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TinyLetter is a perfect platform, and it is probably not dying

A recent Inc article reporting that MailChimp would integrate the newsletter platform TinyLetter into its primary email marketing service sent the online writing community into a small tizzy, with headlines reading “What We Know About MailChimp’s Plan to End TinyLetter” and “Rest in Peace, TinyLetter.”

In reality, all the Inc article said — beyond its misleading headline — was “TinyLetter’s functionality will be enhanced in its migration to MailChimp.” There were no details on what that meant, and certainly no indication that the platform was being killed.

TinyLetter, a free newsletter service that caps users at 5,000 subscribers, is a perfect product in that it is a finicky and limited product with one function. Formatting is wonky and easy to mess up, embeds are limited to images, archives are rudimentary-looking, and your design choices are very few. But you’re writing an email newsletter, and an email newsletter is what you get every time. TinyLetter provides only basic analytics including subscriber counts, open rates, and click-through rates. You can also — and I don’t recommend this — look at the open rate for each individual subscriber, empowering anyone who receives a compliment on their newsletter from an acquaintance or co-worker to go home and investigate just how regularly the “friend” is actually reading.

It’s simple and fun, and it’s easy to see why so many panicked at the thought of it shutting down.

Today, to reassure TinyLetter users in the face of “premature eulogies,” MailChimp CEO Ben Chestnut sent out the following note:

We have no plans to make changes to TinyLetter in 2018. And we’ll let you know what to expect before we make any changes in the future.

In the long term, we do intend to integrate TinyLetter into MailChimp. Doing this will better enable us to support the product and its users. But we’re taking it slow because we want to get it right.

MailChimp acquired TinyLetter in 2011 and relaunched it in 2014. Over the years, we’ve enjoyed watching it take on a life of its own. We know you feel strongly about the messages you send through TinyLetter, the relationships you have with your readers, and the experience of using the platform. Many of you feel a deep, personal connection with it—and we don’t take that lightly. We’ve always said that TinyLetter is for people what MailChimp is for businesses. That’s still true, and any changes will bear it in mind.

When we have a roadmap for the integration, you’ll hear it from us first, well in advance. We’ll make it as seamless as possible, and you won’t lose your subscriber list or your archives.

In the meantime, TinyLetter isn’t going anywhere.

In a statement provided to The Verge, a representative reiterated this message and added that the new version of TinyLetter — timeline still up in the air — “will still have the same super-simple newsletter building capabilities, with a refreshed, updated user experience.”

Users who are worried about MailChimp messing with the product — which it has owned since 2011 — can really only fear that it will be improved or complicated. There’s not much space to go in the other direction. The more reasonable fear would be that MailChimp, by roping TinyLetter into its standard product, might begin charging for it, the way it does with its broader marketing services.

That wouldn’t necessarily be a terrible thing, for at least some of its users. TinyLetter is one of the rare remaining platforms that allows creatives to treasure small audiences, rather than angling for growth and jockeying for ad money. But we’re also moving into an era where people who make cool things online don’t want to do so for free. The short-lived platform Double Bounce aimed to make a TinyLetter-esque service where writers could charge monthly subscription fees, and Kickstarter’s recently launched Patreon competitor Drip has similar functionality.

The knee-jerk “RIP” reaction isn’t totally out of left field, though, and it speaks to a broader trend in internet culture: a fear that everything good is good only until a corporation sees an opportunity to monetize it, or until it becomes apparent that that won’t be possible. The question of how to make internet culture profitable and protected has haunted beloved platforms for years, killing Vine in 2016 and putting Tumblr and SoundCloud through periods of crisis in 2017. The fear that there is no such thing as a truly “benevolent” and reliable platform is a founded one, as creatives have seen Yahoo and then Verizon mess with Tumblr’s product and community, Yahoo and then YouTube property AVOS dismantle what was good about bookmarking site Delicious, and Patreon experiment with service fees that would dramatically cut into users’ bottom lines.

But Patreon’s service fee was shouted down by its users, and the company offered an apology within days. Pinboard founder Maciej Cegłowski takes product design suggestions from users in a Google Doc, and mercilessly mocked former competitor Delicious for the ultimate sin of stupidity: ignoring what people actually used its product for and effectively signing its own death sentence. He rebuilt Pinboard as a haven for the fandom communities that Delicious inadvertently drove away. MailChimp felt compelled to reach out to TinyLetter’s user base with a tone of reassurance that bordered on camaraderie. It doesn’t make sense for MailChimp to mess too heavily with TinyLetter, in particular because it is so simple, beloved, and likely costs very little to operate.

For now, the users of creative platforms are winning the battle to keep the things they love. And for now, TinyLetter is probably not dying.


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