Digital’s quieter half has been doing its work this whole time

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While far from a successful case study, I’ll never forget stumbling across multiple copies of Airbnb’s discontinued Pineapple travel magazine in the back corner of Bouwerie Iconic Magazines in New York City. Of course, I recalled the powerful first impression Pineapple’s stories, layouts, and photography made on me—a jog through my inbox lets me know that I’d even missioned across Toronto to Room 2046 to pick up a copy—and when it was discontinued I’d wished I’d grabbed a couple more. Seeing it again was like a new lease on life.

As it turns out, Pineapple was shut down when Airbnb’s chief marketeer moved the budget around. I wonder what the conversation was internally—what was the main measure of impact? Was it intended to reach guests through hosts? I don’t remember much of a launch campaign—it certainly could’ve benefited from a Kickstarter launch like INQUE’s recent one—was this the fault of its publishing partner? Was it simply too expensive to justify the cost? I’ve only occasionally followed Airbnb’s second attempt at print with Hearst, which seems to have sustained for much longer and is frankly much less inspiring.

Just a few years later, I’d be in a similar planning meeting with a Fortune 500 company, where I was working as an editor in chief. during which I decided to float the idea of printing books out to three of my marketing colleagues. We were using a quadrant to evaluate these ideas—the perfect medium for prematurely dooming all interesting ones to an early death—and printing books came with a high cost, putting it at an extreme on the X axis. Surely, I made the case, it also ranked high on the Y axis—it could make a high impact.

If a customer was worth over $10,000 to the business, a $100 printed hardcover book—and I was almost sure we could get the cost down at scale—would surely make up for it. I’ve lived an example of this; after an introductory call with a prospective client, I sent him a magazine. An opportunity came up to work together shortly after, and he approached me first—the magazine had made a huge impact. He would not let me forget this, and constantly brought up the magazine in later years. 

The client was actually attending this meeting as well, and still didn’t buy into the idea. Neither did the other colleagues. Resistance abounded, and I let the idea flutter away. Maybe they were right. We settled on some other ones that went on to do reasonably well. 

Looking back, I know we could’ve bet on the idea, it would’ve turned out really great with enough time. I’ve been around the world many times now, and Pineapple is still on my mind.

The pleasures of slow

Investor and entrepreneur Andrew Wilkinson recently wrote about how he wouldn’t be using Twitter anymore because he had gotten too addicted to the fast dopamine hits. I could relate

In spite of working in technology for most of my career, I’m one of those people who love print. I’ve also probably been reading too much of Tyler Brûlé’s retired Financial Times column lately, where he also shines plenty of anecdotal evidence. 

Accounting for Brûlé’s passion for print and profit motive—he founded Monocle magazine—I can still see where he’s coming from. Of all people who crave analog and slow, it’s the people working and living in the fastest lanes, and the most screens, who will have the strongest desire to return to something familiar.

People are swinging away from fast, returning to the joys of slow. That’s exactly what I should’ve said in the meeting. 

Reading, fast and slow

Even if Stripe founder Patrick Collison describes Stripe Press as a cheap way to increase the number of successful startups in the world—and hence, the increasing number and scale of companies using Stripe—I’m not sure it could make a strong, pure, quantitative case for it. I’d wager that its digital efforts like Indiehackers, Stripe Atlas, and Increment magazine (available in print and digital), have moved the needle more in direct ROI.

Information from physical books doesn’t tend to spread at the speed, scale, and ease that digital can. It’s a shame that Pineapple didn’t launch with a much-needed website. I will happily say that I’ve bought a book from Stripe Press, some of my colleagues at WorkOS have as well, and we were all mindblown when we saw its new website putting the books front and center.

Similar to how a product person would never compare design against development, books and paper were never meant to compete against digital. They’re best positioned as complementary—and, I would make the case, both essential—parts of a whole experience. 

A book or magazine also can sit on someone’s desk, a gentle and enticing reminder for them to have a look when they have a second. It doesn’t elicit the same interruption as a rather brutal push notification amongst the hundreds of others would. 

Print has quietly worked this whole time

Print offers an increasingly rare moment of solitude and full focus, where one can actually sit and savor the moment and paper. There will be more examples like Wilkinson’s. People who are drawn to physical paper, want to take breaks from technology and screens, and are more interested in the physical world than the metaverse. 

Though print might be quieter and more subtle, many businesses leverage print to make a strong impression with people. Just a few examples, amongst many others, include Slack’s Channels magazines, Idea Couture’s MISC (and its many books, for itself and client projects), Apple’s The Year of Thinking Different, Facebook’s many postcards and book, Ginkgo’s Grow, and Shopify’s Checkout book for employees. There’s plenty of business that these magazines have influenced, closed, and retained, all without a retargeting pixel there to claim attribution. Its slowness is exactly why it’s an essential part of the learning experience. 

Print also makes a much stronger, lasting, impression. Tens of thousands of people have downloaded my book, The World According to Kanye, online. I’m more satisfied with the few hardcovers I’d printed out and gifted to people. After moving offices, cities, and countries, friends tell me how it proudly occupies their shelf or their coffee table. When I was lugging them around North America, people who got a glimpse would exclaim, “What is this?!” I wasn’t pushing them information; they were pulling it.

It’s a false choice to put print and digital against each other. The two are complementary halves of a whole. After years of perpetuating the narrative of digital-only, we’re paying for the costs of speed—fake news, disinformation, etc.—and feel the fatigue and see the need to slow down. We’re realizing that it was never worth neglecting print, and that we need more of it back in our lives. 

If the medium is the message, print communicates thoughtfulness, accuracy, and depth—all cultivated by a deliberately slow speed. That’s a future I want to live in, and I’ll bet a lot more others will want to as well. 

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