Is there a difference between an epistle and a newsletter?

In Quiet, Susan Cain writes about Professor Brian Little’s email habits. It turns out that Professor Little likes to describe to his emails as ‘e-pistles,’ in reference to their substance and length. (Susan Cain, Quiet, pg. 205) Inserting a hyphen into the word ‘epistle’ strikes me as a clever way to revitalize some imagination about the use of email — which has long since lost its hyphen — as a tool for correspondence.

Epistle, the self-aware genre of writing penned for a specific group with a formal tone, suggests the presence of some ongoing relationship between author and recipients. There is at least a modicum of reciprocity in the equation. In contrast, newsletters can often be as one-directional as the front page of a newspaper, as their name suggests. Digital marketers don’t use the term email ‘blast’ for no reason: much of the stuff that shows up in our inboxes is about as personable as a message from a foghorn. And so, like a physical mailbox, the same space can include intimate love letters and gaudy advertising.

Since my rather sudden and drastic lapse into digital introversion this August, I increasingly appreciate email as a tool for interaction. Unencumbered by the glitz of popularity tokens and status metrics, email’s simplicity of purpose emphasizes one thing: directly corresponding with another human. It is only due to conventions of nomenclature that we do not describe email as ‘social’ media. Ironic, perhaps, as email strikes me as much more humane than most of the ‘social’ networks out there.

In my last message to this group, I inquired your ideas about the nature of simplicity: what does it mean to you? How does it manifest itself in your life? This question led to many threads of discussion — far more than I anticipated when floating the question. Many of you shared your journeys of downsizing your household possessions, your critiques of chic minimalism, and specific books that have provoked your thinking along the way. Some of us even met in person over coffee or via Skype to chat about our experiences.

I have a hypothesis: I don’t think most of these conversations would have happened in quite the same way in the comments section of a blog post. Something about email provides a balanced playing field: perhaps due to the absence of public identity branding and dopamine-laced incentive algorithms? In email, neither party technically controls the data any more than the other (we share mutual copies of the content in a compact of trust with one another). I think it is entirely reasonable to postulate that the medium that mediates a message indelibly shapes subsequent interactions.

Here is my question to you: If both are delivered by email, do you think a distinction can be made between an epistle and a newsletter? Sure, in both cases an identical copy of a communique is delivered to multiple people, and in both cases, the recipient can engage, unsubscribe, or even mark the message as spam. Like a physical letter, the choice to respond or not is the prerogative of the recipient. But where is the ‘line in the sand’ between an email sent to a large number of friends and a message delivered to an extensive mailing list by MailChimp? Outside of some technical differences in the underlying mail server protocols, the core distinction, I suppose, boils down the relationship between the sender and the recipients.

I find the above distinction to be uniquely clarifying. ‘Who is this email for?’ I would say: it is for the people who have responded to messages in the past. It is for the correspondents. Sure, there are some subscribers who (presumably) read these messages without reciprocating, but I don’t know anything about them. They are just ‘out there,’ anonymously lurking around on the Internet. By contrast, I have varying degrees of relationship with readers who engage — the people who reply to share their ideas about simple living, or those who take me to task on some point, or those who go out for coffee with me to chat. In this sense, I feel justified in thinking of this letter as more like an epistle than a newsletter: as far as I’m concerned, this message for a group of intended recipients embedded within a larger mass of passive subscribers hitherto unknown to me.

Thanks for reading and, with even more profound gratitude, thanks for giving back — for sharing your thoughts and perspectives. To the extent we exchange letters, I suppose we are all epistolarians.

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