Hey hey! Welcome to Very Online, issue #3.
2022 is well underway and we are about to enter Year 3 of the COVID-19 Era. But my mind is still in hibernation/survival mode. I’ll chalk it up to cold weather (‘cold’ for the Philippines being anything below 28°C) and the ongoing – and supposedly mild – omicron variant-fueled surge that added many of my relatives, friends, and colleagues to its rising numbers (39,004 new cases as of January 16, 2022!).
So yeah, I’ve been busy trying not to get knocked out by that insidious cough-colds-sore throat trio that everyone’s been copping up to since the December 2021 holidays. In the meantime, I’m giving you a newsletter reading list to go through if you’re in the middle of quarantine/isolation, recuperating, or just looking for new reads. Enjoy, and stay indoors until the stats go down again.
Way back in 2015, I wrote an opinion column for a Philippine magazine about why (and how!) people keep divulging private details online. I cited free blogging, microblogging, and social media services as the main vehicles for our decades of online narcissism; but email newsletters have also been an option all this time. It’s not as popular here in the Philippines as it is in the U.S. and other countries if you’re not doing email marketing for your clients or your own business, although I do know some Filipino millennials who flocked to TinyLetter for personal writing when that service was still a thing (RIP, TinyLetter!).
(If you want to learn about the history of newsletters, I found this fun origin story over at JSTOR, and this 2019 longform on The Atlantic highlighting female newsletter writers’ role in popularizing it for personal writing – and then being pushed aside by greedy tech dudes.)
[Newsletters have] been a thing,” says Ann Friedman, who has written a weekly newsletter since 2013, has 40,000 subscribers, and is widely recognized as one of the leaders of the first newsletter boom, which happened mostly among women and on TinyLetter, which had no monetization mechanism. “The reason you have a tech reporter at The New York Times saying it’s a thing now is because people with money, most of them male, are newly interested in the medium writ large. Men with money are betting on people wanting to continue to consume this medium.
I’m all for personal writing, obviously. It doesn’t matter to me whether it’s done for community, catharsis, or commercialism. I love first-person stories, and I will keep writing mine until the day I die. But over the years, I have also learned to limit both the public ‘noise’ I make online (and where I make it) and the noise from other people that I allow into my life. Not everything said aloud and online – nor everyone who talks – is that important.
Instead of setting up separate feeds and groups or muting, unfollowing, or blocking people outright, I have simply culled people and content feeds I do not like on every service I use – including RSS and newsletter feeds. Of course, I run the risk of creating my own echo chamber, but these days I truly enjoy what I see and read – and get more value out of them because I specifically chose them and subscribed to them.
Consider this list of newsletters I read often as solid recommendations – and continuing lessons on how to write, distribute, and maintain newsletters in general. Most of these newsletters are free; and their content usually offers a reasonable balance between personal writing, creative nonfiction, and responsible journalism. But some also offer paid subscriptions for extra content and exclusives, great if you’re superfans of the newsletter writers or see what they’re selling as long-term business and intellectual investments.
They’re also great examples of what newsletters could be in the Philippines if ever people start paying attention to them and getting into it too. Or maybe we’ll just turn it into another #sponcon mill, dunno.
Atlas Obscura and Gastro Obscura
I like reading about anything offbeat and unnoticed by the hordes of travelers and travel influencers. Atlas Obscura consistently features the little-known wonders of our world, then tells us where to eat via its food-centric offshoot Gastro Obscura. Especially during this pandemic when high-risk people like me must stay home and avoid non-essential travel, reading about stuff I can’t see or eat (for now) makes me look forward to post-pandemic travel, not to mention add so many to-do items on travel checklists.
And thanks to this website, I also learned about some places in my motherland that I didn’t know about before.
The Atlas Obscura and Gastro Obscura newsletters usually do website-content roundups, which is super helpful if you’re not into sorting through everything on your own. You can subscribe and tailor your subscription preferences here.
If you’ve already read Caroline Criado Perez’s 2019 book Invisible Women: Data Bias in a World Designed for Men, subscribing to her regular newsletter is the next logical step. It basically continues her coverage of the gender data gap – and brings us all Generic Female Pals (GFPs) up to speed on how this gap persists in both obvious and subtle situations.
Like most women, I’ve always known we were being ignored and put down and downright disregarded in so many ways, but not always how and how often and by how much. So here’s a solid warning: the book – and the newsletter – are both enlightening and terrible for your blood pressure. 😉️
I first heard of the four-year-old newsletter Deez Links in the early months of COVID-19, when a friend sent me and another friend a job ad from her newsletter. It was a full-time and remote job in media and journalism, which all three of us have roots in. I didn’t apply for it, but I never forgot which newsletter it came from.
Delia Cai now works at Vanity Fair (and wrote this great piece on newsletter writers quitting the game), but still updates her own newsletter Deez Links occasionally. You can read the archive here – and maybe wonder what Philippine journos would honestly say and which jobs we’d publicize if we had a local version.
As I said, first-person longform nonfiction is my jam. So imagine my joy when I found out that longform go-tos Catapult, Narratively, Literary Hub, The Rumpus, Guernica, and Granta combined forces and had a digital baby named Memoir Monday:
Given the number of cooks in this kitchen (which is apparently increasing some more), the Memoir Monday newsletter showcases a wide variety of voices and viewpoints. I hope that continues – and that they feature Filipino writers too, not just Filipino-Americans.
The world is rapidly changing, for better or worse. The one I knew as a child (conservative, rigid, unforgiving, and subtly toxic) and the one I choose to live in now (more liberal, broad-minded, and hopefully less toxic) can be considered polar opposites, with complex and country-specific issues strewn along the midpoints.
So it really helps if and when people and publications give us the vocabulary, circumstances, and context that can help us process what’s going on and how and why. The Salty newsletter does all these very well. It’s also unique in that it’s a free and independent newsletter first, and that its articles and covers are sourced directly from its audience and community. No celebrities and influencers, no big-time corporate sponsorships, no C-suite meddling.
And while the material isn’t always applicable to me and my life in the Philippines and as a Filipino, it does provide comprehensive views of female and LGBTQI stories that aren’t seen in the mainstream, if at all.
Aside from Roxane Gay’s book-writing and -editing work, over the past year or so she has also been doing a podcast, a New York Times column, and a newsletter named The Audacity.
This newsletter serves as a reflection of how she sees our current world. It also functions as a book club and a landing spot for content from unknown/emerging authors – from these authors’ articles being fully paid for (VV IMPT!) and shared on the newsletter to Gay’s own book imprint and a creative fellowship.
Here’s another internet classic, this time in newsletter form because creator Matthew Inman wants to ease his use of social media to promote his work. Think of it as a regular dose of the hilarious and hilariously sarcastic/ironic comics Inman is known for, all going straight to your inbox.
And so far, he has fulfilled his “I promise not to spam you” promise. Good enough for me.
Wealth of Women
Like Caroline Criado Perez and her Invisible Women newsletter, Katrine Marçal’s Wealth of Women newsletter is an extension of her original books Mother of Invention: How Good Ideas Get Ignored in an Economy Built for Men and Who Cooked Adam Smith’s Dinner?: A Story of Women and Economics.
In this case, Marçal looks at economics and business from a feminist lens, in the process providing new and deeper takes on hot topics. Seriously. Subscribe to Wealth of Women – and realize exactly just by how much we are getting fucked over.
Let’s go back to early 2020 (pre-pandemic).
I was in Chiang Mai on a work trip. My then-employers and I were talking about travel and the places we have been to so far. I had commented that I would love to be able to go to more places; but unlike their all-powerful Singaporean passport, my Third-World Philippine passport actually hinders me from moving around as freely as they do. I can travel as non-Third-Worlders do only after establishing my financial capability, long-term real-estate and business ties proving my intention to return home, actual departure and return flight tickets, and other requirements amounting to a mountain of paperwork – and somehow beat subtle colonialism and racism along the way via personal embassy appearances and visa interviews.
A few days after I returned to Manila, I came across an article on Medium by a Sri Lankan writer named Indi Samarajiva titled “The Unbearable Whiteness of Tourism“. I forget how I got to it in the first place, but I remember sharing it on every online platform I have. It captured the unfair advantages of White people in global travel compared to the rest of us – and the utter rage that stems and should stem from this inequality. I think we all knew this, but Samarajiva found the best words to express our anger in the most succinct and direct way.
I mean, this entire paragraph sums it up:
They call tourism the hospitality industry, but it’s hardly hospitable. Hospitality is a welcome that goes both ways. You are welcome to my home, and I am welcome to yours. Tourism is hardly that. White people are welcome to the world. Brown people have to show receipts.
I’ve been reading his content since then, and subscribed to his newsletter after he moved it to his own domain. He updates several times a week, so there will always be great content (free and paid) for you to read – and, more importantly, think about and maybe do something about if you’re in the position to. Sign up, you won’t regret it.
And whenever I get the idea that I can make money out of this newsletter, I can always go back to this issue of Indi’s. (Yeah, it probably won’t happen for me.)
Jessica Zafra – the writer of the long-running newspaper column turned book series Twisted, the instructor behind Writing Boot Camp, and author of many other books and host of talk shows plus a podcast – now has a Substack newsletter! I’m a big fan of her nonfiction work; and seeing as she doesn’t write columns anymore and her blog updates have become scarce, this newsletter would be the next best source for her updates and new material.
It also makes me happy to see Jessica is now in the newsletter ‘business’. I don’t know if I searched hard enough or used the right keywords and phrases, but it seems that most Philippine authors skip newsletters altogether. She was the only one I could find – and she and Janus Silang series author Edgar Samar are the only ones I could see trying out all sorts of things: books, teaching and workshops, Patreon, podcasts. (I would have counted horror author Karl de Mesa in too, but he doesn’t do Patreon.) Most authors are sticking to social media for their book/writer marketing, with Facebook as the main driver and Book Twitter and Bookstagram and BookTok and BookTube for platform-specific author + reader spaces.
(Wow, that sounds like a good blog or newsletter topic. Hmmm… “How to sell books in the Philippines, 2022 edition”??? Or “Bakit ang hirap kumita ng pera dito, punyeta???”)
I also like and subscribe to these newsletters
The Ann Friedman Weekly: A must-read from one of the pioneers of email newsletters.
Yoast Newsletter: If you use WordPress as your content management system (CMS) and the Yoast SEO plugin to optimize said content, this newsletter gives you more insights on how to maximize all that to boost traffic.
The Marginalian: Maria Popova’s long-running Brain Pickings newsletter got a new name and URL; but still serves up the same familiar content on books, art, creativity, and philosophy.
The Ken and Tech in Asia newsletters: I’m a former Philippine/ASEAN tech journalist, and I have a soft spot for publications that tackle what Western news outlets can’t and (stubbornly) won’t. The Ken and Tech in Asia are two such publications with roots in India and Singapore, respectively; and do a good job of highlighting tech and business developments in the rest of the region.
They’re deep into newsletters too, which has its pros and cons. The biggest benefit is you get daily/weekly updates. But they’re always tweaking their editorial and marketing plans, so you may suddenly get a flood of multiple newsletters in your inbox – as I did last year, when I know I signed up for only one each. Review what you get, and subscribe/unsubscribe accordingly.
Writer in Manila: This is the newsletter version of columnist and ex-startup exec Evan Tan’s A Writer in Manila blog – and a place where he publishes “more intimate stuff”. Also, he’s not in Manila anymore.