Erik Davis on the Substack Subscription Service

(After the Patreon age, we’re now in the midst of the Subtrack era. Below a long quote from the newsletter of my friend Erik Davis, Californian psychedelics expert and cyber theorist. It would be good to find out if any of you are doing Subtrack research and what to make of this next version of the email subscription model? If you’re interest in Erik Davis and his work, visit his site and subscribe to his Subtrack newsletter here: Geert)

Erik Davis: Platforms, Paranoids, and Other Glitches
February News & Notes

I turned to Substack out of the gut sense that, in the current environment, it offers a creative, dynamic, and pleasantly old-schoolish solution to the problem of writing stuff I want to online and getting paid for it. (As a Gutenberg soul, I still prefer writing for books and print.) But while Substack opens up many possibilities, one thing it does not and cannot dangle is anything like the brass ring — not gold, it’s important to remember — of Consensus Status.

So you can imagine I had some feelings when I opened the Jan. 4 & 11 issue of the New Yorker and saw “You’ve Got Mail,” a piece on the “newsletter service” Substack. The author: Anna Wiener, a smart and incisive thirtysomething ex-New Yorker whose appropriately caustic and excellently entitled 2020 Silicon Valley memoir Uncanny Valley helped land a choice gig as tech critic at the mag.

I put off reading “You’ve Got Mail” for a couple weeks, because I knew it would rile me up. I also knew it would lead with a story about some writer much younger than me, whose quirky Substack pub, which I would duly check out and find chatty and alienating, was racking up vast numbers of adoring fans and raking in piles of cash, a kind of success that, alongside Wiener’s enviable if still nebulous parvenu aura, provided exact figures with which to measure myself and find myself wanting. I was right on both counts. But the real irks were elsewhere.

They came from both sides, proponents and critics. Having spent an isolating day at a Zoom conference for Substack writers, filled with millennial talk of analytics, social media integration, and hamster-wheel fan interaction that had nothing to do with actual writing, I was under no illusions about feeling particularly at home in the Substack “community.” But I was not quite ready for CEO Chris Best’s statement to the New Yorker that the company’s goal is to “make it so that you could type into this box, and if the things you type are good, you’re going to get rich.”

Talk about rich! This statement has it all. There is the reduction of writing to a mechanical act of bare life — “typing” — that itself is submitted to an enframing technical form — the online textfield, or box. Then there is the nihilistic, post-literary collapse of value — the “good” — to the universal equivalent of money. If it sells, its good. And finally there is a lure and a lie, or at the very least an exaggeration. No way is everyone slinging good stuff on the platform getting rich.

On the other hand, Wiener gives voice to some fatuous critiques of the platform, which equally sacrifice any discussion of quality, meaning, or actual writing to a concern for political economy that sounds smarter than it is. My favorite quotation in this category comes from the media historian and NYU professor Lisa Gitelman. She pushes back against what Substack would claim as its “democratizing” gesture, redescribing it as “the democracy of neoliberal self-empowerment. The message to users is that you can empower yourself by creating.”

Don’t get me started about the workings of Ms. Gitlman’s own rival platform, the contemporary academy. (From my perspective, scholarship has its uses and values, but it is also an infernal engine of personal disempowerment, toxic political messaging, and absolutely terrible writing.) Instead, let’s think through Gitelman’s last line. She seems to be saying that enjoying the sense of power and satisfaction that comes from creating something yourself — recording a song, knocking together a bookshelf, inventing a new dish, scribbling a poem you actually like — is simply a capitulation to neoliberal ideology. Or maybe she is saying that this creativity, or “labor” if you want, only becomes neoliberal if you use a platform to distribute it and try and earn some coin. By this logic, Etsy is also a regressive expression of neoliberal self-empowerment, so maybe we should just be honest about the situation and shop at Amazon after all.

Wiener’s own pull-quote conclusion is that “Substack is a natural fit for the influencer, the pundit, the personality, and the political contrarian.” These may not be terrible things exactly, but they’re not “good,” at least from the New Yorker’s embattled position as a bastion of liberal Consensus Status holding the line against the Götterdämmerung hordes. The inclusion of “personality” is, again, a bit rich. As anyone who reads the New Yorker online knows, the magazine now identifies their staff contributors with cutesy but sober cartoons.

I don’t identify with any of the categories on Wiener’s list, and I am not alone. Absent are freelance writers or poets or scholars or cult authors, the sort of scribblers whose recherché topics, intellectual sensibility, or peculiar style naturally precludes virality while nonetheless attracting a passionate if eccentric core audience. I’ve long thought of myself as a cult author, looking for ways to share, or get away with, my weirdo-smart explorations as I pass through various publishing ecologies: alt weeklies, magazines, books, blogs, academia, and now Substack. I guess I was just pumping my personal brand all along.