The potential role of newsletters in community building

12 June 2016

3 months ago, I started writing a newsletter for the engine room, on the topic of Responsible Data. As a result, I’ve been thinking a lot about the potential role of newsletters in online communities, and trying to work out what value this particular newsletter could bring.

This NYMag piece on newsletters as online ‘safe spaces’ made me think a lot about what that means for community building. Sadly, nowadays, ‘open’ social media platforms which are used to provide channels of communication and discussion can be dangerous places for feminist activists, women or other marginalised communities, or simply people talking about topics like social justice or social change. Despite this, lots of online community gathering still happens on social media platforms - tweeting with a certain hashtag, participating in online discussion forums, or joining a specific Facebook group, for example. What other options are there for bringing together a community, without venturing into increasingly uncomfortable social media spaces?

Firstly, some quick advantages of newsletters:

  • They land in inboxes: they don’t add a platform or a channel that the user/reader has to look at.
  • They have a relatively long shelf-life: they can be archived or marked as unread, and looked at later - they’re not fleeting like a tweet.
  • Their visibility is more easily controlled: as the administrator, you can see who the newsletter is being sent to, and remove people if you don’t want them to see it, and you can control whether or not archives of the newsletter are made publicly available or not to non-subscribers.
  • They can combine different formats: text, GIFs, images, videos, etc.
  • From the reader’s perspective: there’s an element of anonymity in signing up, as nobody (apart from the admin) knows that you have, and as a result, there’s no expectations or demands on your participation.
  • They are primarily one-way: unlike commenting features on a blog post, newsletters involve a primarily one-way flow of information from a person to a group of people, without the space created for a discussion.

However, this last point makes it actually harder to see the role of a newsletter in community management. When I think of community platforms, I think of places where people can come together and share opinions, discuss issues, and make their perspective known.

So, how could this one be different - or, what role could a newsletter play, if it had an explicit community focus?

  • Community appreciation + learning: signal boosting other people’s work. Having one of its primary functions being pointing to other people’s work, and putting it in context, not only in the explicit ‘community’ section, but throughout the main content of the newsletter itself.

  • Connecting between different community channels: highlighting + summarising areas of discussion from the mailing list (where anybody can write and discuss a topic). Particularly on active discussion lists, which the responsible data one can be sometimes, it can get difficult to keep up on a particular email thread. Rather than expecting everyone to read through all the emails, the newsletter can be a place to look to get a quick digest of what the major topics have been recently.

  • Community growth (or, finding new audiences): Bringing new audiences to the community by deliberately combinging issues of importance to different communities in different issues. For example, the latest issue on Bodies combined topics which I come across a lot in more tech and/or feminist discussions, but much less so from the responsible data perspective. As a newsletter can be issue-focused in terms of themes, it can swap easily between themes but keep a solid thread throughout.

  • Facilitating low-level community engagement: signing up to a fortnightly newsletter is a lower barrier to entry than, say, joining a mailing list, or signing up to a discussion forum with your own identity. For total newcomers who are curious about the topic and looking for an easy way to dip their toes in, a newsletter could be a good first start.

Then, thinking specifically of the topic area I write about - responsible data, which ranges from pretty dry, technical topics, to more fuzzy data ethics questions, security and privacy concerns: what value could I bring by curating a newsletter?

  • Combining the past and the present with the future: one of the things that worries me most about many responsible data debates is that we aren’t learning very well from history. At their heart, very few of these problems are actually new, even if the digital technologies that are amplifying or accelerating them are. I love newsletters like Brain Pickings, which combines new, innovative and interesting picks from the internet, together with old favourites and interesting things from the past that we can learn from.

  • Providing a ‘human’ slant on more technical topics: I was told by a communications strategy specialist recently that ‘automating newsletters is getting easier and easier’, ie. making lists or coming up with recommended picks from a range of given sources. If what he told me is true, then getting that human slant is going to become ever more valuable - adding a few lines of analysis as to why a certain article is included, or placing it within historical context and explaining why it is a valuable addition to the topic. In this respect, I love the very human and tangible editorial slant of Jason’s Naked Data newsletter - it’s funny, opinionated, and has a strong human touch.

  • Moving discussion away from anecdotes, to actual challenges + proposed solutions: responsible data challenges can be scary, and often the potential challenges can be perceived as overwhelming. Raising awareness of real-life challenges and how people have tried to mitigate them can help to bring those ephemeral or hypothetical issues into the real world, and hopefully make them a bit more tangible and approachable. This is a topic we tried to work on with the Responsible Data Reflection Stories too.

  • Providing summaries of longer pieces: with the number of potential information sources for responsible data work, nobody has time to comb through every piece of information out there. Providing short summaries so that someone doesn’t have to read the whole thing but can easily digest the main points can help save time, and (hopefully!) contribute to a deeper shared understanding of a range of topics rather than just our particular specialisations.

  • Providing a more light-hearted slant on often scary topics: for example, with puns (this newsletter is called Mission:Responsible… get it?), GIFs and jokes. Again, as above, lots of these issues can be kind of terrifying - so, being able to combine analysis in words together with a well-chosen GIF which is worth a thousand words, makes the newsletter format pretty valuable (and hopefully, a little bit funny!)

So, these are the principles I’m going off for now, though I’m sure they’ll develop in the future, as I’ve only written 5 issues so far! If what I’ve said has piqued your interest, you can sign up to receive it here., and see all previous issues of it here.


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