A small and simple newsletter as a model of collaboration

In the frenzy to social wash everything that goes on in the business setting, we sometimes forget that today’s work media solutions (enterprise social networks) are overkill for a lot of purposes. Using all-in-one collaboration tools that encompass projects, status updates, tasks, milestones, polls, time sheets, time estimates, Gantt charts, events, and anything else that the vendor thought would be a competitive advantage — well, it all comes with a cognitive cost.

Every time users log in to one of these vast systems, they are inundated with information: overdue tasks, project updates, and so on. So, although I might want to simply ask a small group of people for some quick feedback, I have to actively ignore the clamor of the social network and then figure out how to do what I wanted to do using a subset of the work media system’s armament.

Alternatively, I could instead use a small and simple tool designed specifically for the purpose I have in mind. Or I could use a collection of the small and simple tools that suit my style of collaboration.

It’s an interesting discontinuity: On one hand we are arguing that people who have more autonomy in their work are happier and more productive. But we enforce uniformity in the use of collaboration tools. The company or division decides to deploy Jive or Podio, and everyone is told to get on board. The argument is that the value of the tool is increased by the number of people using it, but what if you would rather coordinate with others using other tools?

For example, consider the scenario of Katie, a graphic designer working in the San Francisco office of a large corporation, who has a loose network of other remote designers whom she wants to remain connected to. Some of these people work in the same business, and many others don’t, but she means business: She wants to share ideas and gather feedback to help her be a better designer. But the model that makes most sense to her is the fan-out/fan-back model supported by TinyLetter, a small and simple newsletter tool that is now owned by MailChimp. And even if she wanted to, her company has locked down access to the enterprise work media solution it has deployed.

By fan-out/fan-back I mean the following: She creates and edits a newsletter with links, ideas, and images and sends it out to a mailing list of contacts (who have opted in). They read the newsletter in their email — no login to some service, no learning a new tool — and can reply, add thoughts and observations, and answer requests for feedback. These replies are private for Katie; they are not shared with the group as a whole, which is the norm in many open mailing list tools. But Katie can get the benefit of the feedback, and she can surface the best ideas and contributions in the next newsletter, if she wants.

Strangely there is little of this going on in businesses, but I believe it will take off. We will see two countervailing trends in social business. On one hand, we will see the widespread adoption by corporations of enterprise-scale work media tools, and the channeling of business processes and communications into the affordances that those tools support. On the other hand, and pulling in the opposite direction, the bring-your-own-device analog for social tools will see more rogue adoption of small and simple tools by creative and connected early adopters. That might include tools like TinyLetter, micropublishing tools, or other examples of consumer or personal technologies repurposed for social use in the business context.


TinyLetter is the most minimal newsletter tool I’ve seen. It avoids the heavy costs of getting started with something like MailChimp, and only allows a few things to be done. The newsletter author sets up the account, picking a name for the newsletter and tweaking only a few settings. Below, you can see the fonts settings for a newsletter associated with my Beacon Streets blog:

The author can edit the newsletter, which is done manually, and seems like editing a blog post:

Once sent the newsletter issue can’t be edited again, but there is a draft setting so that Katie could be adding materials over the course of a week, for example.

The social loop is closed by the email replies of newsletter recipients, which are aggregated in the tool, and the ability for the author to reply to those replies individually, as well.

Final thoughts

The venerable newsletter, especially based on the TinyLetter fan-out/fan-back model of communication, can offer a great deal of value, and it does so in a shared public-private way. There is no direct analog in most social-collaboration tools. More importantly, the model is simple and well-suited for an individual wanting to remain connected with individuals that form a not-particularly tightly knit grouping of people.

In 2013 I think we will see the two trends — widespread adoption of work media solutions and the bring-your-own-software (BYOS) revolution — working in opposite ends of the increasingly social business.