Magic Inbox
Magic Inbox

It’s a seductively simple idea: All your favorite writers, in one place.

Today, we’re thrilled to make it reality with the introduction of Magic Inbox.

This release includes:

  • 🏋️ New foundation. New backend, streamlined interface, new search. Bug fixes, metadata updates, and content reliability improvements.
  • 📰 Browse by publisher. Follow staff writers from major publishers like The Atlantic, The New Yorker, The New York Times Opinion section.
  • 🎁 Discover writers. Browse popular writers and by category. We’ve showcased niche Matter favorites, like Emergent Ventures Fellows and Works in Progress.
  • 🧠 Smart Rank. See the writers you like most at the top of your Inbox, as well as writers who publish less frequently. (You can always sort by most recent.)

Before describing these updates in more detail, let’s zoom out to the larger purpose. Why build a reading inbox focused on newsletters and individual writers?

People, not feeds: Beyond RSS

A major development in publishing has been the rise of “the creator economy” – where writers have direct relationships with their readers.

In part, this trend is driven by economics. Platforms like Substack make it easier for writers to earn a livelihood by charging their readers directly, so more do it.

But there’s another force, when you look at it from the reader’s side. Consumer preferences have evolved, following the grain of basic psychology: People trust people.

Let us be the first to say, we have great respect for traditional publishers. There’s no doubt a masthead like The New Yorker will be an enduring source of trust and value, and it would be a mistake to underestimate the central role that quality publishers will continue to play in the media ecosystem.

At the same time, there’s no denying it’s possible to form uniquely trusting relationships with individual writers. Why? Because an individual is high resolution: you can develop a more precise mental model of their style, interests, values, and so on.

Imagine, for example, that you can only know a single piece of information about an article. Which tells you more, knowing that it was published by Bloomberg or that it was written by Matt Levine? Which better informs your decision about whether to read it?

Our job is helping you decide what to read by providing the “highest signal-to-noise” set of candidate articles possible. If you like Matt Levine, we want to give you Matt Levine, not all of Bloomberg. (No knock on Bloomberg; we like Bloomberg.)

What we don’t want to do is give you a high-volume fire hose of feeds that becomes yet another task to manage. This is why Matter is modeled around individual writers, not feeds.*

(*Yes, you can always add any RSS feed you want.)

A grid of faces of writers featured in Matter

The problem of fragmentation

Following your favorite writers is simple in theory, but the fragmentation of writers makes it hard to achieve in practice.

Take newsletters, the go-to channel for most new writers. Our friends at Substack have done a remarkable job attracting top writers to their platform. Chances are, many of your favorite newsletters are Substacks.

Many, but by no means all. Some superstar writers, like Stratechery, host their own service. Others, like The Diff and The Browser, publish through Ghost. Still others, like Jessica Grose and Derek Thompson, write for traditional publishers. Then you have “newsletter-first” media companies, like Every and The Dispatch.

That’s just newsletters. Many of the best commentators in the world write for traditional media companies like The New York Times, The Atlantic, The New Yorker, The Wall Street Journal, Bloomberg, The Washington Post, Wired, The Financial Times.

And some internet OGs, like Paul Graham, stick to their good ol’ quirky blogs.

The bottom line is this. If you want to follow your favorite writers, you need a universal reading client that lets you access all your newsletters and track all your writers across their different homes on the internet.

How does the Inbox work?

Let’s start with the important question of how Matter handles paid content. The answer is simple. You can only access it if you’ve paid the publisher.

Matter is a reading tool, not a media company or publishing platform. To read paid content in Matter, you must have the right to access it from the publisher.

For newsletters, this means subscribing to the newsletter, then syncing or forwarding your newsletters to Matter. For traditional publishers, like NYT or Bloomberg, it means signing into the paywall from within Matter.

How does Matter access your newsletters?

You can connect Gmail in just a few taps. Or, if you don’t mind doing more work, you can set up forwarding rules.

We’ve offered this for a while, but in truth, our newsletter service has had shortcomings.

For one, it was harder than it should have been to manage newsletters. In some cases, it was impossible to unfollow newsletters from Matter. In other cases, it was hard to know where a newsletter came from.

In addition, many were missing metadata, making the feed experience messy and unappealing.

We’ve spent much of the past two months rebuilding our newsletter backend, migrating to a more flexible data model, cleaning metadata, fixing bugs, improving our deduplication system (more on that later), and creating tools that let us offer a more bespoke experience.

Two phone screens side by side. The left screen shows how newsletters appear in Gmail, and the right screen shows a nicer presentation in the Matter app.

One detail we’re proud of: we now differentiate individual brands from the same sending address. For example, if you subscribe to the Every bundle (recommended!), then Divinations, Napkin Math, and Almanack appear as individual profiles.

This thin-slicing is more than cosmetic. It lets you manage your newsletters, like unfollowing and getting notifications, at a more granular level. All in the service of helping you construct the perfect inbox feed.

The second component of the universal Inbox is the ability to follow all your favorite (non-newsletter) writers wherever they publish.

Our v1 permitted you to follow many writers, largely those active on Twitter. Today, we’ve expanded our writer coverage to top publishers like The Atlantic, The New Yorker, and The New York Times Op-Ed Section. More publisher coverage is coming in the weeks ahead.

We’ve also dramatically improved the systems we use to add and manage writer profiles.

At the risk of getting too deep into the weeds, here’s one practical example: In order to identify all of a writer’s posts, across different publications, we perform a name match across the large volume of feeds and content metadata that are ingested into our system each day.

However, this occasionally results in a false positive when there are multiple authors who share the same name. So, we created a flexible new “profile builder” that lets us manage author-level rules, like blocking domains, that result in more accurate writer profiles.

The point is, constructing reliable feeds for a wide range of writers across different publishers and sites is no small task.

And while we can’t promise perfection (yet), our writer-tracking service has improved a huge amount compared to its v1 – in breadth, reliability, and accuracy. It will continue to get better.

A challenge: content overlap

One of the biggest design challenges of the universal Inbox is seamlessly integrating (a) the newsletters you import with (b) public content from the writers you follow.

Let’s say you subscribe to Stratechery. When you sync your newsletters to Matter, you’ll receive Stratechery in Matter. So far so good.

You can also follow Ben Thompson in Matter, and if you do, you’ll receive the publicly available web posts authored by Ben Thompson.

Here’s the rub. Sometimes your newsletters and the public posts are the same content.

We don’t want you to see two copies of the same post; that would be a crummy experience. So, we identify duplicates and only show you one. (Which one? The newsletter. It’s the one “you own,” so we give it precedence over the web version.)

You might wonder why, in this example, we even expose Ben Thompson as a writer who can be followed in Matter. Isn’t it better to subscribe directly to Stratechery? Yes, and in general, we strongly encourage you to subscribe directly to (and to pay for) a writer’s newsletter if they have one.

This said, we determined it would be too confusing, and would require too many fuzzy judgment calls, to exclude writers-who-have-newsletters from being followable in Matter. Thus, our policy is to let you follow any writer who posts content with public URLs.

In search of signal: Smart Rank

So, you’ve got your newsletters and writers in one place. Is it possible to turn the signal up even higher? We think so.

The default ordering for an inbox is most recent first. Recency is a good heuristic but has limitations.

First, it ignores your preferences. You probably like some writers more than others. We think it’s reasonable that you should see the writers you like first, so you’re less likely to miss them.

Second, a strict time-based sort is biased in favor of high volume writers. Some “can’t miss” writers, like Eugene Wei or Agnes Callard, post only on occasion. But unfortunately, their posts are liable to get buried under the much more numerous daily updates.

We’re introducing a new sort option to help. Smart Rank prioritizes posts from writers you like, as well as writers who post less frequently.

Matter infers your affinity for writers based on how much you read their work, but you also have direct control. You can manually rank a writer or newsletter higher (or lower) by tapping the menu on any post in your Inbox:

Smart Rank is our first foray into content ranking. We’re excited about it and also recognize it’s early and want feedback!

Of course, you can always stick with the default of most recent first. Whatever you choose, we hope you like your new reading Inbox as much as we do.

Thanks for making it this far, and as always, please share your feedback!


The Matter Team