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Lies, Damn Lies, and The Substack Election
Substack finally stops playing footsie and starts going steady with media clowns, has-beens, and White Pride enthusiasts as The Substack Election pundits for the 2024 US Presidential election
This is not a post I feel I will enjoy writing. Normally I have some niche topic that’s very fascinating to write about from a consumer/patient advocacy angle, and I am happy to make a strong, unequivocal argument for or against whatever the topic is. Today is not one of those times. Today is more just me sounding the warning horn yet again, that ‘Substack is in the process of prostrating itself at the feet of corporate media and the US National Security industrial complex’, coming at the expense of the user base who made the brand what it is.
In this post, I want to hit a few key points of personal grievance that I thought I had addressed in previous posts, but I suppose fell upon deaf ears. Maybe this time someone in the Embarcadero will read it and AirDrop it to someone else. Please be aware this isn’t a call to join some other platform, or boycott this one, or dogpile harass anyone mentioned below. These are just my thoughts given the circumstances, how I would prefer the company course correct as a publisher rather than a content creator itself, and what the community can do long-term to idiot-proof itself against such wanton idiocy from Silicon Valley’s most well-meaning Road-To-Hell pavers.
Full disclosures: I’m not a Substack employee, investor or anything beyond user of the website. I’m mostly happy with my time here aside from some, uh, questionable decisions in the past few months regarding the company associating itself with the worst of the media intelligentsia and US security state ghouls. I just have deep concerns that are going unaddressed.
Now, on with it —
The Active Voice
In trying to find one’s voice (and audience) on Substack it can be challenging, if you don’t arrive with a pre-standing audience from decades of public speaking engagements, ‘public service’, television work, or so on. Those who do have that sort of resume find it quite easy to start and build an audience here on Substack, and have no trouble sapping the public of their money, almost instatntly. I saw more than a few move right from The Artist Formerly Known As Twitter and set up shop in just a day or two, monetizing almost overnight an audience of tens of thousands (presumably).
Over the past few months, largely since a WeFunder round earlier this year, Substack has gone out of its way to cater to and boost the notoriety of the latter on the platform in a variety of ways, including several questionable episodes of ‘The Active Voice’, a podcast hosted by company Co-Founder and Chief Writing Officer Hamish McKenzie. These episodes include the likes of Robert Reich, Clinton administration Labor secretary and all-around #Resister, to Taylor Lorenz, of “harassing an NPC to the point of becoming a media spectacle herself and losing her media job in the process” fame.
It should come as no surprise to anyone that when companies are trying to monetize themselves or ‘enhance revenue’ as EA puts it, they try to glom on to the celebrity of existing names, likenesses and properties. Celebrity endorsements. Brand tie-ins. This existing customer base is enticing to the smaller brand as it offers new growth to their ecosystem and customer base. This is normal, though it is unfortunate. A cost of doing business.
A product desirable in its own right and with its own identity, and own unique characteristics/strengths will have a draw of its own, and its own merit in the free market. It will not need to attract such B/C/D-list names and likenesses to use as ‘clickbait’. A ship floating rudderless in the strong currents with no direction however, and with a Captain no longer at the helm but off rubbing elbows with the Coastal Elitist “Who’s That” list of pundits, trolls, and government-approved purveyors of spin, is not a cruise I would want to book a ticket on. I can understand why some people are heading for the lifeboats under the assumption of an impending iceberg. I am not one of them, but I do recognize that the ship is in dangerous straits right now.
As I said before, Substack is a young brand seeking to find a space for itself in Silicon Valley - perhaps one day globally - but for now, it seeks to find a niche in the here and now. And in doing so, it has created…
The Substack Election
What is there even to say at this point that hasn’t been posted on Notes?
I find it hard to put into words the rage I feel when I see people like Nate Silver (Fired from ABC/ESPN/Disney), Matt Yglesias (former pro-establishment troll who had a coming to Independent Jesus moment), Ann Coulter (No joke Family Guy didn’t already make can adequately describe her), Dan Rather (man who doesn’t understand retirement), Robert Reich (above mentioned), Josh Barro (New York Magazine/Intelligencer), Michael Moore (multi-millionaire ‘documentarian’ and philanthro-capitalist) and “myriad others” of faces that I go out of my way to avoid hearing from boosted by the platform I’m helping to build, independent of the corporate media sphere from which they come.
But then we get to names like Mike Cernovich, a self-professed white supremacist and white ethno-state aficionado. What should I even be saying at this point? It’s akin to the toxicity to a brand that an odious type like Richard B. Spencer might offer, which is to say ‘nothing but poison and bad news’. Offering a man like Mike Cernovich any modicum of seriousness, let alone the space to opine on a US Presidential election after his horrific love-affair with Donald Trump and the “Alt-Right”, is insulting to everyone’s intelligence.
I can’t believe I have to say it. Perhaps Hamish (or literally anyone) at Substack did not do a cursory google search of his name (or read any of the Media Articles from Publications They Wish To Suck Up To), but the man is a nonstarter for any platform seeking to grow a serious organic audience post-2020.
This isn’t to say he isn’t welcome on the platform, by the way. I welcome all odious and miscreant and degenerate and uncouth voice on this platform. What I question is the company’s decision to highlight such a voice and elevate it at the expense of untold others who do not carry such social, ideological and psychological baggage. This is the same issue I addressed with Robert Reich and Taylor Lorenz.
In the interest of balance of my complaints about neoliberal ghouls, I wanted to gripe a little about this right wing piece of shit too. “What the fuck are you morons thinking? Jesus goddamn Christ talk about hitching your wagon to a dead mule. What a waste of fucking time and effort. Could you believe it? Holy fucking slimeballs. It’s so egregious it makes me want to shit.” Feel free to quote me on that. Any day of the week.
If Substack wishes to grow the user base? Using washed-up 2016 Election has-beens, old politicians, or media trolls, at least to me, isn’t the right path. Not only will that audience be a fly-by-night (here for the election, gone after), it will not cultivate the type of audience Substack has long sought - the serious thinking intellectual. The raconteur. The rebel. What inviting a man like Mike Cernovich into your brand cache does is make my skin crawl. It makes me wonder if I should even post this here. It makes me wonder if I should even waste the effort.
But then I remember that I’m free to make such a critique without fear of retribution from the Substack team. I’m not willing to give that up, but someone has to speak up. I’ve seen plenty of dissatisfaction following the announcement earlier today, and in short it seems like it made nobody happy. The approach was a flop, unless the idea was to draw criticism from all directions, mostly in the form of cheap invective, and mostly blunt. ‘It’s a bad idea. Who the fuck approved this? Why would you do this to us? We aren’t here for corporate media, who does this appeal to?’ were just some of the feedbacks I saw under the Note.
HOW TO FIX SUBSTACK (PC/PS4/XB1) (100% WORKS SPEEDRUN ANY% NOT CLICKBAIT)
So, if not for easy clickbait and outrage cycles, how can one grow such an online platform? As I addressed to Chris Best previously, Substack needs an advertising push. Not a left-wing social push, not a right-wing social push, just a straight, down the middle, no-nonsense advertising campaign. Nationwide US, preferably global starting in English speaking countries, and not rapidly. SLOWLY. Dribs and drabs, market by market as demand exists. Enough to get word of mouth going beyond the existing userbase.
What would such advertising even look like? That’s a tall order given the breadth of ideological spectrum of the user base. So.. If you had 30 seconds to describe Substack to Grandma Mary and Grandpa David in Frog Balls Arkansas, what would you even say? What’s your pitch? I have an idea, stick with me. It’s a good one I think.
Most brands tell you what they are. Nokia - Connecting People. Alright. A little bland but does what it says on the tin most of the time. Always Refreshing - Coca-Cola. Disagree or agree, that’s what they want you to think when you sip corn water. Substack can’t do that because it lacks a cohesive brand identity - it has no iPhone to sell. However, that offers it a unique flexibility.
So what is “Substack Isn’t?” It isn’t Reddit. It isn’t Facebook. It isn’t YouTube or Blogspot or WeChat or Paypal. It’s up to you, is what it is. You can have a passive voice as a reader, curating a variety of niche and irregular publications, or you can contribute one yourself with a more active voice. It’s up to you. The weakness is the strength - it isn’t playing to one or the other or any at all. It’s up to us - the end user.
”Facebook is annoying - but Substack.. Substack isn’t.”
In not taking a stand on any given topic or issue or cause or personality, rather than catering to two manufactured halves of a US domestic political establishment, Substack offers something no other platform can - independence and heterogeneity of thought. Users can actually feel and believe that their contributions, small or large, can have some modicum of impact; rather than being predetermined from the start. In leaving it up to us and allowing the community to self-police and grow on its own, Substack offers the world something unique in an online community, ripe for investment, and coming to market at the right time - given the global need for such a space in an era of corporate and state censorship. This is important, I think. I would hope anyways. Important enough to capitalize on.
Old car ads (ASMR Beats to Study/Relax/Groove to)
Alright, so back to the VW Beetle sized elephant in the room - what could such advertising even look like? I would like to take inspiration from some of the best, and, topically, 20th Century VW advertising. As is taught in most marketing classes, these are the yardstick to measure by, because they were such a smash hit success in terms of marketing.
Simply put, these VW ads would have a single point of truth, some feat the Beetle (or other model) held that others manufacturers could not achieve, and it hammered the world over the head with it. Some examples below. Credit to the original ad agencies, we’ll discuss what makes them relevant below.
(The last ad is a lie - such taxis helped run Mexico City for decades)
In fact, such things already exist - but merely as office decor for the Substack team. Imagine the style of the first photo as a full-page NYT ad, rubbing it in their faces that Substack has millions of scoops from around the world, every day - all in your email inbox as they happen.
Or how about an ad that highlights on Facebook (big ad push, everyone gets to see it) that Substack doesn’t moderate your content and It’s Up To You to figure out what’s right to read and what isn’t? And what’s right to say and what isn’t?
Seems like there’s a lot of room here to entice new users and then capitalize on that growth. Seems like Substack has a lot of unique facets that should be capitalized on and brought to light to the broad public who doesn’t even know it exists.
Pitch Room to Nowhere
This is the part that bugs me and keeps me awake at night - that unfortunately, this user feedback will no doubt fall on deaf ears yet again. I have found in my years that some Silicon Valley brands are receptive to feedback, while others are less so.
Substack seems to be less inclined, given the negative responses from Substack staff I’ve collected over my 18+ months + feedback given here. That’s a shame, given that the ship could be righted back on course and could be a lean mean money making machine with just a few small changes, mostly to how the sausage is marketed and where the time/energy is spent. The sausage is already made just fine, the problem is in marketing, and I hope the above is a good starting place for what Substack could (and frankly should) be doing in its quest to grow the user base organically, rather than being proud of sloppy seconds from other platforms and corporate media outlets alike. Too much energy is spent on attracting unattractive celebutants, rather than highlighting the best of the best of the organic.
Substack could be spending more time and energy in sorting the wheat from the chaff - but it seems enthralled in giving more limelight to people who already enjoyed or otherwise misused/abused the pleasures granted by it. I can’t make the stubborn bastard corporate executive drink but I can write yet another post dragging them through the mud and reminding them that the little guy who writes daily, publishes notes and has their own audience grown from nothing should come long, long before washed-up has-beens. I shouldn’t need to say it, but I feel compelled to. And I hope others will too.
Until next time.
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