One Man's Email Newsletter Leads the Fight Against Tweet Overload
Dave Pell writes what is perhaps the world’s best email newsletter. At least, that’s what I think, and, as you can tell from my shoes, I have impeccable taste (NB: last point contestable).
A media sponge, serial entrepreneur, and angel investor, every morning San Francisco-based Pell surveys dozens of news sites and selects 10 stories he thinks are the most interesting or important. He puts those links into an email, writes pithy and witty observations around them, and sends it out to his 10,000 readers. Sample line: “James Cameron, Larry Page, and Eric Schmidt are among the big backers of Planetary Resources: an asteroid mining company. They hope to find valuable minerals or some active users of Google+.”
Called NextDraft (go on, sign up), the email is a re-boot of a newsletter Pell wrote for 25,000 subscribers in the early 2000s. He launched it four months ago, after it had spent nearly a decade hiding from a stampede of Tweets and status updates. Pell, who also writes the syndicated blog Tweetage Wasteland and is married to the founder of shopping site Splendora (now Joyus), says the newsletter enjoys an astounding 65 percent open rate.
Yesterday, I met the writer at a cafe in San Francisco’s SoMa district, where we talked about the growing importance of the human curator in an age of information overload, our addiction to technology, and the surprising utility of the humble email.
What spurred you to re-launch NextDraft?
A friend of mine who had been reading it back in the original iteration kept saying, “This is what I really need. This is what people would really like today.” Because everybody's so overwhelmed by the incoming tweets and Facebook status updates and never-ending news cycle that they need some way to sift through it and find out the good stuff that they should be paying attention to. I doubted his position on that. I felt that people were so overwhelmed by incoming information that they wouldn't want one more source.
And this is such an old-school format: An email coming into your inbox.
Right, and it's not only that it's old-school, but it's also that people have a somewhat negative view about email, especially in our industry. But I decided to re-launch it even with these potential obstacles in mind, because I just loved doing it, years ago. It's sort of my favorite thing to do – go visit a lot of sites, pick out stories I think people will be interested in, and describe those stories or be able to counter-punch or riff off those stories.
And I have a weird skill to be able to do it pretty quickly. I probably go to about 50 or 60 sites a day, hone it down to about 10 stories and write the newsletter, and it's in and out in maybe two-and-a-half, three hours.
What do you think of the role of the human curator in the Twitter era?
I think human curation has been one of the most important things on the Web, but it's going to be even more important important as we move forward over the next four or five years on the Internet. There is going to be a place for some algorithmic sifting to be done as well. But ultimately people want to have a person who has a voice that they trust to help sift through information, find stuff, and deliver it to them.
We're getting to the point with the amount of information that people are being asked to absorb that it almost feels more like a responsibility or an anvil or a weight that's attached to us. To the extent that someone can say, "Let me take that weight off you. I'll do the heavy lifting. You can just go about your daily life, and once a day I'll send you a list of stuff you might be interested in." I think there's a benefit to that.
With your day-to-day reading, you must get such a wide view, not only of technology, but also of the world. And because of your interest in technology, you get to see how technology fits into the world. What benefits do you think that wide view has?
I've always been interested in all news, so I've always had that wide view, and I've always been interested in the way media covers things. If you look at a Presidential election, I'm much more interested in the way that the media is choosing to cover certain aspects of the election than I am in the actual election itself. So one of the things that happens, if you visit 50 or 60 news sites a day, is you become a media expert in a way.
One thing I've seen from the earliest days of the Web is there's always been what I think is an artificial conflict between old-school, mainstream journalism and the new bloggers and tweeters: What is journalism, which is better, which is more valuable.
I've seen from day one that people who blogged in the earliest days were constantly riffing and quoting off of mainstream news. And slowly but surely mainstream news now seems to get a lot of their news and a lot of their ideas for opinion pieces from how people are discussing things on Twitter. So I see the two worlds as totally symbiotic. It's probably one of the most misguided and a little bit boring debates in the history of the Web.
You are a little bit unusual in Silicon Valley, as a guy who has a really deep knowledge of the machinations of the Valley at the same time as having a "real world" view. Can you talk about that distinction?
When people are talking about the real-time Web – this is less true now than it was a couple of years ago – there were sort of two voices on the Web. There was one school, which were the true believers, who were on the side of how wonderful the real-time Internet is, and there's nothing bad about it, and being always on and always connected is only good. And then there was the other side of the equation. I find a lot of psychologists and other people, who are maybe a little bit more on the Luddite side of things, [and] just can't believe that anybody would share anything that has any kind of privacy issues on the Web.
I feel like in some cases there's a voice in the middle that's missing. I feel totally grateful that I came of age in an era where we had the Internet and the creative revolution and the explosion of information available to people, and how it impacted the Arab Spring, and many other things that the Internet has done. There's inspiring stories every day. Cain's Arcade is a great example: Just a way that we can use this technology to take something in a small neighborhood in East LA and share it globally and instantly.
And raise $100,000 for a kid's college fund.
Right. And probably make a couple hundred thousand people's day also, which is under-rated but an important part of what the Internet can do.
But at the same time, everybody I know – especially Internet professionals – is worried about how often their eyes are down on their screen, about how many moments of their kids' lives they're missing, about how much less they're communicating with their spouse when they're both sitting on the couch, separated by two laptop screens.
So I just think there's a lot of great stuff about the Web, and there's a lot of stuff that we really need to pay attention to in terms of how we cope as we evolve along with this new technology.
When you step back and survey the landscape, what do you see? What are the big trends that you see emerging?
This trend of the intersection between the Web and our real lives, which almost nobody was really writing much about a couple of years ago, has become really huge now. Almost every major publication has a piece on that pretty regularly. This year on New Year's Day, I probably saw 20 stories about people talking about resolutions to not look at their iPad as much, to turn their phone off occasionally.
So do you think information dieting will become the next fad?
I'm not sure how effective people will be at that. I'm not sure how it's going to turn out. But thinking about it is going to be the big trend. We're a long way from people solving it.
I was once at a conference session that was about what stops people from being productive and effective in their lives. It was a lot of Type A, CEO-types. We went around the table and for every single person, the obstacle to them being more productive, happy, and effective in their lives was a piece of technology. Maybe it was email overload, maybe it was having Twitter on all the time.
After everybody went around and said what their problem was, the person moderating the group said, "Let's go around the table and people can talk about a solution they've found that's effective." As they went around the table, every single person's solution was another piece of technology. Some people used Evernote for better note-taking, some people had new email strategies so they could make their email more efficient.
So we're in this weird cycle now where we're being overwhelmed by technology and we're looking for a technological solution to that. Ultimately the solution for managing technology is going to be human. I don't think technology can solve its own downside itself.