Email is back! This isn’t a secret, and the laziest of searches will turn up half a dozen think pieces on the resurgence of the newsletter, dominated by the MailChimp-powered site TinyLetter.
Last November, The New York Times weighed in on a trend that had already been visible for nearly three full years, explaining the TinyLetter as a style of writing akin to blogging for a self-selected audience, “a small-batch brew tailored to the creative class, particularly those seeking to hone their prose skills in a semipublic forum.”
This May, Jia Tolentino mentioned TinyLetter when hunting for reasons for the demise of the xoJane-style clickbait personal essay. As one possible explanation, she quoted Awl alum Carrie Frye, saying, “writers — particularly female writers — [said], ‘Okay, I’m going to make an internet on which my essays go out in pneumatic tubes to just who I want them to go to, and no one else.’”
Double Bounce could be a perfect newsletter platform, if anyone can find it
TinyLetter is a great platform (I use it!) for these reasons and for the fact that it demands so little from users. It’s free; readers don’t need to make an account to subscribe to your work. But alongside the resurgence of emails another cultural shift is happening on the internet: creative people who are good at making things that other people enjoy don’t want to do it for free anymore. That’s why the last few years have seen the rise of Patreon (and its use for everything from podcasts to video games to nude photos to memes) and the slow demise of sites like Vine and SoundCloud, which never found a substantive way to help their users turn a profit. A new platform, with an appealing ‘90s aesthetic and free website hosting, may be the perfect marriage between the two trends — if anyone can find their way there.
Double Bounce, founded and operated solely by 30-year-old former Chartbeat product designer Alex Carusillo, is a tiny mimic of Patreon where artists and writers can choose to give out work for free or hold it behind a subscription-based paywall. Either way, your work only goes out to people who’ve signed up to receive it. It’s currently the fifth Google Search result for “double bounce,” following two YouTube tutorials for better trampoline-ing. There’s also no discovery section on the site at all, so you can only find and subscribe to creators if you know them, or if they advertise their work on other social media platforms. (Disclosure: This is how I found the site. I subscribed to Claire Carusillo’s TinyLetter before she switched over to Double Bounce, her brother’s platform, earlier this year.) It feels almost alien in our current moment of influencers and viral stars. Regardless, Carusillo says he has a few thousand users on Double Bounce, most of them teenagers or early 20-somethings, and they already feel like a tight-knit community with crystal-clear ideas of what the internet can and should be for them. And most of them make at least some money, without getting millions or even hundreds of views.
Curious about how sustainable a seemingly magical little world like Double Bounce is, I spoke to Carusillo recently about money, the internet, making money on the internet, and the potential for a big, weird, email-first online community.
This interview has been edited for clarity and length.
How did you come up with the idea for Double Bounce?
I love the internet. Everything I ever liked came from the internet. So many people who I talk to who are interesting sort of get washed away by the tide of angry people. The idea of Double Bounce was “how do we refocus away from these massive distribution sites that sell everything to advertising companies and how do we focus on smaller, more tight-knit communities?”
So, how is Double Bounce different than TinyLetter?
I love TinyLetter, and have taken a bunch of inspiration from it. When I started it was just about “how can I foster these communities?” but what I found out when I started talking to people was that they would say “hey, I got to get paid for what I do on the internet.” And that’s kind of what advertisers take advantage of. That’s the biggest difference between Double Bounce and TinyLetter. At the core of this, I want to make it so that if you have an interesting idea and a small fandom, you can build that and get support and if someone says “Oh, I like what you’re doing,” you can make some money and do it better.
“Everything I ever liked came from the internet.”
Double Bounce supports multimedia and you get a website, there’s a chat room, blah blah blah, those are other differences. But really, it’s like “how do you make this a bedrock for people to build these communities in a way that’s more stable than just a bunch of follows.”
The idea of getting paid for online creativity is something people are coming around to just in general, particularly with Patreon. People saying “I don’t need to do the stuff that I’m good at for free.”
It is my hope. The fall of Vine really brought it into focus for, at least a lot of my users, and the people I use as a sounding board. Everything felt good, it felt like the good times were never going to stop, and then they did and they stopped real quick. A lot of my users are younger — late teenagers, early 20s — for a lot of them there was this moment of like... It snapped into focus that these things can disappear. And while it’s one of my favorite websites, we’re seeing it again with Tumblr. That’s another thing that people have built meaningful work on. It might just disappear into nothingness, and it sucks. I don’t know that I have a solution to it, but there is something healthy and useful I think in moving away from “I have to have a billion people watch this for this to work.” You can do smaller, weirder stuff, I hope without people yelling at you.
What kind of projects is Double Bounce hosting right now? How many users?
I have a couple thousand users and they run the gamut. It started with my friends and people I thought were interesting, so the early stuff was a lot of writing. Just because the internet, as weird as it is, doesn’t have a lot of venues for weird writing.
All of the successful stuff tends to specialize. Broad stuff doesn’t work super well on Double Bounce. If you want to read movie reviews, I don’t know, there are plenty of movie review websites and places to do that. A weird niche ‘90s-inspired MySpace-Tumblr thing isn’t really what you’re looking for. If you’re my sister Claire [Carusillo] and you write a newsletter that’s about feminism and beauty and how all products are fake and made of Vaseline, that’s a more narrow space. That’s the kind of stuff that I hope Double Bounce will always be there for, the people who are too weird and pointed and quirky to go to these places that ask something different of them. To me that’s a big part of the design and the way it works. First of all, there’s no app. I don’t want to plaster people with stuff like “look at this!, look at this!, look at this!” I want them to say “I know this artist, I love their work, I want to support them.”
It’s largely writing, podcasts, and videos, but I’ve been trying to make more in-roads into digital art. So either interactive art or video games or recurring digital work of artists who don’t really have a space to display things. Programs, GIFs, whatever.
Now that SoundCloud seems to be on the brink of collapse — partly because it does such a bad job helping people make money — is music something you’re hoping to attract?
I moved to New York City to work for a music tech company called Songza, and those guys were just the smartest, most interesting people in the world. And I saw how horrible it was to run a music company. With Double Bounce, my attitude is like, “Hey, if you’re a musician and you want to come here I’m happy to have this for you, you can upload MP3s, thumbs-up, let’s do this.” But that stuff is hard and the people at SoundCloud are brilliant and I don’t know if I can figure out how to do music.
Do you have any demographic idea of your users?
It’s all anecdotal to be totally frank with you. One of my things is I don’t want to give the appearance that I’m like other companies because I’m really trying my hardest not to be. So I don’t want to be collecting information on users. People only do that if they’re selling it to somebody. Anecdotally it is younger and it is female.
Where does the funding come from? How do you handle operational costs?
We’re entirely self-funded. It’s just me. I’ve been lucky enough that I’ve worked for successful companies and that gave me a window to do this kind of thing. As far as how we make money, there are two ways to use the site. One: you can sign up, it’s free, use it like a Tumblr / SoundCloud / YouTube, whatever whatever. Two: you can charge fans for monthly access and you can charge whatever you want from $1 a month to a billion a month. And we take a 5 percent cut of everything you earn. Any money we’re taking is money we’ve generated for you. We take 5 percent and the payment processor takes 2 percent, so we just get a cut. It’s a hilariously simple system. I always feel embarrassed telling people that because I feel like it should be more complex stuff. But it’s just “You make money, we take a little bit of it.”
This is your primary source of income then?
Double Bounce is my job, it is what I do. I also have done freelance stuff to pay the bills. But this is an honest-to-God company. This is a thing I want to see in the world and I think we need, whether I do it or someone else does it, I almost don’t really care. I just think we need spaces that are less corporate cash-heavy and toxic. I might as well run into a wall and see what I can shake loose. I’m lucky enough that I have enough users on it, I have enough money coming in through it, that I can kind of tread water, and watch and build this thing organically, rather than try doing that VC foot-on-the-gas pedal “let’s blow the fun” thing.
Do you know how much money a month creators are getting from the site?
So, that’s the thing I’m not going to divulge because I’m not sure legally I can. But I can tell you that there are people who make everything from $100 a month to $1,000 a month. To be frank with you, no one has quit their job and become a full-time Double Bouncer. That is something I would like to see happen. There are people who have been able to say “Oh my god, this art I made is actually liked by 100 people and 85 of them will pay for it and I can now justify spending more time on this.” To me that’s always been the goal, I would love to make every person with a weird angular viewpoint super rich but if I can’t accomplish that, at least I can give them the sense of “My work is valid; it’s out there.”
“This art I made is actually liked by 100 people and 85 of them will pay for it and I can now justify spending more time on this.”
On Patreon you can see how much money people are asking for and how many people support them. That’s private on your site correct?
At first, that was just a quirk of the fact that I built the product, I designed the product, I sold the product, I marketed the product, and it just didn’t get done because I was one person doing everything and alienating my girlfriend. But it ended up being a thing that I thought was kind of appropriate, because while this is a capitalist enterprise and while it is telling people “your art has value” and not just “your art has value because it’s helping someone sell data to advertising firms,” I don’t want to make it just about that.
I want this to feel like a safe space to experiment, to try new things, to take on a persona and say things that maybe aren’t even true to you or you don’t feel comfortable saying in your day-to-day life. And just a side note on this: I have sort of a hair-trigger on hate speech or anything of that sort. This is a private company run by me, so if I think that what you’re saying is hateful it gets banned pretty quick, and that’s a thing I’ve had to do.
Do you get a lot of feedback from the people who use the site, do you take feature requests?
The thing I keep hearing from people is “Can I get a chat room?” “Can I get a text thread?” Something I dream of, and something people have requested, specifically teenagers, which I think is probably super telling — they want like short-term group texts that just are for their Double Bounce community. And I love that idea! I’m 30, the internet when I was younger was just a bunch of weirdo strangers who were all weirdo strangers together and felt like a community for that. The more we started using our real identities and the more overtly toxic the internet became, the more we lost that.
What’s been nice about this feedback is that people are saying “Hey, this community is cool and no one is shouting slurs at me and I want them to be my friends, I want this to be a thing we do together.” That’s been the most heartening part for me, that’s the best feedback I’ve gotten. How do I do that? Lord knows if I can do it right.
What do you hope Double Bounce becomes in the next year?
The most interesting stuff happens when you build a platform and react. Tumblr, Pinboard, the good stuff happens when you give interesting, creative people tools and then just watch what they do. So frankly, if I were talking about a six month plan, really I want to see what interesting and creative people do and I want to make sure that I’m giving them what they need. That’s one of the great luxuries of doing this myself, is that I don’t have a target that I need to hit.
There’s also something really interesting happening at the convergence of newsletters and community, and I’ve been working with this idea of an email social network. I don’t really know what that means, but I know people love getting emails and emails feel different and special. I know people love the type of community that develop around those. To go back to my sister Claire, as a reference point, she has some really cool, funny people who read her emails and send her feedback. Once in awhile they’ll send me a note accidentally. They’re funny and smart and clever and it’s charming to see what they have to say. And I want to focus more on that, more on moving this kind of subversive email community that doesn’t have a name. I want to make it easier to spin that up.
“I think we’d all be better if we weren’t all trying to be internet megastars”
Do people usually manage to find audiences? Do paid subscribers stick with it?
Again, I don’t do data analysis so this is a lot of me looking at databases and trying to infer things. But I think I’ve seen a couple of patterns. One, you get people who come in and have 12 people sign up and the 12 people never unsubscribe and they read every single thing. For what it’s worth, I think that is a valid and great use of this product. We all don’t need to be internet megastars, in fact I think we’d all be better if we weren’t all trying to be internet megastars.
Another is people who kind of get a snowball rolling down a hill, wherein they come in with some kind of web presence, or are often already notable somewhere on the internet. They’re often journalists people like to read or they have a semi-popular podcast and they’re kind of parlaying this mid-tier thing into something more substantive.
And then this is the one that is a downer, and I guess we should have done this one first. We have people who are legitimately successful on other platforms that Double Bounce just doesn’t work for. That’s a stupid thing to say in an interview but I have found that people who have sort of built their careers on being big on YouTube or Vine or SoundCloud or whatever, there’s this expectation that the work they make is free. So they’ll take this funnel of 10,000 fans to Double Bounce and the fans will be like “Oh my god, I have to actually pay to support them?” I’ve actually found that Double Bounce, the way it works and the kind of patterns I see, are more independent-minded, smaller communities, usually of people who have a shitty experience elsewhere on the internet. I’ve had people who are legit like popular who come in and say “This thing sucks, I don’t want it.” I guess if that’s my line in the sand, I don’t mind being on the other side of it.
“people who are legit like popular come in and say ‘This thing sucks, I don’t want it.’”
How does someone build an audience on Double Bounce — there’s no discovery feature or explore tab. Is there a subscriber limit?
We limit at 7.5 billion because the Google search I just did told me that's how many people there are on the planet. No subscriber limits. Bring whoever you got and we're happy to have them.
Content discovery is actually a thing that has both existed and been removed. I didn't like some of the behavior I was seeing early on when there was an explore tab. It was getting a little drive-by, YouTube comment-y as people were just popping into stuff and saying dumb stuff. My goal is genuinely to make Double Bounce a safe space for expression, so I took it away to give people a sense of boundaries. I think of these as websites more than social media profiles. That said, my users are kind of split on wanting discovery and not, so it's a thing I'm always thinking about changing. The code is literally still there. Generally Double Bounce sites are more in-groupy which does a lot to prevent the abuse of other places on the internet and gives off that fun early 2000s vibe of "discovering" something, but makes it hard to grow through the site. I go back and forth on if this is the right decision.
Speaking of Google searches, if you search “Double Bounce” it’s a lot of stuff about trampolines.
Double bounce is a trampoline thing (and the third name for this product in the last year). You “double bounce” someone when you jump just before them and send them higher than they could jump alone. I think it's a really nice metaphor for supporting each other.