Why I'm (Begrudgingly) On Substack

As someone who studies culture and the intersection of our technology and psychology, I have no shortage of thoughts on the climate of social media. Many of them pessimistic, and many of them leading toward the same declaration:

Social media is more broken than it is effective

The platforms we’ve been pouring ourselves into are inadequate and unsustainable. As novel as Substack is, it’s a symbolic solve to our much larger media problem.

Most fundamentally, we’re incentivized by short-term gains. Fast likes. Bloated follower counts. Views at all costs. There’s been a reversal of the figure and the ground: the aesthetics of metrics have often become more meaningful than the content itself. Metrics now drive content, instead of the other way around.

Outrage is all the rage and virality is the goal. But...

Virality ≈ Momentary

Despite forgetting — or because of the pressures of the system, we still strive for the count. In Hamish McKenzie’s words, co-founder of Substack, “Twitter remains the worst place for thoughtful discourse.“ And while Twitter is gamified and unconducive, it’s also largely ineffective. Follow me (or anywhere online) and you have, on average, an ~11% chance of seeing my post.

Further, social media constructs bubbles and followers signify hierarchy. No thanks. Cults are lame.

So to keep it even, we must go 1:1.

Hamish McKenzie (and I) see Substack as a social alternative.

Social → Performance

Email doesn’t just buck the trend of chasing public stats or the performative nature of social, but it re-establishes direct communication. It’s conducive and effective. We’re both here, now. And because of this intimacy, it also lends itself to the long game. That’s the game I’m most interested in.

Intimacy ≈ Reputation

Substack resolves these issues, but not without spawning its own.

While Kevin Kelly wrote about the lucrativeness of “1,000 True Fans” to financially support you, and Li Jin more recently pushed for 100, I’d argue even that’s aggressive.

Why again are we counting?

“Fans for funding” is an exciting future, but it can quickly slip into “fans for extraction.” The issues we take up with corporatism will soon be mapped to people.

I’m grateful that I’m “subsidized” by full-time employment and currently not seeking monthly subscriptions, but the tone Substack sets is suspect. There’s an unfortunate tension between self-monetization and gatekeeping. As Chris Dancy puts it, “We’re hoarding creativity.” Insights too.

Currently, Substack is more associated with the Creator Economy than it is for striving to re-write the rules of social interaction. I’m here for the latter, but joining means having to swallow the pill of the former.

1 Meaningful Ah-ha > 10K Likes

For me, Substack is not about monetization or gatekeeping, but to figuratively and literally bring it back home, all in order to spark more meaningful and intimate engagement. How? Zine.

A zine (/ziːn/ zeen; short for magazine) is a small-circulation of self-published work. It’s a collection of observations and thoughts for us to share and discuss. Stimulation is prioritized.

Conversation via replies and comments is craved.

Subscribing to Zine means you’ll get direct access to future pieces theorizing culture and exploring the psychosocial implications of our technology. It also gives us refreshed communication to discuss these critical ripples of societal change.

So, join me?