Digital Town Squares
Part 1: The Old Man of the Internet
My recent comment on Substack Notes just about sums it up.
That’s right. Substack, the platform I’ve used for the past year or so to host The Tracinski Letter and some of my other projects, now has its own social media platform, a Twitter-like microblogging feed, only better—so far. We’ll see what happens. But I think the time is past due for someone else to take over from Twitter and become the new “digital town square.”
I think Substack may be in the best position to do that.
I had intended to write about this in one short post, but it’s a big story, so I’m going to do it in three medium-sized posts. This is Part 1, where I try to establish some of the history of the new digital media and play my accustomed role as the Old Man of the Internet. Don’t worry, I won’t take everything back to Usenet in 1988. I’ll start a little bit more recently.
But first, why does it matter? You can see why it matters for us, the writers, but why does it matter for you, the readers?
Well, my note above is in response to this one from Substack co-founder Hamish McKenzie, in which he comments on how “legacy social media” has influenced how we debate ideas, and specifically the emphasis on stoking anger.
I think there’s something to that, because how people can reach an audience and make a living does influence what they are encouraged to say and rewarded for saying.
The Old Man of the Internet
There is a specific reason I wanted to post about this here, at The Tracinski Letter, though this is a topic of interest to Symposium, the other Substack newsletter I edit. It is partly because it’s here where I have covered some of the drama surrounding the rise and management of social media over the years. But mostly it’s because I have been running a Substack since 2004.
That may seem an odd thing to say, since Substack didn’t exist until 2017. But for 19 years, I have been running a subscription-based e-mail newsletter linked to a website—which is to say, exactly the same thing as a Substack.
Until very recently, I cobbled together the technical and administrative parts on my own. It worked, but not very well, and eventually I found I just didn’t have the time or expertise to keep up with changes in HTML code and the never-ending cat-and-mouse game that anyone who runs a website has to play with malware and spammers. So I was glad that someone finally created a platform that would do all of that for me. I waited a few years to see if Substack would survive its initial tests, and frankly whether it would be worth the fees they skim off the top of my revenues. Then I dipped a toe in with Symposium two years ago, and when that worked well, I migrated The Tracinski Letter last year.
The point is that a lot of other writers have also been setting up on Substack.
I started The Tracinski Letter during the blogging era, when the center of activity in the new upstart digital media was the blog: a web page on which the proprietor published his comments on the world, along with links to interesting online news stories, for anyone to read. Blogs were free, which made the blogging era the heyday of the amateur—not just random people on the Internet, but often a real expert or professional with a paying day job who posted commentary online as a hobby. Some of them turned out to have a lot of interesting things to say. Some of these blogs led people into “real jobs” in the media, and some of the larger blogs were able to sell advertising. Eventually, the most successful blogs just become publications, and as blogs became more like the old media and the old media became more like blogs, it became harder to tell the difference.
The blogs also showed that online media could be a counter-balance to the big “mainstream” media companies. Does anyone remember Rathergate, when a bunch of bloggers dismissed by a network executive as “a guy sitting in his living room in his pajamas writing” fact-checked a media legend out of his job?
The blogs were eventually superseded by the rise of social media. Instead of having to compose a “blog roll” of interesting sites to visit, it was easier to have one site—usually Facebook or Twitter—where you could get a single feed of all the people you found most interesting. And instead of having to wade through rambling multi-thousand-word blog posts to get to one interesting observation, you and your fellow social media users could pull out one interesting tweet and propagate it far and wide.
The hitch with both forms of digital media is that they were free. Tech guys used to say that “information want to be free,” but of course, they were getting paid for their role in building the Internet. The “content providers”? Not so much. Both blogging and social media were built on the unpaid work of millions of contributors who created the actual content that drew people to these sites.
Meanwhile, with the collapse of newspapers and older forms of advertising, traditional media has been contracting. I saw a recent estimate that there are half as many newsroom jobs today as there were 20 years ago.
This created some of the perverse incentives people are talking about today. To make any money on “legacy social media,” you have to have a truly massive follower count, and to do that, you have to pander extra hard to some fanatical faction. You have to put on a show, and that often led to the kind of behavior we’ve come to expect from the social media era: the appeals to anger and outrage, the need to always be in some kind of petty fight to keep up the artificial drama, the eagerness to lead online pile-ons against hated enemies or to appoint oneself as the ideological police looking for deviationists to purge.
Doing What the Internet Does Best
Enter Substack. A few of us hardier souls had been running subscription-based newsletters all along, but it took extra work, some ingenuity, and a lot of persistence. Then Substack did what the Internet does best: It knocked down the barriers to entry. It made it easy for anyone to start and run a subscription-based newsletter.
This has been quietly setting the media industry on fire, because it opened a whole new way of making a living for anyone in the media business. Anyone who could gain an audience could set up a Substack and get revenue directly from readers, without having to convince a media gatekeeper or answer to an overbearing editor. It also provided a way for a lot of the people manning the decks on the sinking ships of old media to jump into a lifeboat.
This new new media has its own drawbacks. A subscription-driven model has turned out to be a land of opportunity for crackpots. If you want to peddle anti-vaccine conspiracy theories, for example, the old media companies won’t touch you, because they’re concerned about their reputations. But start up a Substack, and people who really want to believe in conspiracy theories will flock to you because, in their view, someone is “finally telling the truth,” which is to say that someone is finally telling them what they want to hear. (Those two things are very easy to confuse with one another.) The term “audience capture” was born out of the social media era, but there is a reason it has become widely known in the new era of the subscription-driven newsletter.
The other drawback of the subscription model is that it supports a large number of small ventures, usually just one writer making enough money to live on, or as a sideline to his regular work. This means that Substack has so far supported a lot of commentary, but not a lot of investigative journalism, the kind of thing local newspapers used to do. The one exception I can think of is Judd Legum’s Popular Information. Recently, after a big controversy in the Tennessee state legislature, Legum published a report detailing how the speaker of the Tennessee House had moved himself and his whole family out of the rural district he supposedly represents and has been living full-time in Nashville, in violation of the state’s residency requirements. In effect, by making Nashville his home, he is no longer qualified to run for office in his own district.
But like I said, so far this sort of thing is the exception.
From the reader’s perspective, the subscription newsletter era is a bit like the streaming TV era. You cut the cord and give up your expensive cable subscription, but then find that to get everything that fits your interests, you have to buy a half dozen streaming subscriptions, and you’re almost back where you began. Similarly, paying for newsletters from all the authors you find interesting can add up quickly. (But not The Tracinski Letter. The Tracinski Letter is a bargain.)
I chuckled when I saw a recent suggestion that Substack should create a kind of omnibus subscription in which you pay one monthly charge to read a specially selected collection of newsletters. I thought: We have come full circle and reinvented the magazine.
In practice, though, what most people do is to sign up for free samples from many newsletters and pay only for the most interesting ones. And if they get enough interesting freebies, they might convert to a paid subscription, which you are totally going to do with this one, right?
So how does Notes tie in to this history? To understand that, we have to understand what has been going on over at Twitter recently and how Elon Musk has created a massive opening for a competitor.
See Part 2 of this series.
Meanwhile, Substack gave me a standard template to encourage my readers to go to Notes. I’ve kept only the instructional part, but even there, I’ve edited out the annoyingly chirpy overuse of exclamation marks.
How to Join
You can also share notes of your own. I hope this becomes a space where every reader of The Tracinski Letter can share thoughts, ideas, and interesting quotes from the things we're reading on Substack and beyond.
If you encounter any issues, you can always refer to the Notes FAQ for assistance. Looking forward to seeing you there.