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Lies, Damn Lies, and the Public Square
Why Substack is stupid to make all of the same mistakes of its ideological predecessors and why getting uppity with me (or anyone else) won't fix that problem
The printing press was a marvelous invention, wasn't it? Clean, properly spaced text on demand, easily replicable, with minimal tooling and knowledge required. All you realistically had to do was the typesetting, cranking, and handing out of dictum. It was one of few technological inventions to genuinely deserve the title "revolutionary", for as much as we hear that word thrown around meaninglessly in Silicon Valley these days.
Book transcription and publication, let alone translation, would take years - perhaps one's entire life - before the invention of such a machine. Yet, just 550 years later the Personal Computer had already unseated it and made it largely irrelevant. The Internet, global commerce, digital media, photography and art, 3D rendering and sculpting, music, and perhaps most importantly, instantaneous bidirectional text, voice and video telephony. Communications. iMessage. Facebook. That stupid email from your HR lady that you forgot to reply to and now you can't bring your fiancée to the company picnic. Modern life is pretty marvelous I admit, for as many gibibytes fill our drives and tebibytes we transfer, person to person and for personal edification. That said, it can also be a hazard, both physical and moral. It can be used for a moral good, it can be used benevolently, or with indifference, it can be used for nefarious and of course, it can be used for personal gain at all costs and any expense. Much like the printing press and handing out copies of your dictum, nihil sole sub novum; Latin - There is nothing new under the sun.
In this piece, which I'm counting as a follow-up to my Stack published this time last year ("Lies, Damn Lies, and Subterfuge") where I noted that a Substack employee was either wittingly or unwittingly repeating nonsensical denialism regarding fascist organizing both in the citizenry and military ranks of the Ukrainian state, I'd like to tie that together with the year since, ie the events I think were notable here on Substack, the direction I see Substack ultimately taking in the years to come, and why that matters to you, the end user, or, *eyeroll* Substack Reader. Ugh. The person reading this.
Note: I'm not a Substack employee, investor, or contractor of any kind. I have no business dealings beyond having a Substack which is hosted here gratis, with my very many thanks to the Substack team for what I see as nothing but a pleasant experience (even the iOS app is up to par now, I have nothing but good things to say!) for more than a year now, and I'm thankful for the time and space to say the things I'm genuinely permitted to say here. I have social and speech freedoms here that are unrivaled by any other social media platform, and I cannot call enough attention to that. The fact that I feel comfortable enough to write this piece without fear of retaliation beyond maybe a snarky comment is remarkable. Please, don't abuse my trust. Please take this as constructive, not destructive. I want nothing more than to see this platform succeed in a way Mastodon or Tumblr could never, and I want that success to cement it as a market leader, but to do that..
Wired for sound
(111 Sutter St., San Francisco, CA, US - Home to Substack - Photo Credit JLL Properties Inc. with attribution)
When you have a business you need the basics, yeah? 7th floor office in Belden Place, cubicles, drones, copy machines, coffee machines, phones, internet tubes, servers, IT nerds, yeah - but you also need things like "vision", "courage" and "respect".
In a recent Substack podcast "The Active Voice" episode with Hamish McKenzie, the brand featured Taylor Lorenz of internet and corporate media fame, and presented her as a serious intellectual and writer with authority. It reduced her harassment and doxing of people to mere "controversies" on Notes and largely glossed over them, painting her in a very pleasant and not-at-all harsh light. This is a person who was fired (accountability, eh?) from a six figure media career with a large corporate establishment due to her antics. This is to put aside many other questionable behaviors online from her very recent past, including role reversal and self-victimization, something psychological and emotionally abusive people do to abuse other people.
Absolutely shameful, one would think. What kind of vision does this portray to the likely investor? What courage does it take to feature someone who already had a globe-spanning platform, and blew it spectacularly? What kind of respect does it show to the grassroots who have supported the website and have far more intellectual and writing clout, to feature someone of that ilk before them? What does it then say to the user base when the staff don't take this criticism on the chin, but instead lash out at the user base, going as far as to single out responses and use schoolyard ad hominem nonsense in order to deflect from the criticism?
Is that a brand that's going places? And, specifically, is that place "The shitter, brought to you by Pfizer"?
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Series of Tubes
(Old clip from the old internet, via Google)
The internet is, by no means, short of good communication platforms with awful, questionable or just plain dumb corporate teams. One only needs to take a short drive away from Sutter St to the Meta campus, or walk from there to Cupertino, or Mountain View, to see the end results of such terrible mistakes from the street level. In the case of Meta, it speaks to a lack of vision. Facebook (and Instagram) started with ambivalent intentions, connecting people. After a while it became about monopolizing their user's information, and the brand soon after lost vision, consuming Oculus and finding itself in the Metaverse quagmire - a place not even it's own employees want to be. Cupertino? The "lifestyle company" as Intel CEO Pat Gelsinger once called them, faces a similar Vision issue, but that’s more about the cost and complexity of the damn thing. Their real problem, even for being the company with the biggest market cap in human history ever, remains a company that is too sure of itself, and stuck in its ways. It has no humble. The bigger they are the harder they fall. Go ahead and look at the iPhone range from the last 7 years and tell me about iterative, even if it is the best selling thing out there. Mountain View? Mountain View is so obsessed with turning a dime and increasing revenue that it would gladly sell your grandmother to Raytheon as cheap labor if it could legally do so. It has no issue doing legally spurious things in order to profiteer and monopolize. Hell, let's go back to the Substack offices and just go down the hall to Turo, the company that lets you rent your car, yes /your/ car, to someone else. I hope we all know why that's a bad idea just in theory.
In the past months since the Substack WeFunder round and other funding ventures in Q1, the company has (I feel) struck a decidedly different tone to the one it held when I arrived in January 2022, or perhaps it became more bold in one that it was otherwise reserved about. As mentioned above I took exception with the podcast with Taylor Lorenz, but I also have concerns that run much deeper, and all stem from the same place.
(The “No Bitches? meme, needs no accreditation)
Substack is but a budding brand, still finding it’s voice. It lacks the brand cache of a Tumblr, a Twitter, or a Reddit, websites that have been established for untold decades, even though those come with their own baggage and problems. You won't see "find us on Substack" written on your breakfast cereal but you might see the Twitter logo. You don't see many brands here, though you'll find some people who work for various businesses and so-called "non-profits" representing their interests. You will find their brand on Reddit and Twitter and maybe even Tumblr, if they're like Wendy's and they're a little edgy. Why do brands do this? Well, in the hope of enticing new patronage. They want to expand the user base, because it is profitable to use that as leverage to market to others, and entice funding. Why do I mention this? The website is clearly in an awkward period where it's too small to really monetize, but too notable to allow it to remain the "wild west", as some call it. In order to grow the base, the orthodoxy must be followed and speech must not just be curtailed but the conversation steered in a specific direction.
Unfortunately, as Twitter learned, the only people who care about this preordained neoliberal gospel, are the already wealthy (types like Ms. Lorenz), their few sycophants, some bots the wealthy few paid for, and a crowd of opposition. Unless the traffic Substack is hoping to gain is the user base storming into the thread to point and laugh and call attention to the wrongdoings she did to others? Which doesn't seem to grow the user base in any way. It does not appear that Ms. Lorenz brought any considerable audience with her, given her own substack has less traffic than another of my least favorite people, Robert Reich. So I'm not sure prominently featuring her was the draw that the team was hoping for.
A week or so ago, there was a joke going around about a Substack-ified dating site, for writers to connect. Before that we had the introduction of Substack Notes, a platform I enjoy but can't help feel is merely cribbing the olden (2012-2015) days of Twitter, with some UI tweaks. For what it's worth, I genuinely do enjoy this feature and use it a lot. Anyone who subscribes to this publication will know we publish far more Notes than Stacks, and this will likely remain. It's a great sub-platform to expand one's horizons, engage in fair and honest discussion and level criticism where necessary, and praise when due.
We are not unfair or unkind as the user base, though we can be extremely critical. In the case of a glowing fluff podcast with Taylor Lorenz, I have yet to see any criticism of the conversation that was unfair or just in plain old mean spirits. I saw people pointing to her past behaviors, I saw people making mention of the light and friendly tone from Hamish, I saw people wondering why she was featured at all given the severity of her past. I personally don't mind that she is here on Substack, as I and many others are and happy to be. I merely don't understand what about her was meant to be a draw? If anything this would be toxic to a brand. It makes me wonder if the vision isn’t to merely "rile people up in any way you can", which is the CNN way, and which to be frank SUCKS RANK SUMMER’S ASS THROUGH A HOSE.
Silver and gold, tin and copper
(I just wanted to post it again)
Just as things seem to be going so well, often they can end poorly, and it's always such innocuous things. "Slow Boring" by Matt Yglesias recieving a Substack recommendation recently was also nothing short of disappointing and depressing, though at least the title of the publication neatly describes the writings contained within. Yglesias was one of the biggest loudmouth neoliberal water-carrying trolls on Twitter from 2015-2022 and only after things became so obvious with Joe Biden and his administration as to be unable to avoid it, did he have a change of heart and coming to Jesus moment ala Peter Daou. Nate Silver of FiveThirtyEight fame was featured as well, for his achievements in getting the 2016 election totally wrong and getting fired from ABC/Disney. Robert Reich got a special purple checkmark because his face turns the same color when someone mentions Donald Trump. It's a veritable "oh god, not them too" of neoliberal fuckwits, and while I welcome them having Substacks and being party to this website, I question the judgement of featuring them on Active Voice over far more deserving people.
Who at Substack is looking at the corporate media lanyard-neck loser list and the DNC Services Inc. C-minus-list after the last 8 years of media and political failure and thinks "yes, this is what's going to drive traffic to our website! It worked so well for Twitter and CNN from 2015-2022, we should give it a go!"? I want to meet this person and pick their brain for a while, because this is like betting on a horse that already lost, died, and then was beaten to death by the betting public. At this point, tying your wagon to that brand is a surefire way to kill /your/ brand and drive away any loyalty to it. Kiss of death, really. So, all told, aside from the jokes and cutesy quips and off-hand remarks I'm just eagerly waiting for the content moderation shoe to drop - it would be the last nail in the cradle-sized coffin. That would be the point where we exit this platform and find another space. I’m shocked they haven’t had the media’s goodest boy Brian Stelter on the podcast, though I’m also fully expecting that too.