Discover more from Culture Study
The Particular Pleasure of the Internet Rec
“The Women’s Magazines of 2023 are in a Facebook Group and in Your Inbox.” That’s the headline of a smart Sapna Maheshwari piece from this weekend’s New York Times, detailing how podcasts like Gee Thanks Just Bought It (which, along with its accompanying Facebook group, is run by friend of the newsletter Caroline Moss) now serve the role once played by women’s magazines in telling their audience (largely but not exclusively women) what to buy to make their bodies, skin, closet, wardrobe, kids, or lives in general into something better.
The piece also points to the success of Elizabeth Holmes, the business journalist behind the royal commentary IG account-now-Substack So Many Thoughts, and ex-Wall Street Journal writer Becky Malinsky, who writes the Substack 5 Things You Should Buy. I agree with Sapna’s main argument re: newsletters and Facebook groups as the new women’s magazines — and am working on a future post about how and why this has happened, and what’s been gained and lost.
But for right now, I want to zero in on the role of recommendations. The three newsletters mentioned in the piece are indeed doing something similar to what-to-buy pages in Cosmo, Seventeen, Vogue, et.al. — the ones with the price in small print beside and, depending on how fancy it was, the department store where you could buy it.
But they’re doing it with the voice of the trusted individual (instead of the omniscient never-wrong brand) and against the backdrop of a larger, commenting community (which often helps or directs the author when they’re first seeking ideas for recommendations).
Their economic engine isn’t pointing out a failure you didn’t realize you had and then providing a product to fix it — in part because unlike women’s magazines, they’re not reliant on ads. Instead, they make money through a combination of subscriptions and affiliate links, and often times a company will create a promo code for a discount if someone like Caroline approaches them with the news that she’ll be featuring them as a rec. (I don’t think this is advertising, per se, just good business sense). People who are good at this work also know that most readers can smell a rec that’s just there because the affiliate deal is good from a mile away — and that a rec that doesn’t behave as promised will also undercut their personal authority (whereas a crap lotion rec from Cosmo never dented the brand).
These sites and groups are more specifically geared towards recommendations, but a lot of other newsletters (including this one) do some version of recommendations. Morning Person, Cup of Jo (which isn’t a newsletter but has been doing ‘Four Things’ Forever, more on CoJ when we talk about the new women’s mags), Nisha’s Internet Tote Bag….there’s a whole lot of recommending going on.
All of this makes sense when it comes to newsletter production and consumption. Back when I started writing this newsletter on the side (and for free) I’d end each edition with a list of things I’d read and loved on the internet that week, because part of my job as a journalist was to read a whole of other things on the internet. People seemed to like that, and I liked putting it together, probably because it was a way of showing just how many things I had read on the internet (but also because I wanted more people to read those things, because they were very good!). I would occasionally throw in another thing I’d done or bought or made: recipes, tv shows, puzzle dog bowls, online succulent stores, etc.
At some point during my first year of full-time newsletter writing, I realized people liked this feature so much that taking it away was the soft push many needed to become a paid subscriber (and thus regain access to it). One thing you learn as a newsletter writer is that the thing that prompts people to subscribe is very seldom the thing that takes the most time.
Indeed, pretty much any newsletter writer will tell you: my readers love recommendations. They don’t want them from anyone, though — there has to be some amount of admiration or trust. Expertise is a bonus but not necessary. I read a lot, for example, but I don’t read everything; I am not Anne Bogel, the host of the massively successful What Should I Read Next? podcast. Nor am I a gadget head, a professional gardener, a skilled runner, an experimental cook, or a television critic. But if you like and/or trust my writing, that’s enough to click on a few of my recommendations.
What’s more, if I recommend something you already like, it confirms a bond; if you try out something I recommend and you like it, that also confirms that bond. If I say “just trust me,” as I do at the end of every Sunday newsletter for subscribers, and you read whatever I link to and think I never would’ve found that on my own or I wouldn’t have read that if I just saw the headline — same. Trust builds and becomes a product worth paying for, which is also why I periodically don’t do a Just Trust Me at all — I don’t want to degrade that trust.
In many cases, “paying” for access to recommendations — whether through a subscription or by enduring ads — is an optimization strategy. You don’t have enough time to read and find all the good stuff on the internet, because you have other things that demand your time, so you rely on others whose main job is to read and find the good stuff. And to be clear, as straightforward as it is for me to collect links, it is also part of my job: every time I scroll Instagram or open my Substack app or just flounder around on the internet, I’m also looking for things that could potentially be included in the week’s links and Just Trust Me. And whether you realize it or not, you probably also know that this is part of my job: to have some level of discernment.
This is true for the Gee Thanks I Bought it newsletter, but it’s also true for, say, the three books recommended by the interviewee at the end of Ezra Klein’s podcast. At that point, you’ve listened to this person say smart things for the previous hour. Of course you want to know the books they think everyone should read (and will feel chuffed if you’ve already read one). Their discernment is worth paying for, either by subscribing to the New York Times and/or listening to an ad about why you should subscribe to the New York Times.
I think that’s because we love the feeling of knowing what’s good, even if we don’t follow through and buy or read or watch the thing that’s good. Which is of course how taste is cultivated and maintained: by buying into amorphous ideas of what’s “the best” within the group of people in our lives whose opinions matter. What’s “the best” can change according to where you live, the priorities in your life, how you were raised, the way you or your family feel about education, and, of course, how much money you have or are willing to spend. The book recommendations on Ezra’s podcast are valuable to me, for instance, because they confirm *my* understanding of what a “smart” person would recommend: a mix of academic books (some intended for broader audiences, but often written by academics) and “literary” novels. They implicitly tell me my taste is good.
But “good” taste is all relative — or, even more devastating, it’s all incredibly arbitrary. So many of the things people associate with “good” taste are just white bourgeois taste. They aren’t better or smarter or more beautiful or creative, they’re just at a price point that says “good taste,” or at least orbits in the same aesthetic universe. Is West Elm good taste or is it just expensive enough to be good taste? You might never know, or maybe never care to know, because figuring out your own taste — apart from all the class and educational signifiers — is exhausting and time-consuming.
Hence: our love for internet recommendations. They’re just personalized enough to avoid, say, having the same Wirecutter coffeemaker as everyone else. But they still feel rational and trustable, which has become all the more valuable amidst the rising tide of junk Amazon reviews and shitty dropship Instagram-based companies selling $50 earrings that make your ears turn green the first time you put them on.
We all know we shouldn’t trust a stranger writing reviews on Amazon. And yet somehow we *do* trust the hundreds of strangers writing in comments and threads on newsletter like this one. Because here’s the truth: we love reading recommendations, but we also love recommending things to others.
Sometimes it’s things to buy, sometimes it’s advice to take. I thought I understood this before I started writing Culture Study, but I really understand it now, having watched what, exactly, makes a thread take off and top 1000 comments. It’s not just asking what you’re watching or eating or reading or buying, but making space for people to ask for specific requests of what they’re looking for, and then *others* in the thread are called upon to answer. The opportunity to exercise moderate authority (and demonstrate your taste!!) is at once alluring and addictive. (To see what I’m talking about, check out this book concierge thread, this one on music, and this sprawling thread on general advice, and yesterday’s on things that promised to fix your life but definitely did not)
I don’t think this impulse to provide advice is necessarily a bad thing — especially if you’re a person who’s not often asked for their opinion due to some bullshit societal perception of what a person who looks or acts like you actually knows. I also think that the concierge-style threads offer a unique opportunity: not always, but every so often, you suggest the perfect thing, exactly what the other person was looking for but could not find. Sometimes it’s a gift for a difficult-to-buy-for father, sometimes it’s an album that evokes a particular feeling. When someone comes back to the thread and says THANK YOU, I LOVE IT SO MUCH, it feels really fucking good.
That sort of recommendation is often a matter of chance or real thoughtfulness. Chance, as in maybe the difficult-to-buy-for dad described is exactly like a dad in your life, and you’re able to make the same recommendation. But sometimes it requires seeing 3, 5, and 7 and not getting 13, but 105. Like instead of recommending something that replicates the thing as closely as possible, but a thing with the same aura.
That’s specialized work. And people who did that work well — at the movie rental place, doing bra fittings at the department store, in actual music columns in actual newspapers, at the concierge desk at a nice hotel — have largely been eliminated from daily life. Those people understood their audience and customer, either as an individual or as a type, and knew how to translate what they said they were looking for into what they were actually looking for. That’s real skill, nearly unteachable. They were invaluable, which is precisely why most companies have decided to replace them with an algorithm that does the job for free.
I don’t have that skill, and I don’t pretend to. What I do have, like so many of these sites doing recommendations as a subscriber bonus, is a broad enough taste that it hails many of your own. It’s more esoteric and academic (and markedly less fancy) than what you’d find in the pages of a women’s magazine, but still pretty broad, with all of the markers of my upbringing, education, and identity. All of that matters and doesn’t matter, I think, because the content of a recommendation is less important than theh recommendation experience.
Does the recommendation make you feel like it’s staring at you, identifying every part of you that’s a problem to be fixed? Ah yes, then it’s a women’s magazine from, oh, the late 19th century to the present! Men’s magazines did the same, particularly with fashion. Masculinity, femininity — you were doing it all wrong. The recommendations were always soured by your own vulnerability.
That’s a shit experience, but once you feel like shit there’s a compulsion to fit fix it — so you keep reading. Even those specialized, concierge-style recommendations could either make your night or ruin it, depending on whether the person doing the recommendation had an identity or expertise or bodily experience that expanded to include yours.
The overwhelming vibe of the internet newsletter recommendation, by contrast, is YMMV — internet slang for ‘your mileage may vary.” I like this, but it’s cool if you don’t. This worked for me, but it might not work for you. Even with the Just Trust Me, my ask is to trust me enough to click the link, try it out, you might not fall in love with it, but it’ll probably poke or prod you in some way.
The internet recommendation acknowledges shortcomings, like lack of size inclusivity. It provides content warnings because sometimes you’re just very much not in a place to even see a headline about a particular topic. I try to think about actual people in actual bodies with actual shit going on in their lives on the receiving end of the newsletter, people whose user names and email addresses I recognize — actual readers, not just the advertising category of “the reader.”
Does that make the internet rec less useful? Too pandering? Not explosive or radical enough? Is the entire internet just out there recommending the same articles and sunscreen to each other and feeling good about it? I dunno! Maybe! We seek out recommendations for so many reasons, including the opportunity to provide our own. We like receiving directions and offering them, learning things and teaching them. Whatever this iteration of the recommendation universe is, I know it’s better than the one that came before.
For today’s discussion, I want to hear your own theory of the recommendation — what makes a good one, what makes them valuable, how you think about recommendations in line with the development and refinement of your own taste (or performance of taste). Or take this in whatever direction you’d like, I’m fascinated by all of it.