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You’ve Got Mail (a ton of it): How Substack is Changing the Way we Interact with our Inbox

by Hanna Alwine



It’s November again and days have gotten so short they almost don’t exist. Every Monday, Wednesday, Friday I feel like a dairy farmer, rising before the sun for my 8am and getting back to my dorm after the sun sets. During these darkened times, all I really want to do is curl up in my bed and watch rom coms and eat chocolate in my pajamas. You’ve Got Mail in particular has been calling my name lately, with its scenes of warm bookstores and New York in the snow. In classic Nora Ephron style, Meg Ryan (local bookstore owner) plays opposite Tom Hanks (evil chain bookstore CEO). In a Shakespearean twist, the two fall in love anonymously via AOL while simultaneously becoming mortal enemies through their in person interactions.

The plot of the movie hinges on the novelty of the email, a technology very different from the ancient telephone, where one could receive letters instantly (!!!) right to their desktop computers. The particular excitement Meg and Tom feel upon receiving an email (accompanied by the sing-song notification: “You’ve got mail!”) evokes a particular nostalgia—the same feeling I get when leafing through old yearbooks at the thrift store or reading about the New York art scene in the ‘80s. Perhaps it’s longing for a time and place you have never experienced and in all likelihood never will. Technology in today’s world no longer invites that same excitement. It has become commonplace, a fact of existence. We tap our watches against card readers to pay for our coffee and regularly send messages that travel hundreds of miles without a second thought. The novelty of technology, specifically the novelty of email correspondence, is something that has faded into obscurity, forever trapped behind layers of cranberry pyrex.

Rather than the heart wrenching excitement Meg and Tom feel upon receiving a new email, every time I see an email notification I feel my stomach drop into my shoes. I don’t think I’m alone in my apprehension. Email has become a place where all the stressors in our lives converge and accumulate. Email is the place where we are contacted by our employers. Email is the place where we receive notifications about upcoming assignments and recently posted test grades. Email is the place where many of us receive our most up to date news coverage, bleak think pieces about the recession (which we evidently are in?) and insane American military spending and recent election results (why so red, Ohio?). Somehow email has transformed from an exciting new frontier of interpersonal connection to a cesspool of the things we dread most, all vying for our limited attention.

But the restructuring of the email newsletter may be able to pull us out of this pit of obligation and worry. Rather than the known email marketing newsletters that do little to restructure or positively shape our email experience, Substack a (semi-)recent app that invites users to write and/or subscribe to email newsletters, proposes a new way to curate your email inbox to interact with and directly support writers you are actually interested in. The app is notably minimally censored, a factor that has been a source of much controversy among both users and critics. It supports a diverse body of writers from ex-New York Times journalists to uber specific recipe blogs to my personal favorite self-defined internet princess, Rayne Fisher Quaan.

illustration by Frances McDowell, Production Assistant

Substack is unique in that it participates in an almost parasitical internet existence. While there is a Substack app you can download on your phone, Substack's main purpose is to curate the content user’s receive on an entirely different application – in their email inbox. No longer does every email you receive have to come with the caveat “in these unprecedented times.” Your endless emails about Blackboard updates can now be broken up by newsletters from your favorite provocateurs and internet sweethearts.

While I still admit to avoiding my academic and professional emails, I have begun to anxiously await new Substack installments filtering into my inbox. They feel novel in a way that technology hasn’t in some time. Though I know that Tal Lavin (The Sword and the Sandwich: Covering far right extremism, sandwiches, and everything in between) and Amy Halloran (Dear Bread: Letters about bread, flour, and people) and Christopher Mooney (Hexagon: In France, there are six sides to every story…) aren’t writing to me directly, there is something personal about receiving an email—an instant letter that has been intricately crafted and sent across hundreds of miles of cyberspace just for you to read. I have started checking my inbox in the same way one might check the mailroom or their front porch when awaiting an expected package. Substack has transformed my email into something anticipated rather than something routine.

Substack subscriptions follow a trend of new social media that attempts to move away from the instant gratification older social media relies on to survive. The previous generation—the Snapchats and the Instagrams and the TikToks and the Facebooks and the YouTubes—rely on a constant stream of content to draw their user in. There is always a post to look at or a person to talk to or a video to watch or an opinion to evaluate. Starting with the popularization of quick bites of easily consumed video clips, these sites have coalesced into a singular mass of similar sites, each borrowing popular techniques from one another until they have become almost identical interfaces in slightly different fonts. The sites’ original use as a means of interpersonal connection seems to have taken a back burner to FOMO that spreads like wildfire and consistent product promotion (for some reason Instagram really wants me to buy a pair of fleece lined—but still chic and sexy—tights.)

What I am calling the new class of social media—the Substacks and the BeReals and the BopDrops (the BeReal of music that has not yet gained the same popularity, but for which I am still holding out hope)—caters to a desire to escape this constant barrage of information and more intentionally consume our media.

Rather than be subjected to the temptation of an ever updating feed, Substack requires the user to wait for updates from their favorite writers and submit to limits on their consumption. BeReal and BopDrop limit user interface interaction to once and twice a day, respectively. Even streaming companies seem to be heading in this same direction. Disney+ and HBOMax have both demonstrated a shift away from releasing an entire series at once in favor of weekly installments that call back to an era, not too long ago, where waiting for a new episode each week was the main form of media consumption.

I’d like to think that this media shift is the result of a larger cultural shift towards slowing down and trimming up our media diet. However, I’m more inclined to think that this development is temporary, a mere indicator of the cyclical nature of trend culture. A new update through the Substack app allows writers to directly contact their subscribers through a “Chat” feature reminiscent of Instagram DMs or even Twitter threads. While one could argue that this feature only increases the intimacy of the in-app experience, it threatens to move the platform’s user experience towards that of traditional social media with its constant stream of continually updating content. I worry that this kind of evolution is an indicator that these social medias are soon to be co-opted by advertising companies and corporate greed that will take them down a similar path as Instagram, Twitter, and even email. I’m interested to see if these apps will stand the test of time or if they too will be forced to bow down to America’s fast media consumption culture. In the meantime, I’ll wait by my computer for that familiar banner notification letting me know that I’ve got mail.

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