The New York Times' Ben Smith wrote a great article about Substack and Ghost, the newsletter platforms that have attracted many old-time bloggers who found themselves adrift after founding startups, taking traditional media jobs, or losing them. There is some controversy—Substack is financing star authors and many perceive an overly libertarian1 leaning to its incipient A-list—but Smith focuses his article on Danny Lavery, one of my favorite writers, and his wife Grace, a professor at U.C. Berkeley, who have just been contracted by Substack. Substack has competition of its own to contend with, too: Ghost is also taking off, is open-source, and unstressed by the demands of investors.
This new ability of individuals to make a living directly from their audiences isn't just transforming journalism. It's also been the case for adult performers on OnlyFans, musicians on Patreon, B-list celebrities on Cameo. In Hollywood, too, power has migrated toward talent, whether it's marquee showrunners or actors. This power shift is a major headache for big institutions, from The New York Times to record labels. And Silicon Valley investors, eager to disrupt and angry at their portrayal in big media, have been gleefully backing it. Substack embodies this cultural shift, but it's riding the wave, not creating it. And despite a handful of departures over politics, that wave is growing for Substack.
One thing Smith doesn't address, unless I missed it, is that Substack's VC funding means it is for sale. And you can't sell a business without selling its principles. If Twitter buys Substack, God help the Substackers who went to Substack to get away from it. If Verizon buys Substack, God help everyone on it.
P.S. Another point worth making is that Smith rather avoids the promise of his headline, "why people are freaking out about Substack". Whether true or not, fairly or falsely, the freaking out is mostly to do with accusations of transphobia on the platform. Smith doesn't really address this, despite clearly having spoken to everyone involved, instead letting the specifics of that discourse be subsumed in nearby abstractions.
- A lot of people have trouble pigeonholing the "substackerati", which only refers to a few people anyway, and end up saying silly things2 about them. "Libertarian" doesn't quite capture it because it is is both too specific and too freighted by association with prominent right-wing U.S. institutions and thinkers. "Alt center" is an interesting but indistinct complaint about tone and appeal, whereas "Sorelian Left" is too cute by far. I think the term "Reactionary Humanism" is the most useful. The humanism is the most-shared ideal across the spectrum of authors at hand. The reaction is against radical ideologies they perceive as corrupted by totalitarian or illiberal impulses. Reactionary humanists are formally opposed to the establishment (and to traditional reactionaries) but tend to drift to its and their side in a twitter-brained quest to oppose competing radical ideologies. This is where we're at in the discourse.
- I hope you enjoyed mine. QED.