so much. Then the third thing is that really a lot of top bloggers are writing for mainstream news sources.
Does it strike you as odd that your publishing model is email, considering we live in a world of Twitter and Facebook now?
Yes, but that’s by design. I’m a big believer in Dave Winer’s take that you shouldn’t really hand off your distribution platform to somebody else. Facebook could in theory shut you down in a minute. For Twitter, the character limit hurts. And also, Twitter adoption’s not that high. It’s maybe 30 percent of Internet users – maybe, I’m making that up. But everybody has an email account.
Is there some degree of arrogance in that you assume people will let you into their inboxes?
I don’t think arrogance is the right word, but that’s the value. If somebody invites me into their email inbox, that’s a much better connection than if somebody follows me on Twitter. Following me on Twitter is pretty much meaningless.
Let’s talk about curation. What value do you think there is in having a human deciding “This is what you should pay attention to in your limited time”?
It’s increasingly important. It’s really fascinating that probably one of the largest and most important websites out there, Wikipedia, is all handwritten. Each one of us as a human is a supercomputer in and of ourselves. We have an amazing ability to process huge amounts of data and come up with a close to correct answer.
That’s an optimistic take.
Even something as simple as catching a baseball. If you think about how much math it requires to tell somebody how to do that, it’s mind-boggling. But you and I can do it fairly easily. So when we’re dealing with huge amounts of information, people are pretty good at it. I think the question is not really whether people will have to curate, because I think we will have to. It’s that on the individual level we’ll have to figure out what we’re good at curating and what we’re not good at curating.
So you’re bullish on humans?
Yeah, I think as a whole we’re all pretty interesting. From my perspective, as a guy who curates interesting factual stories – one of the questions I almost always get is, “When are you going to run out?”. And I say, look, there are 6 billion people on Earth. In any given year, we live 6 billion years of human experiences. There are more interesting stories than I will ever be able to cover. I will always have something.