The Scholar's Stage: Why I am Bearish on Substack

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The big trend in writing and journalism in the year 2020—other than the New York Times continued conquest of everything in print—is the flowering of the Substackerati.[1] Hardly a day goes by without some famous figure announcing their new hope you will become a new subscriber to a new newsletter they are writing on this new thing called Substack. This thing’s rise is a glory to behold—but a glory whose shine I am deeply skeptical of. I will admit at the start of this post that my bearishness on all things Substack may just come down to an obstinate old-fashionedness on my part. I am a child of the old blogosphere. I am nostalgic for the old ways. It is possible that all I am about to write confuses what I wish for what I see. But my skepticism of the Substack model is rooted in my experience of writing on the web over the last decade and a half, and informed by my research into what made good writers tick in the decades and centuries before that. I invite you to read some of these investigations (start with “The World Twitter Made.” Also relevant: “Requiem For the Strategy Sphere," "Public Intellectuals Have Short Shelf Lives,” “Life in the Shadow of the Boomers,” “Book Notes: Strategy, a History,” and “On Adding Phrases to the Language.”) A running theme in all of these essays is the importance of seeing individual authors not as individual authors, but as voices in a chorus. No writer is an island. If a "public voice" is inspired to spend hours massaging paragraphs and digging up references, it is because she has something to prove, and more important still, someone to prove it to. She writes in response to ideas she has heard or read. She feels compelled to add her voice to a larger conversation. The best thinkers speak to more than their immediate contemporaries, but without that contemporary argument in the background few would bother speaking at all. Substack is the medium of the solo artist. High-rolling soloists at that. Like Patreon, Onlyfans, book publishing generally, or any other medium where creators connect with the masses sans bundled packaging, Substack has (and will continue to have) a power-law distribution. The biggest names will earn in their hundred of thousands; the median user is going to scrape away $100-200 a month, at best. If measured in page hits instead of dollars, the same could have been said for the high and low tiers of the old blogosphere as well. Then the world's most popular independent writers occasionally drove national news cycles. After a few weeks of feeble posting the vast majority of bloggers in the lower tier gave up writing altogether (by 2009 Technocrati was reporting that there were 133 million blogs in the world—and a full 95% of them had been abandoned).[2]However, the blogosphere allowed for a healthy medium layer of independent writers that existed between nationally prominent blogs and your next door neighbor's defunct site on typepad. What allowed this middle tier to thrive? Other middle tier bloggers! Each writer was embedded in her own little archipelago of other writers all working on the same topics. It might be devoted to climate science, counterinsurgency theory, Black politics, New York fashion, Mormon Mommy blogging, Harry Potter themed slash fan-fiction, or something else altogether, but the archipelago was there. Other bloggers—along with a few of the long term commentators shared by the various blogs—were the intended audience of most pieces. Others' pieces were the inspiration for one's own. Bloggers were nodes on a network, and it was the network that sustained them. The current intellectual sphere (centered on Twitter) makes interaction even easier. Its cost is an eroding sense of community. The borders between different blogging communities were permeable, but they were borders. On Twitter everyone and everything is tossed together in one great jumble. Users are always one bad tweet away from upsetting the entire internet. In this twitter-driven intellectual scene, conversation is vigorous but vapid. Tweeting favors performance over coherence, anger over insight. The show goes on but is ever less worth the watching. At some point a correction was due. The driving force behind the correction may simply be fatigue with this state of affairs. It may also be rising Zoomers, "social media natives" who joined Facebook and Instagram well aware that their parents and teachers were peering at what they posted, trained from adolescence to shy away from public eyes. Whatever the cause, the new trend is clear: conversations are moving onto platforms like Slack, Discord, and Substack. In place of the easily searched, permanent records of yesterday, we find conversations behind closed doors, reserved for followers, fans, and fellow travelers. If old and existing platforms were designed to catalog your best moments then bounce them across the breadth of the world wide web, this new suite of platforms are intentionally opaque. Even a private bulletin-style message board (of the sort that reached peak popularity c. 2007), just as closed off from the general public as a private Distro or Slack is today, was legible in a way these new chat-apps are not. Those old forums were designed so that members could easily locate past discussions of a certain topic and read them in full. Forum etiquette often demanded they do so. Try to do the same on Slack! What Slack and Discord are to the old forums, Substack newsletters are to the old blogs. All three are closed off from the outside, difficult to navigate, and impermanent. That impermanence is relative—conversations on Discord do not disappear, and anyone who receives a Substack newsletter can save it if they wish. But most Discord chat messages are buried in the stream, never to be read again. Most Substack send-outs are deleted from inboxes as soon as they are read. None of it is indexed for the search engines. With the rise of these new platforms we see the death of old hopes. The dream of an unbounded internet was realized, and we discovered a nightmare. Scarred, participants in public intellectual life retreat behind the battlements. We revert to something like the internet of the early aughts, but with apps. The great question is whether this new internet will be able to sustain meaningful intellectual exchange. By default, Substack splits intellectual activity into vertical silos, with readers at the bottom and authors at the top but no horizontal connections between them. In a world where most content exists behind paywalls and is distributed through private channels, neither the high tempo conversations driven by twitter virality nor the blogophere's slower cycle of post and response will be possible. Both of those systems assume that readers have access to the full conversation taking place. More importantly, both systems assume that writers have full access to the full conversation that prompts them into writing. On Substack, there are too many walls dividing up the garden. The history of 21st century web publishing is not the rise and fall of individual writers, but the rise and fall of entire communities of writers. This is the central contradiction with Substack's quest to remake intellectual life. It is one thing to pay $10 a month to support your favorite writer. It is harder to pay $10 a month to each of the 10 or 15 other writers that make your favorite writer's writing possible in the first place. Steam rarely rises higher than the source. Those writers are a necessary part of a healthy media ecology. Lose the source, and the steam goes with it. Prior to blogging, these communities were usually centered on magazines and journals, which gathered the various voices committed to an intellectual project and packaged them together under one masthead. One can imagine something similar happening on Substack: a meta-newsletter that delivers content from the best of various Substackerati. But in making such a pivot, all Substack will have done is recreate a media format that is currently failing: the paywalled online magazine. The start-up costs of a new Substack-based magazine will be substantially lower than hiring web developers to create one's own site. But low enough? Low enough to save a format already dying? Is a mailbox delivery system really enough to distinguish future Substack magazines from existing journals sitting behind paywalls or begging for support on Patreon? That is a financial take on the problems of a Substack-based epistemic community. But the intellectual problems of such a community may prove just as important. Substack favors those who already have large megaphones. A Substack-based intellectual sphere will be intensely, if unintentionally, hostile towards new blood. Magazines and newspapers solve this problem by packaging new authors that might appeal to their readership in the same issues as big names. The blogosphere solved this problem through comments and trackbacks, which allowed bloggers and their readers to discover other quality writers worth following. There is no mechanism for this sort of thing on Substack. A minor writer on Substack will not grab the attention of a major one; readers will never stumble from the big to the small. This is a recipe for intellectual sterility. A media ecosystem composed of the New York Times, a few other large newspapers, and a swarm of hungry Substackerati will starve itself out. The big Substack names will continue to rake in subscriptions, of course, but what will they have to talk about? Only the same old ideas they had been playing with for decades. These lone agents will lack a milieu to work against. The dominance of a few big newspapers and a few big newsletters will guarantee that no milieu of new writers will form. The most interesting conversations will be happening in private Slacks and Discords, or on even newer apps like Clubhouse, in all cases available only to the select few who began the game prominent enough to be invited into gilded circles.

I do not think this is sustainable. I admit there is a possibility that I am letting my normative preferences cloud my objective view of the situation. On the other hand, this is an issue in which I have "skin in the game." I am putting my money where my mouth is. I am currently working with a Wordpress development team to move The Scholar's Stage to a more professional domain, complete with a suite of additional features. (Soon I will be releasing some Scholar's Stage polls to discover a bit more about what features and content my readership would most like to see on the revamped site, and what sort of things might induce them to contribute to my Patreon). This decision to not transition to Substack reflects both my skepticism about the new platform and my personal commitment to an intellectual sphere that is both public and healthy. We lose something when intellectual discussion retreats entirely behind the battlements. I do not want to hasten that loss.

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If you would like to read more of my musings on the rise and fall of epistemic communities, you will find the essays “The World Twitter Made," “Requiem For the Strategy Sphere," "Public Intellectuals Have Short Shelf Lives,” “Life in the Shadow of the Boomers,” “Book Notes: Strategy, a History,” "On the Angst of the American Journalist" and “On Adding Phrases to the Language” of great interest. To get updates on new posts published at the Scholar's Stage, you can join the Scholar's Stage mailing list, follow my twitter feed, or support my writing through Patreon. Your support makes this blog possible.

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[1] I take this wonderful neologism from Clio Chang,"The Substackerati" Columbia Journalism Review (Winter 2020).

[2] Douglas Quenqua, "Blogs Falling in an Empty Forest," The New York Times (5 June 2009).