565 Comments

"... usually coupled with the theory that the people they choose are problematic"--Isn't that pretty much the controversy? The rest is window dressing.

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Yes, the idea that people have a deep-seated problem with Substack's payment model rather than the views of the highest-profile people on the platform strains credulity. I mean, assume good faith and all that, but I think it's blatantly clear that criticism of the payments is a stalking horse for the belief that many people writing via Substack should not prohibited from presenting their views to the public at all.

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I think the essay Freddie deBoer put out today also touches on a factor: journalism as a business is in really, really rough shape. If you're a journalist who's been laid off twice and is struggling financially because the rates for pieces are a pittance, it's gotta be infuriating to see the Freddie deBoers (and the Scott Alexanders) raking in good money. People are now fighting over what appears to be an ever-shrinking pie.

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Even more than that. The Substack model making clear there is a lot of cross-subsidization going on in regular media. I'd guess that in a publication like the NYT, 20% of the writers generate 80% of the traffic (even within areas).

Substack allows top professional journalist, and talented essayist like Scott and Matt Y., bypass publishers, reach readers directly, and make the big bucks, while not-so-good writers and not-top journalists are left behind.

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It's also yet another nail in the coffin of hard news, which thought it was the main point of newspapers until Craigslist revealed they were actually advertising circulars with a sideline.

Which is nothing against Substack, which strikes me as a good thing. But I kind of hope someone figures out a workable model for shoe leather reporting before all the sides of journalism that turn out to have been propping it up are fully pulled out.

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Yeah, this is a big problem. I'd love to see a good way to fund day-to-day factual reporting, as well as long-form investigative reporting.

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I'd actually take out a subscription to such a service. It seems though that isn't really possible currently without subsidising bloated opinion sections I don't give two hoots about.

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There's no shortcuts. People need to actually pay for shoe leather. The de-bunding we've seen across the board in recent decades means you can't bury the cost in a different income stream like you used to - it needs to self-fund.

In a world where nobody is willing to buy news, nobody will sell news.

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We can add this as another example of the winner-take-all economy driving increased income inequality...

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That's an interesting way of framing the efforts of people to pay for things of value while attempting to avoid paying for crap they don't need.

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Both viewpoints are fundamentally correct. The basic change that created the modern winner-take-all economy is that better communications, a more interconnected world economy and general unbundling of services lets people pay for the high-quality goods and services they want and ignore the lower-quality stuff they don't want. This is great for consumers.

The problem this creates is that most people probably are not capable of meaningfully contributing to those high-quality goods and services. This includes most of those consumers. The proportion of the economy where this is true is rapidly growing, and even if it's not true for you already, it will probably arrive in industries near you before too soon.

One approach to take is that the now-sidelined people should just crawl under a bridge and die. I feel rather strongly that this is not an acceptable solution. The only reasonable solution I can think of is UBI.

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I agree enthusiastically.

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I take a slightly different tack than Tuna, but he's right that your phrasing and "winner-take-all economy" are basically Russel Conjugations.

The fundamental force here is the reduction of friction offered by the internet. It's the exact same reason why there's a natural monopoly on search engines and near-monopoly on social media networks. As Andrew Yang says, nobody wants to use the second-best search engine. As Scott Galloway points out, brands are far less important when everybody can just google "best wireless speaker 2021" and read some reviews. Products don't need to be transported to your proximity before you decide to buy them. Writers don't need to be aggregated and redistributed via highly-opinionated middle-men in the form of newspapers and magazines. Even Substack, within 2 years, will significantly reduce their 10% cut.

Everybody wants the best possible version of any given good (why wouldn't you?), and since digital goods can have effectively infinite supply and zero marginal costs, this naturally leads to "the winners taking all."

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I'd like a world where low-quality journalists still get food, housing, and fulfilling lives, without the public having to pretend they're offering a useful service. So UBI or something like that.

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It also turns journalism into even more of a lottery profession than it already is.

With the old model, pre-Craigslist, there were entry-level journalism jobs that paid an adequate wage. But the tightening that has happened means that it's increasingly the case that you don't get offered a staff job (or a long-term freelance contract - many opinion columnists are freelancers on long-term contracts) until you've proven that you can do the job by having done it for a period of time. The only way that you can do that is through a series of unpaid internships, or by writing as a freelancer and just not getting enough work to get by.

If substack-type disaggregation is where we are going, then the top writers will make even more money, but the only way to get that sort of money is to build up an audience by writing well over a long period of time. Which means that the only ways to break in will be either to be rich enough to just keep writing without pay until you build an audience, or to start writing while doing another job (or while being a student). Eventually you build an audience.

But this means that people who have the potential to be great writers but would need training or interactions with other writers, or who have other jobs so demanding that they don't have time to write enough to get good - those people never get the chance to break through.

It also means that someone could write excellently for years and build an audience of a few hundred who really like them, but never break out of that into enough readers to be able to make a living - they just don't get the break they need. The number of times I've been looking something up from 2010 or 2006 and found a blog that was really well-written and insightful and lasted three or four years and then gave up because they never got into five figures of readers for anything they ever wrote is probably approaching triple digits. Those writers just gave up on blogging.

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You're argument is, basically, that someone who wants to earn a living as a reporter/essayist deserves to be well paid to do so even though he or she does not have the proper skills or only appeals to a handful of readers.

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An author may appeal to many readers if they got the chance, and in the past they had the institutional backing to get that chance. And as Richard said, during this time they were ADEQUATELY paid, not well-paid.

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I think someone who wants to express opinions and have people pay attention to them should start by offering them for free. If they're popular enough, he can try to sell them--in internet terms, put them behind a paywall. No one owes him a living for exposing his deathless wisdom to an indifferent public eye. All in all, I don't see a big difference between guaranteeing op-ed writers a paycheck and guaranteeing novelists sales. Or, for that matter, guaranteeing half-baked lecturers tuition proceeds.

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If that's what you think my argument was then I expressed it badly.

My point was that there's a real danger that what we end up with is not the best essayists from amongst those people who want to be and what we're getting is the best essayists from among a combination of some people who had family wealth to be able to devote time to it and some people who wrote as a hobby and got lucky.

That means that a lot of people who would be good miss out, either because they can't write themselves into being good writers without help and training, or because they can't spend the time on it because they have a demanding job (or because they aren't as committed to writing as, say, Scott Alexander, who does have a demanding job and also writes a lot). I'd like to have a system where there are some people whose job it is to read lots of writing (more than someone who isn't doing it full-time can read), identify writers with potential and then offer them careers at a lower level to build up. In sports, you'd call them "scouts". Ideally, you'd still have the superstars bringing in a lot of money, but some fraction of this being directed to building up lower-level writers to provide the next generation.

There are similar problems with other "lottery professions" like acting; if there's a barrier to entry you can easily end up with the only people succeeding being those from a narrow background who can afford to spend the money and time needed to break through. The traditional "actors waiting tables in Los Angeles trying to get a break" is fine. The problem arises when your system expects them to work unpaid as junior actors while trying to get a break, because then they can't earn enough waiting tables to survive, and only a few that get lucky early on, a few that find non-traditional paths get in; the majority becoming people whose parents have enough money to support them while they have no income for a few years. This is exactly what is happening with both traditional journalism (internships) and this sort of internet journalism.

Reporting - and I should have started with "opinion journalism" rather than just "journalism" - is a completely different question that I didn't really address and don't intend to; I know a lot less about it.

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One could be snarky and tell those laid off "journalists" to "learn to code." But more appropriate advice would be "learn to say something useful and interesting." The cookie-cutter propaganda pieces in the MSM explaining why "X is racist" are basically commodity work that could be better written by an AI at this point.

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Bourgeois media inherently must propagandise, that's part of the job description. Scott Alexander has been chosen by substack for exactly the same reason.

These are media companies owned by capitalists and run for their benefit.

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You mean bourgeois media like the NYT? Substack is for working class writers like Scott.

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The writers are the workers either way. I imagine there are plenty of people working at the NYT who receive considerably less on their paycheck compared to Scott. The similarity is that both are owned by capitalists. This is why both are bourgeois media outlets.

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Imagine the rage at Thomas Friedman. He has not written a new column since 1995, tells obvious lies (my cabdriver said...) and is married to an heiress. But he does not retire.

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And likely even more so because it sounds like the Substack writers have no editorial oversight. Just generate traffic and eyeballs and you too can be well-paid! For a journalist, it's likely salt in the wound because of all the oversight that comes with being part of a front-line media organization.

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But similarly, if you're an author who can't sell a lot of books, it must be hard to resist the temptation of envious resentment against best-selling authors. That's nevertheless no excuse for trying to censor one's more successful rivals.

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But self publishing on Amazon can get around the gatekeepers. Many SF authors do better selfpublished than they did through traditional publishers...

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Yes, there's no reason to suppose that Substack can enforce a monopoly on the workarounds. But that just means censor-centric journalism is even more threatened. They spring a new leak every time someone gets around the gatekeepers. Why did this one drive them particularly nuts? Maybe because they've learned they can count on Amazon to get on board with the censorship program, but they can't figure out a good way to bully Substack.

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^^ Agreed, I thought the claims of a scam felt incredibly flimsy. I'd be curious to know what the entirety of Substack's pool of writers looks like and how much of it leans in the direction of those called out in The Hypothesis post. I'm not assuming it's more, less or representative, but just interested to see how their universe looks based on ACT's account of how his own onboarding went.

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I don't think anyone is even claiming that. The claim I usually see is "Substack is offering giant sums of money to these awful anti-woke writers, therefore they're funding right-wing bigotry".

That said, Scott's response is still relevant. "They're offering a platform to these awful anti-woke writers, but they're underpaying them" does rather take some wind out of the argument's sails.

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I'm curious as to how "assume good faith and all that" consistent with the argument that it's "blatantly obvious" that people are lying and just want to prevent people from having a voice?

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The best quote from the Twitter battlefield is by Glenn Greenwald:

> They're claim it's just about “ethics in journalism“ but it seems clear it's nefarious.

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Isn't that just a straight Gamergate quote?

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Yes. That's a clever but very culture-war quote to throw around. You can tell from reading his Substack that he's pretty upset about the chain of events that led him to Substack, and perhaps even more upset about the anger being thrown at him now for being on it.

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<3

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author

In retrospect, maybe we shouldn't have turned "ethics in journalism" into a snarl word where we have a cultural agreement to regard anyone who worries about it as a bad actor.

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This reminds me that someone suggested there's an easy way to get the "like" button back, but apparently it's over my head.

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I really miss that button!

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Well, at least we haven't just done the same thing for raising questions about election integrity...oh, wait.

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And do so in a way that somehow managed to miss the actual legitimate voting machine scandal. https://whowhatwhy.org/2021/03/08/election-assistance-commission-investigates-ess-voting-systems/

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It has something to do with a president telling an election-related officer to find him the votes he needed to be re-elected?

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The thing is, the people who claimed it was a bad thing are the very same people who were targeted for their questionable journalistic practices. There's obvious reasons why they wouldn't want people questioning such things.

Ironically, the people who were actually for reforms actually won that, too; all of the game publications started publishing disclosures of personal/financial links to people/companies they were reporting on after GamerGate.

That's why it became the alt right vs the alt left - because the gamers who were actually interested in journalistic reforms got what they wanted and stopped caring, so it was only the people who were upset over it for political reasons who were left.

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You might want to revisit Chomsky and Herman's "Manufacturing Consent" in light of this Scott, your first review of it was very bad and made many mistakes.

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"We don't like the people writing on your platform, and we think you should pay them more."

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Almost as if nearly every argument they made were a pretext?

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the most relevant issue is that being controversial and provocative can be good for traffic. in the end, it's all about the eyeballs

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The thing is that the substack model isn't about optimising for eyeballs, though, it's about optimising for subscribers. You don't get money on substack by persuading people to click on your article, you get money by persuading them that you're so interesting and insightful that they actually want to pay ten bucks a month just to see what you write in the future.

The natural winners in this sort of ecosystem seem to be people who are mainstream in their views (since people won't pay people that they disagree with, and most people have mainstream views) but heavily critical of the media (since I'm not going to pay real money unless I feel I'm getting value added compared to what I get for free from cnn.com). And from a quick look at the headlines on the substacks of people like Taibbi, Yglesias and Sullivan, that seems to be the sort of content that's getting produced.

Being "controversial" doesn't get you very far in this game at all.

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Does substack offer reduced charges for rookies trying to break in? Say $2 per month for the first x months...

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gotta get people to click if you want them to read your interesting and insightful stuff.

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Which is an inherently ridiculous argument when they admit _in the very article_ that they do not know who got paid. They have _no idea_ whether or not these people are problematic because they don't know who they are but they _assume_ that they must be problematic. It's one of the most ridiculous things I've heard in a while.

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(Dang lack of edit function....)

Which is of course, why they are making it about "unfairness" or "scams" or whatever. They _think_ that substack is funding problematic people but have absolutely no way of proving it so they make some other argument instead. Of course, their other argument is almost equally incoherent. No one has a problem with "Hollywood" for tricking young people into thinking they can move to LA and become a famous movie star, even though it's essentially the exact same dynamic: A few people will make it big/be succesful and the vast majority will toil in mediocrity making little or nothing.

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If they really want to get a torch-bearing, pitchfork-wielding mob on the go against Substack, they should forget conspiracy theories about secret elite cabals and instead rally us around GIVE US AN EDIT FUNCTION OR GIVE US DEATH!

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Absolutely, and give me back my "like" button so I don't have to keep posting "absolutely."

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Absolutely!

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Also get rid of the drop header and whatever it is that stops my pointer from recognizing that I'm hovering on text.

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That and the fact that other people are earning more money than them, yes.

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At the end of the day substack is another bourgeois media source, and it has all the same inherent problems as any other bourgeois outlet. This has already been well-covered by people like Michael Parenti and Noam Chomsky.

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And yet, here you are.

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I'm here to provide some much-needed ideological diversity.

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That's fine, although I have to say I don't think you're doing your side any favors with your performances here. Out of curiosity, though, what are some non-bourgeois media sources that don't have the inherent problems of Substack?

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Fake site.... 😉

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This sounds like investing 101: pick stocks (or bloggers) which you think are undervalued, and if your picks are good then you beat the market and make money.

In the blogger case, that might mean picking people who are not just saying the same thing as everyone else or repeating back the current crowd's attitudes. Call that "problematic" if you will.

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Here is Freddie deBoer on a similar topic today:

https://freddiedeboer.substack.com/p/its-all-just-displacement

> It’s true that I have, in a very limited way, achieved the new American dream: getting a little bit of VC cash. I’m sorry. But it’s much much less than one half of what Felix Salmon was making in 2017 and again, it’s only for one year.

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>they don’t hate it because it’s filled with anti-woke white guys

This seems like a bold claim from Freddie. There are a lot of things they pretty obviously do hate for being filled with anti-woke white guys, why wouldn't Substack be one of them?

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Bari Weiss is not a guy, but she still gets plenty of hate.

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She's probaby white-guy-adjacent.

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Whiteness is a social construct and has more to do with whether marxists hate you than your actual skin color. The same for gender. Bari Weiss is a white male because she says things that marxists disapprove of.

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Huh, when a devoted socialist is telling you that the market is going to kick your ass, you know that you have some very serious problems in your industry.

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Is there any evidence that substack is making significantly more money than any other media outlet?

The idea that substack is going to "kick" anyone's "ass" I find a little bit farfetched.

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You evidently haven't read the article linked, and as I recall it's completely inline with your character. So, whatever.

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I'm not talking about the advances received or how much money individual writers make on subscriptions, I'm talking about how much money Substack makes as compared to other media services. That's where the "kick ass" part is decided, capitalist profits (i.e. surplus value generated).

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In a market, surplus value accrues to producers (Substack) and consumers (readers of Substack) which is why we can already tell that Substack is in fact kicking ass. You have to read actual economists to understand this, Bourgeois parasites like Marx don't understand this because they've never produced anything of value.

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"Actual economists" are much like real Scotsmen.

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No, readers do not get a "surplus value" from reading Substack, they get a product, just like any other audience.

Do you have any proof that Substack is making considerably more than any other media platform?

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I'm not sure whether personal wealth as a company founder was ever really tied to whether the company earned a profit or generated any surplus value, but that is definitely not the case now. It's not even really the business model is. A VC firm knows that most of what they fund is going to go under, but be offset by the few that succeed tremendously. To the founders getting wads of cash thrown at them, it makes no difference. You don't become as wealthy as the actual successes when you fail, but you still get wealthy by any reasonable measure.

All you need to do is get a room full of people with more cash than they know what to do with excited at least once. You don't need to generate any value at all, let alone surplus value, just so long as you can sufficiently mimic someone else who once did.

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The surplus vale generated is still the ultimate arbiter when it comes to a companies' longevity and ability to "kick ass". Like I said, I've seen no actual evidence of substack's superior ability to generate profits.

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This also has a lot to do with the purity spirals and arbitrary "cancellations" that have consumed so many media outlets. Every person you can get fired for being problematic today makes it that much less likely that you'll get laid off when management inevitably cuts some percentage of the newsroom next month. (As long as it's not 100%...)

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As far as I can tell, the (non-political) problems people have with Substack are twofold:

1) Substack (presumably) suffers from the same unequal remuneration problem as traditional media: a tiny handful of writers make a lot of money, and everyone else makes almost nothing. The tiny handful are essentially living advertisements for Substack, baiting other, less well-known writers into working for Substack for a pittance.

2) Substack's funding sources are opaque, and there's some suspicion that the company is being used to promote certain positions without the normal motivational transparency you'd get from a media company with more traditional ownership structures. Scott's decision to signal-boost investment opportunities for that one company that was studying DNP reinforces this belief, IMO.

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I don't know about the ownership structure thing. Suprisingly many newspapers, commercial radio stations, and local TV affilliates used to be owned by individuals, families, or closely held companies.

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Used to be? Rupert Murdoch, Viscount Rothermere...

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Radio stations and TV affiliates have to notify the FCC, and in some cases, obtain approval. This is because radio/TV spectrum is limited.

https://www.fcc.gov/consumers/guides/fccs-review-broadcast-ownership-rules

The internet is not subject to a bandwidth problem, so that rationale goes out the window for Substack. Anyone can buy all the blogs or blog publishers they want.

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founding

... You think Substack has financial ties to DNP????

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It actually does, believe it or not. Y Combinator is an investor in Substack as well as Equator Therapeutics, the DNP-investigating company mentioned in Shilling for Big Mitochondria.

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Isn't this theory of connection missing a link where Substack tells Scott to write about DNP?

I'm a bit confused why it so frequently happens that people theorize that 2 companies aligning who are both in Y Combinator are secretly working together. It seems like a coincidence and this is a much smaller version with no proposed mechanism for control from Y Combinator to post about DNP.

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I'm not actually saying that Substack told Scott to write about DNP. I'm saying that there's serious ethical issues with a company that owns both a journalism arm and other companies that are promoted by that journalism arm.

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If the Washington Post says something good about Amazon is that an immediate ethical violation?

Even beyond ownership, there's usually other financial considerations: who the advertisers are or who the donors are. Creating the firewall between accounting and writing is something every paper needs to do. They usually call it something like "editorial independence".

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I would definitely expect WAPO to have a disclaimer in a story about how we should all go by Amazon Pro.

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Pretty much every time the Washington Post mentions Amazon, no matter how glancingly, they have a parenthetical that Jeff Bezos owns the Washington Post. I'm half expecting it to turn up in stories about the Amazon rain forest.

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In the standard YC deal, YC owns 7% of the company. That's not exactly anywhere near a controlling interest? Though I guess it's still enough that YC has the incentive to tilt the field towards any company they do have that 7% stake in. How much of a company is one allowed to own before these sorts of ethical considerations are valid? Like if spend a thousand dollars on Disney stock, should I have to disclose that the next time I talk to anyone about a Disney movie?

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That kind of issue is why journalists usually just buy index funds.

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The entire point of media propaganda isn't that you explicitly tell writers what to write about (although I'm sure there are plenty of nudges and suggestions in that direction) - the point is that you hire and promote people who you know already agree with you.

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Thats why the Substack model is so subversive to bourgeois propaganda organs like the NYT, anyone can sign up and use Substack to address their audience. Bourgeois propagandists are just upset that the masses are able to support their preferred writers directly without bourgeois institutions gatekeeping them and forcing propaganda on them.

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It's not "subversive" at all. Substack is still owned and operated by capitalists for private gain.

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ycombinator has invested in three thousand companies, of which maybe a thousand are still running, and they have maybe thirty people on staff. They barely have time to keep their "this is how rich we are this week" spreadsheet updated, let alone engage in complicated cross-promotions.

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That's the right answer. Y Combinator is a startup accelerator. They don't "own" anything in a traditional sense, that's not their business model.

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somewhat relatedly, i remember sam altman and paul graham being among the people who voiced support for Scott during the fight w/ the NYT recently. So they are clearly fans of SSC. I wonder whether they suggested to Substack that bringing Scott onboard might be a good idea. in any case glad it all worked out.

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Is it really "working FOR Substack" (emphasis mine)? If we had superstar sellers on Ebay and you decided to skip the street-side garage sale and instead list your stuff online, would you be working for Ebay? If you decided to quit your day job to become an Ebay thrift store, would you be working for Ebay?

Also, is this morally different than the fiction publishing world where we have superstar authors bringing in big publishing money while aspiring authors put in hard labor writing groups / classes / zines / pay-per-word magazines with the hope that they make it big some day? Are those minor-leaguers/amateurs working for big publishing because they're putting in labor with the hopes that big publishing will pay them one day?

I understand you might not hold this position yourself but 1 seems pretty clearly wrong.

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You are correct - I am still undecided on both of these questions. There are several people I consider fundamentally untrustworthy on the pro- and anti-Substack sides, so I'm taking my time.

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Who are they?!

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Also, wouldn’t it be better to listen to the people you trust? An evil broken clock is still right twice a day.

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Point 1) isn't Substack's fault -- as you agree, other media have the same problem. It is the nature of digital content that once created, it can be made available to an unlimited number of consumers at virtually no extra cost. Hence, there's no reason why any consumer should settle for the second-best content in a given genre, when the best content in that genre is just a mouse-click away. Those second-best content creators may then be "baited" into chasing a hopeless dream, but it's not like anybody else was going to offer them a much better deal.

Point 2) seems rather conspiracy-theory-ish. If you want to know the political positions that the most popular Substack writers are promoting, you can just read their articles. Likewise, if you want to know the political slant of the New York Times or the Washington Post, read their articles -- that is going to tell you a lot more than finding out who technically owns those companies. Maybe Substack is some Machiavellian scheme to promote certain viewpoints, but more likely they just identified a space in the market where there was a lot of demand but not a lot of big established publishing platforms yet.

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It isn't necessarily political positions. Y Combinator is an investor in Substack as well as Equator Therapeutics, the DNP-investigating company mentioned in Shilling for Big Mitochondria.

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Interesting. What's the chain of connections?

- Scott is the kind of person who would promote products we're invested in so let's get him a big audience.

- We got Scott a big audience, so let's make sure to invest in things he likes in case he promotes it.

- We got Scott a big audience, so let's introduce him to some people he might promote and we're invested in.

And how does this plan move from the investor through Substack? Are they getting introduced to Scott through Substack or are the "editors" just looking at their investor list and taking independent action to benefit their financiers?

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Please note that I'm not saying that this is what happened, but the possibility of it happening is a serious issue for Substack and the writers who publish through it.

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Of course, there aren't any facts in this particular situation. But if this were to occur, how do you see it happening? What are the actual proposed mechanics?

The ones I can think of (and listed) feel absurd / conspiracy theoryish. But maybe someone else can think of one that's more likely to happen (or propose how these absurd ideas I came up with are more likely to happen than I think).

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Hypothetically? Someone Scott knows and trusts from Substack introduces him to Equator Therapeutics, who talks about the history of DNP and the possibilities of using it as a therapeutic drug. Maybe that trusted person implies that they think it would be a worthwhile use of Scott's time to write about DNP, as well.

I'm not suggesting that this happened; I trust Scott enough to believe that Scott's decision to promote a company associated with Y Combinator is coincidental. Frankly, given the number of startups associated with Y Combinator and Substack's other backers, it would be hard for Scott to promote a startup without having some kind of ethical conflict.

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The possibility that you are being paid to post these critical comments by some nefarious cabal of anti-substackers is a serious issue for anyone reading your comments.

See how dumb that sounds without providing any actual evidence?

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Scott is definitely getting paid by Substack to post here. What makes you think I am?

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It seems like this is only a problem if Substack is exerting some kind of editorial control over its writers' writing. Like, if Substack tells Scott "we'll give you an extra $10K every time you work in a nice mention of another Y combinator company," or if Scott knows that if he doesn't keep his Substack editor happy with him he may be out of a job, we'd need to worry about this kind of conflict of interest.

But as far as I know, Substack's only editorial control over its writers is some minimal set of rules that amount to not breaking the law or getting them sued. If there's no editorial control and no mechanism for influencing the writers, then where's the conflict of interest?

I mean, what seems to be happening here is that Scott, Matt, Glenn, Bari, etc., write what they like, attract subscribers, and get to keep a nice cut of that money, with little influence by Substack's management. It's hard to see how that setup leads to a conflict of interest.

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Yep. I think there is a misconception that Substack is a publisher when it's really just a simple blog platform that makes it easy to charge for writing.

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Sounds like they didn't do a very good job of keeping things opaque, then.

(I do not actually believe that Scott took additional money, or was pressured in any other way by Substack or any of its investors, to shill for Equator. And if he did, then I bet they wanted their money back afterwards, since his description of the pros and cons of DNP was "damning with faint praise" at best. It seems much more likely that what happens is exactly what he says happened: he learned about DNP via a friend of his who works there; he thought it was an interesting topic within his area of interests, so he blogged about it; he openly mentioned that connection which clearly indicates that he didn't think he was doing anything wrong; he underestimated how many people would have a problem with it anyway.)

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It's not opaque. You can find out who their funders are in less than 30 seconds:

https://www.crunchbase.com/organization/substack/company_financials

Y Combinator, A16Z, UpHonest Capital, Kenji Niwa, Fifty Years, FundersClub, Wei Guo, Garage Capital, The Chernin Group, Brad Flora.

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Y Combinator is also an investor in Equator Therapeutics, the company Scott promoted in the DNP post, without disclosing that they were also investors in Substack. I hope you can understand why people would have a reasonable problem with this.

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Is Scott expected to familiarize himself with the investment portfolio of everyone who funds Substack?

I, for one, hope he does not waste his time with such things.

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Surely you can agree that it's a serious ethical concern, at least.

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I think many people will not agree, the linkages go:

Scottpost - Scott - Substack - Y Combinator - Equator Therapeutics - DNP

There are too many jumps between the ends with very low obvious linkages (this isn't like investing in Evil Corp., there is a generic prolific investor in the middle! You could tie Scott to anything with that) in the middle.

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I do not. In fact I find that suggestion hilarious.

The connection you're insinuating is much more distant than anything I've seen journalists bother to disclose before. YC isn't Substack's owner, or parent company. They're one of at least 10 investors, many of whom are investing on behalf of a fleet of others.

What are you proposing as the concern, here? Do you believe Scott went and looked for companies to boost which might (somehow?!) help Substack? Or that he was directly told to do so?

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I don't think any of that happened. I think that Scott (and other Substack writers) should be very careful about promoting companies as investments, for both ethical and legal reasons, and that it isn't unreasonable for people to have concerns about the possibility of this happening with Substack in the future.

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Er, no. Do you have any idea how many companies Y Combinator invests in? Or A16Z? I doubt there's anyone alive who can name them all. At the scale these firms operate at you're going to get random coincidences all the time involving their ventures, it doesn't mean anything.

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founding

Y combinator invests tiny (sub-100k AFAIK) in piles and piles of early-stage companies every year. It's not much of a connection.

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Sure, and it's the whole "Caesar's wife" thing which is part of why I voted against Scott doing more recommendations of that type. I trust Scott enough that I don't think there was anything shady going on and that it really was "my pal is involved with this thing he told me about and I want to tell you about", nothing more, but as you demonstrated: it can be made to look bad, and without a rigorous procedure of "are you sure nobody connected with this platform however distantly is connected with your thing however distantly?" in place to make sure such connections aren't in place, something which would be tedious and inconvenient, the most self-protective thing is merely to say "WITHOUT RECOMMENDING ANYTHING GOOD BAD OR INDIFFERENT ABOUT THIS, here is something someone told me about".

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I also trust Scott; I just think that this is a potential problem for Substack and a valid reason for people to be wary of the platform. I agree that the answer is to be more cautious in promoting any kind of commercial service or investment.

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This level of corruption is a bulwark of liberty.

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I understand why people have a problem with this; I don't consider it reasonable. There is no really plausible mechanism for nefarious collusion, and coincidence is not reasonably considered problematic.

I also think that the set of conflicts of interests that *aren't* about making more money, are more interesting and more dangerous than the mere money-making conflicts. Pointing out that X and Y are making money in some vaguely-related way and so might be Up to No Good, if that's all you've got, is a distraction from more important concerns.

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Do you *really* think there's no plausible mechanism for collusion to occur?

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It is always plausible that [rich person with corporation] could approach [writer with audience] and say "I will give you a bunch of money if you tell your readers to buy stock in my company". You don't need Substack or anything like it for that, you just need the existence of rich people, writers, joint stock corporations, and money.

I don't think there is a plausible mechanism by which Substack adds anything to this process, for either party. A traditional newsroom, where the owner ('s agent) exercises direct ongoing control over the payroll and content, is useful to someone who wants to engage in such shenanigans and/or conceal the fact that they are doing so. Substack, isn't.

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Although we don’t know the actual numbers in most cases, getting funding from subscriptions seems like a straightforward business model compared to, say, advertising.

I suppose, thinking like a scammer, they could be faking subscription numbers in either direction, increasing them for a few people and decreasing them for others. But haven’t newspapers sometimes faked subscriber numbers to justify prices charged to advertisers? And what assurances do book authors or musicians have that the numbers aren’t fake?

Eventually Substack might go public and then they would be subject to audits, though that’s not always sufficient either.

In the end, authors should probably go by how much money they actually get.

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Or we could do subscriptions on the blockchain :) It doesn’t prevent someone from buying subscriptions in bulk though, much like book sales have sometimes been inflated.

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Or is it more about trusting Stripe? (Based on what I’ve seen elsewhere.)

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It's just simple power law. The creators of any platform under the sun will have a skewed distribution of success. Also, they're not working "for" substack. They're just blogging for substack. Substack owes them nothing.

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It sounds like you have a problem with capitalism and not necessarily Substack.

>a tiny handful of writers make a lot of money, and everyone else makes almost nothing

A small number of authors sell the most books. A small number of musicians sell the most music. This applies to almost everything in a free market. I cant imagine a system by which all authors, all musicians, and all writers have the same income even being a desirable outcome.

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The "unequal remuneration problem" you're discussing seems to be something inherent to every career field in which some people are much better at doing the job than others.

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The problem is that "better" in this instance are the writers who are "better" at forwarding the opinions of the company owners and serving their propaganda function.

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I don't follow this at all. Substack doesn't preferentially give writers different levels of exposure. Substack is almost incapable of doing so, in fact. The writers who are making big money on Substack - Yglesias, Siskind, Taibbi, etc. - were all major names before coming to Substack, and they made those names attracting a loyal audience with quality writing.

That's most obvious with Scott himself, who gained all of his word of mouth starting from absolute scratch.

I think there's often a misconception outside the writing field that there's a vast reservoir of AAA writing talent just waiting to be published if not for those nasty ol' gatekeepers. Just not true. Most writers fall into the category of "suck" or "forgettably mediocre".

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"I don't follow this at all. Substack doesn't preferentially give writers different levels of exposure."

Again, those writers only get to the position they're in by following bourgeois expectations and forwarding certain ideas. This has already been covered in books like "Inventing Reality" by Parenti and "Manufacturing Consent" by Chomsky & Herman.

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Please apply this thesis to Scott's actual journey from "total nobody" to influential media figure.

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Scott says exactly what capitalists want to hear, therefore he gets promoted in their circles.

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They don't need to be much better though. A key feature of winner-takes-all–type dynamics is that being marginally better is sufficient for domination.

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Pretty difficult to make both of those complaints at the same time.

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1. So? Does the fact that some baseball superstar gets paid millions just for playing a game bait fathers into making their sons play in Little League?

2. Assuming that Substack in fact has an agenda, is that a crime? Lord knows that Slate or the Boston Globe or Feral House or whatever have an agenda as well.

For that matter, the ownership of a publisher or a newspaper isn't necessarily a matter of public record, either. Jeff Bezos could hand over a controlling interest in the WaPo to a trust organized for the benefit of Julian Assange, and he doesn't have to tell the public.

The fact that the arguments why Substack is bad are so weak as to show that the real beef with Substack is purely political.

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I like Freddie deBoer's take on this ( https://freddiedeboer.substack.com/p/its-all-just-displacement ), which is that the real reason people are upset is the newpaper / digital media industry is broken and haemorraging jobs.

I have a substack. I don't expect to earn any money from it, and Substack have never told me or implied that I will. The idea that Substack is a scam because it promises people riches and then doesn't deliver, is false.

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Thanks for the link, that and his Freddie Nitro Edition post were a delightful example of how to be maximally brutal while telling the truth. Just phenomenal.

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I think the DeBoer piece is overall pretty good, but statements like "Trying to cancel Glenn Greenwald (again) because he criticizes the media harshly?" make me wonder how honest and serious he is, because that's a hilariously uncharitable, and probably flat out wrong, framing of why Greenwald has recently come under fire.

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For quite a while now Greenwald has been dissing, and pissing off... well, the kind of people who write for US media.

I honestly don't know what it is they're being pissed off at recently, but I consider it a reasonable assumption that i) it's a proxy for the ongoing larger disagreement, and ii) the charge is made up or overblown. I fully realize this is uncharitable, but repeated experience overrides the default charity.

Now, I don't want to argue the merits of this heuristic. I just want to point out it's a heuristic that lots of people are going to have, after a vast majority of SM outrage panics turn out to be unworthy of attention and outright misleading if taken at face value. Someone like Freddie tuning them out is precisely what you should expect.

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From the deBoer article: "I’ve been given opportunities because I’ve proved profitable to media businesses and like all businesses media businesses only care about profit." I find this interesting. If someone raises organic eggs and sells them, do we think "all he cares about is profit"? People create value and cheerfully accept payment for it, for a number of reasons. Some just need to pay the rent and are indifferent to their product or its impact on customers, but that's not by any means the universal rule. A pleasure of a free market is that people can enjoy offering valuable products to others, while also enjoying receiving valuable payment, which they can then offer to other people who sell products of value. Many of us get off on the idea of this kind of voluntary cooperation and assistance.

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It would be one thing if people like Annalee Newitz and Jude Doyle were bringing in tons of money for Substack, and Substack was then turning around and using that money to subsidize Jesse Singal and others they find objectionable. Maybe then I could understand why they'd be mad. But that doesn't seem to be the case, and instead, it appears everyone is making money.

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"But that doesn't seem to be the case, and instead, it appears everyone is making money."

Ah, but it's the wrong kind of everyone! Personally I'd be happy if Graham Linehan fell down a flight of stairs, but nobody is forcing me to read his Substack, I had no idea he even had one, and now I know he does, I will be doing my best to avoid it.

If people want to pay him money to read his writing, okay for them. It's not punching me in the nose or picking my pocket if they do so.

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"The wrong kind of everyone" is exactly at the heart of this. Doyle - who was quoted in Newitz's piece - has themself made the following remarks about their own dramatical exit:

---

There was one other communication I did want to address publicly: Hamish McKenzie of Substack. Hamish wrote me a long, conciliatory and kindly worded letter defending their business model - my criticism of it stands - and ultimately saying there was a Pro deal on the table if I would consider staying on the platform.

I declined. Yes, there was a moment when I really, really wanted the money - even the minor Pro deals are reportedly very generous, and most writers live in the kind of financial precarity that makes it stupid to say "no" to any steady gig - but if Substack is willing to pay me for this newsletter, then it’s only because they see that as the smallest possible amount of money they could lose. They can stop the bleeding by paying me off, or they can lose even more money when trans and queer users and subscribers desert their platform and they lose credibility as anything but an outlet for professional bigots.

The pressure is working, in other words, and I’m not going to take a payout to make sure a massively successful media company gets to continue promoting and profiting from hate speech. (...) I cannot take the money if I know that, by doing so, I’m condoning or being used to whitewash the funding of TERFs. I’m not saying we can never have the conversation. I am saying that until content moderation policies are in place to restrict the funding of extremists who target marginalized groups, that conversation ends with "no".

---

https://doyles.substack.com/p/necessary-losses

Doyle is therefore willingly turning down a payment that's evidently higher than whatever were the grassroots subscriptions Doyle managed to drum up since Oct/2018 on the Substack platform - and thus higher than wherever else they take the existing subscribers (via Patreon or otherwise) - because that payment/handout is simply not worth it to Doyle unless it is *additionally* accompanied by Substack purging haters, bigots and extremists such as... well, Jesse Singal, Glenn Greenwald, Andrew Sullivan and Matt Yglesias.

So it's not just about the money; the power to enact purges has an even greater lure. Doyle's attempt at getting "the wrong kind of everyone" cancelled, via a gambit hinged on Doyle's self-cancellation, went down about as well as someone reasonably anchored in reality might expect. Oh well. At least I can thank Doyle for pointing me to Greenwald's excellent "Criticizing Public Figures" piece, a piece I would have missed If I hadn't followed the chain from Scott's post to Newitz's citation of Doyle.

(English is not my first language, so I don't know whether "themself" is the appropriate reflexive form of "them" in singular?)

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"They can lose even more money when trans and queer users and subscribers desert their platform and they lose credibility as anything but an outlet for professional bigots"

I'm sorry, exactly how pie-in-the-sky is this person? Since there is no reputable figure for how many trans people there are in the population, let's go with the wider category of "queer". Figures from a couple of years ago put it at 4.5% of the population of the USA https://williamsinstitute.law.ucla.edu/visualization/lgbt-stats/?topic=LGBT#density

Now, taking what Doyle says there, and going really generously on "okay, bump that up to 10% of the potential audience are trans/queer", then 10% of the Substack user/subscriber base will betake themselves off this hellhole of bigots.

That still leaves 90% of non-queer trans users and subscribers. Welp, that'll sure show Substack when they are down to their last pennies because they only have 90% of a paying audience left!

What Doyle seems to be hoping for is a boycott effect, that it won't be only the 10% trans/queer users and subscribers who leave, but that allies in the cishet population will also leave and/or boycott Substack. That's why they need the smear campaign for "an outlet for professional bigots" in order to gin up outrage and get cancel culture at work.

Doyle and the others have to be pretty darn ignorant of the numbers, or else they really do imagine that everywhere is like their own particular neighbourhood bubble of 'everybody here is queer'. Even the maximum LGBT area in the US is, apparently, the District of Columbia with 9.8%.

If they're going to take on "the bigots on Substack", by the numbers the 'bigots' are going to win.

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I wouldn't be able to guesstimate how much revenue it is within Doyle's powers to steer away from Substack. The LGBT "supergroup" is around 5% of the population, but they are not *nearly* all of the same mind. (Greenwald, apparently the 2nd on Doyle's "purge list" after Singal, is himself gay)

The "activist subset" of the LGBT population frequently is of the same mind, though, at least when it comes to wholehearted embracing of cancel culture. This is a quite common activist trait nowadays, which they share with many other activists outside of LGBT. But only a tiny fraction of LGBT people *are* activists; it is not "being an activist" that makes you LGBT, it is about having an atypical sexuality (LGB) or profoundly longing to inhabit a different type of body to the one that you do inhabit (T). In other words, were Doyle able to assemble the full combined armies of LGBT activists behind this cause, they still wouldn't be able to convince even a third of the "5% LGBTers" to leave. Probably not even a tenth, given that the group of LGBT Substack subscribers is already preselected by having subscribed to certain Substacks rather than to the Guardian or to Washington Post or whatever. And yes, we can add some "cishet sympathizers" into that mix, but a similar preselection clause applies.

Why I find the whole episode interesting, is how open and deadpan Doyle is in negotiating the "bargain" with Substack. Doyle is *not* asking for a larger handout, the amount of money seems fine. Rather, Doyle - calculating how that amount is still lesser than the damage Doyle is presumably able to inflict on Substack - is therefore asking for adding certain cancellations on top of that deal. "An offer you cannot refuse".

I think Substack can refuse it, and I do hope they will. But I'm only 90% certain they will, so I'm curious as to what will happen in the end. I don't think it realistic Substack would ever agree to cancel Singal or Greenwald, but I hope they won't come to offer some "minor sacrifices" in return either - like a few random low-subscriber guys who write pieces from a traditional religious perspective, or whatever else might make Doyle happy. Because it is in the *successful branding* of such common people as "haters, bigots and extremists" that Doyle's real victory is won.

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Actually, quite a few of the cancellation targets are gay or lesbian--Glenn Greenwald, Bari Weiss, Andrew Sullivan, Katie Herzog, etc. I'm guessing this reflects the fact that gays and lesbians are actually a lot more diverse in terms of political and social views than you'd guess from the prestige media's narrative.

As far as I can tell, the narrative about most identifiable groups that you see in prestige media coverage mostly comes from activists--either from those groups or those opposed to those groups, depending on the desired spin of the writer. (Think of this as the "latinx effect.")

The problem with this kind of description is that it gives you a broken model of the world. Thus leading you to make predictions like "no gays or lesbians will write for or subscribe to Substack because they allow hateful evil fascists like Bari Weiss and Glenn Greenwald to write there."

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Wait. "Substack is bad because they deliberately choose bad people for 'pro'", but also "Substack offered me 'pro', but I won't take it because Substack is bad"? That seems circular (unless she counts herself as bad).

Have I misattributed an argument here, or is this real?

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I have to ask: are you mad at Linehan because of Father Ted?

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No, not because of Father Ted. Yes, there was the usual church-bashing in it, but it was a comedy, elements did need criticism, and things such as Father Noel Furlong and the Youth Group were painfully accurate (anyone else who was pushed into an 80s Irish youth group was wincing in recognition), as well as the kind of brutal but not wrong descriptions of rural Irish life (e.g. the bickering couple who are all sweetness and light as soon as outsiders come along).

It was more to do with his general attitude - like a lot of Irish ex-Catholics turned social liberals, he couldn't see anything good at all with the Church and what it had done in Ireland in its entire history, and he wanted Irish society to hurry up and copy English and American mores on sex'n'drugs'n'rock-and-roll. Is there a phrase "tits and beer liberals"? I'm nearly certain I read it somewhere online, and this account sounds about right - it's the same general notion as when you could present Howard Stern as a hero sticking it to The Man for all his FCA fines for indecency (to veer off at a tangent here, Trump's infamous "grab 'em by the pussy" was vulgar and demeaning and all the rest of it that the complaints alleged, but in the context of the times, this was the kind of vulgar, indecent, etc. attitude of Howard Stern and others that were being praised for standing up to the squares and prudes - think of Larry Flynt getting a movie holding him up as a defender of liberty over that parody having Jerry Falwell describing how he had sex with his mother - Falwell being the bete noire of the time).

So, that piece I mentioned: https://kontextmaschine.tumblr.com/post/123330745893/kontextmaschine-i-wonder-exactly-which-day-it

"The other was PCU, a campus comedy in the Animal House vein starring a visibly balding Jeremy Piven. It was a lovable frat fighting the dean and his Young Republican lackeys, but (because “boat shoe and dinner jacket-wearing WASPs” were overdone and increasingly anachronistic as villains by then) there was a third faction that took the brunt of the mockery: earnest, censorious social issue activists. Thus the title. The climax involved the activists protesting the big frat party (tagline: “Everyone Gets Laid”), but then realizing “holy shit, we’re against drinking, sex, parties, freedom, and fun, we’re the bad guys” and giving up and chilling out and hooking up with the frat members.

Because obviously you were supposed to see that as the only acceptable position for anyone with any pretensions to being cool and with it. Like I said, '60s-derived social liberalism used to offer something for everyone.

And it’s not like oooo, this was acceptable once upon a time, it’s that when I was growing up, this was the official line of media social liberalism."

And 90s media social liberalism in the Irish context is what Graham Linehan came out of - he was a journalist for "Hot Press", an Irish music magazine. This Wikipedia article doesn't really go into depth on it - Hot Press really was very much pro-sex, drugs and rock'n'roll (e.g. they had a journalist describing going to Amsterdam to one of the legal drug cafés and writing about being publicly stoned in front of cops) https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hot_Press

So yeah, it was more Linehan's brand of trendy Dublin social liberalism, involving hefty doses of sneering at anyone who wasn't that into sex'n'drugs (I don't mind rock'n'roll) and/or from down the country who are only rubes and rednecks, and then the natural ending to that which is fecking off to England to make a living mocking the country you left behind you, is what annoyed and annoys me about him.

That 90s media social liberal tag is very appropriate; from being one of the right-on heroes fighting repression, his views (tits and beer liberalism) haven't changed that much, but society has moved on and now the "earnest, censorious social issue activists" are the ones in ascendance, Stern and Flynt would not be considered heroes of the people today, and Linehan's attitudes and views being fossilised in the heyday of his times, he's run afoul of being "transphobic" and the rest of it.

As a dyed-in-the-wool stick in the mud and social conservative, yes, I am getting some amusement from it. My attitudes may not have changed very much either, but while I am still being mocked by the same people who were always mocking those views, in past days Linehan was one of the mockers, now he's one of the targets himself. How does it feel, Graham?

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To clarify a bit: I disliked Trump's reported remarks, I would have disliked them at the time he made them, and I would dislike any such remarks today by anyone. However, *at the time*, not finding Stern etc. brand of vulgar sexual innuendo funny and cool would have been every bit as offensive as the backlash today, where that vulgar sexual innuendo is now demeaning and sexist, not funny and cool.

I was out of step with the "tits and beer" liberalism of the time, as I am out of step with the cancel culture and SJW culture of today. One of the benefits of being socially conservative! At least it's consistent when I get mocked for wrong thinking and not the switch between "hey I used to be admired, why am I now being criticised for the same views I always held?" 😁

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I perfectly understand you. I'm in favor of sex and against drugs and rock'n'roll myself, not to mention cancel culture and SJWs, so our views and experiences of being mudsticks are largely analogous. I do dearly love Father Ted, though.

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Oh yeah, when Father Noel showed up with the kids in the holiday caravan, that was when it became a documentary 😁

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Agreed. And both pieces seem to imply this (or something much more sinister) is happening but talk in circles around it, because it doesn't seem to be happening at all

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The primary reason for Substack receiving the negative press that it does is that of political disagreement and intolerance, with the secondary reasons being those of envy and jealously. I'm not sure it warrants much discussion beyond that, at least until I see a legitimately good argument for why the platform may be anywhere close to as bad as some groups claim it is.

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Exactly.

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It’s so refreshing to hear of a business model with which is really economically sound. I usually pay too much attention to politics, where (at least in headlines) boring economic solutions are often ignored.

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Huh. This is good to know. I'd been assuming until this point that Substack was doing an Uber and channelling money to popular writers as a way to build brand or userbase or something. It sounds like that's not true and in fact, they are simply exploiting the fact that there's huge untapped commercial demand for certain kinds of writing, demand which until now had been invisible because media groupthink had determined it to be wrongthink and more subtly, determined that writing was inherently a low paid profession. When in reality it was maybe more like, there are tons of people willing to write certain types of "consensus-quo" articles for nearly nothing so the vast supply drives prices to the floor.

This somewhat reminds me of the Fox News situation. There was huge demand for news by conservatives, but nobody supplying it. And when eventually one network did it immediately obtained massive market share.

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Part of what Substack are doing is attracting "star" writers to their platform, in the hope that readers who read them will stay and read other writers. This is a network effect that loads of other SV companies have tried to achieve, and is nothing particularly remarkable.

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I didn't even realize you could find other Substack authors through Substack's interface. 100% of my roads to a particular 'stack have been from outside sources, meaning its own network effect is now that I've seen enough 'stacks if I were to start one I might choose Substack as the host.

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Second on this, I am pretty sure my substack login for this account doesn't allow me to interact as a non-outsider on other substacks.

If they are shooting to keep me on the platform, which they may be, they are not doing a good job yet at having a closed ecosystem.

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Substackers informally link to other Substackers. That's it.

And one of the things I like is that Substack isn't gagging me with "see more you might like" shit. There's problems with the interface, but they aren't obsessed with keeping me doom-scrolling their site. I figure that deserves me giving them some of my business.

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I think this is right but there's a smaller network effect: when you read popular people on substack, it'll be the first thing that you think of if you ever decide to write your own newsletter. An ad to potential authors rather than just subscribers.

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I'm skeptical of the network effects here once others copy Substack's business model. That said, they've spent more time figuring out why that would be harder than I'd think than I have.

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Are they? I've yet to see any cross-promotion and it sounds like these deals are extremely good for Substack purely on their own terms. I agree that what you're describing sounds like the usual tech startup playbook, but ... where is it?

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I think it also represents an unbundling of products that were previously bundled, though, like say, ala carte cable channels. E.G., I like Ross Douthat and Megan McArdle, but there's no way I'm subscribing to the NYT and the WashPost just to read those two fine scribes, because there's too much extraneous stuff bundled with it. However, now that Mr. Douthat has a substack, I can satiate my appetite for Douthatian commentary without having to subscribe to a whole 'nother newspaper, so in that sense, Substack represents a real value proposition, not just a poaching of writers from other platforms/

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I did subscribe to the Post primarily to read Megan McArdle. Via Amazon Prime, it's $5.99/month, which compares favorably to the cost of a Substack subscription, and turns out to include other content I'm interested in.

I'd rather send more directly Megan's way, but on the other hand there's a limit to how many individual subscriptions at $5-$10/each I'm likely to spring for. If some bundling doesn't emerge I'm not sure what my Substack ceiling is, but it isn't that high.

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Clearly, bundling works in some situations. Maybe most. I'm just sayin' for certain people (ie me), the unbundling is preferable.

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Supporting Substackers is a good way to tell media that something is wrong, but this isn't going to fix media. Media's problems go deeper than that.

And this is important. News reporting is a necessary part for a functioning society. Just supporting the columnists we like, while immediately useful, leaves us having a lot of opinions but no facts. Local media is already a wasteland. Who is covering the local board meeting where they are voting to put melamine in the water? Anyone?

I get being angry at the media. But it just dying isn't really a way forward.

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I'm spending about half as much on my city's local paper (a city of fewer than 100k) as on Substack. Maybe I should spend more locally.

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I think it's much more this. I doubt there is any huge untapped market in the sense that consumers in aggregate are willing to pay any more money than they presently do to consume media. Substack is just making a bet that a sufficient number of people who are currently subscribed to large bundles of barely related services really only care about a few topics or a few writers and are willing to give the same money to a much smaller number of people.

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That isn't quite a network effect. A network effect is where additional value is gained by existing users by adding new users to the network. The telephone network is an example: your phone line has greater value the more people you can call with it. The same applies to fax machines. Facebook et al. are in a similar boat: people choose Facebook because it has the greater number of users new prospective users want to talk to. Likewise, competators to Facebook face the problem that all potential users are already on Facebook so you'd have to have a compelling benefit to get them to join, let alone pull them away.

Substack has nothing like that. Some random person joining Substack as an author doesn't improve anything for Substack's existing authors or readers. At-best, it provides a trivial amount of name recognition for Substack. But that's no different than having the authors list what brand of pen, paper, or computer they use.

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I've been thinking the same thing. Anyone have thoughts on ways to get some skin in the game with entities providing these kinds of apparently high-demand/low-supply media products?

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Become an angel investor. But of course, you have to find the opportunities, that's the hard part. It's why VC is a profession and a competitive one at that.

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I get that. And maybe my question was stupid. But I was thinking about small, creative, probably indirect ways to make *small* bets on these sorts of things since becoming an angel investor is not in the cards for me.

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My first though was that maybe a group of people could pool money to be a sort of meta-angel investor, but then I realized that the voting you'd need to do would ensure you never invested in an "interesting" company until your stake was worthless.

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Try googling "equity crowfunding". There are a few sites that allow for this. It's only since 2016 or 2017 that this has been available to everyone instead of just accredited investors, so it's still pretty new.

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OK, fine. Technically from what I can see, there's no particular reason the type of Substack BD that Scott talks about here can only be done by them. The core of the deal was "we know that you can make money but you don't realise it, so we'll take the risk out for you in return for (we believe) a sure profit".

You could find writers that you believe are offering something to under-served but rich markets and make them a similar deal, fronted by your own cash. If you do a good job, then your new writer has to cut you in on the subscriber revenue stream for a while.

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It's a standard joke in my household that the oh-so-clever Murdoch identified an underserved "niche" market consisting of nearly half the country.

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Ok but you're one of the "pro" substack people.

The article was mostly talking about suckers who get lured into putting out content for free but in fact there exists an elite cabal who substack pays to write for them. The majority of their "big" names comes from people who were *already semi-famous to begin with* (you/matt)

From the conclusion

"

Substack’s business is a scam. They claim to offer writers a level playing field for making a living, and instead they pay an elite, secret group of writers to be on the platform and make newsletter writing appear to be more lucrative than it is"

So you are a member of said "elite secret group" (I think "secret" is a bit of a misnomer but still the theory still is that they pay people that are medium-famous to enter the platform and those people are wildly successful, meanwhile a nobody like the author has no real chance)

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But Substack ended up taking money from Scott and Yglesias, not giving them money.

Does the existence of superstar authors make fiction writing a scam? Musicians? If there were superstar Ebayers, would that make Ebay a scam?

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If Scott and Matt Y are representative of these elite writers, they are not getting paid, but insured by Substack, at a loss for themselves.

I never interpreted that Substack advertised itself as a level playing field in the sense that people consume articles regardless of the writer. Writers have their followers. They just arent filtered or paid more or less due to editorial choice, and theres no barrier to entry.

If there were many deals with fix high payments to writers that end up on average not generating such income, and they extended more than the first year where the insurance helps overcome skepticism and changes in lifestyle, then I would see the point of complaining. But even then, probably its not in Substacks financial interest to have such a scheme. Or if it is, I see no reason to think that for now.

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author

I see - it sounds like your interpretation is that Substack's "deception" is luring big names to its site (who then make money organically and without any further deception) because that makes ordinary people think they could also make lots of money. That isn't how I interpreted the article, but it seems more defensible than my interpretation.

It's still weird, though. Is Disney a scam because it pays famous actors millions of dollars to be in its movies, but the average actor who works for them will only get a small salary? Is YouTube a scam because top YouTubers make lots of money but most YouTubers make none?

I think in order to be upset over this, you would have to think that Substack was deliberately trying to trick people by spending lots of money recruiting eg Yglesias as a "loss leader", and hoping that the rubes his success attracted would make up the difference. But number one, they didn't spend lots of money, they gained money on net. Number two, the rubes will never make money meaning Substack will never gain money off of them. Number three, it seems like you would have to be very confused to think "one of the most famous journalists in the world, who's been doing this for 20 years, makes $380K on Substack, that means I will also make $380K on Substack".

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So here's the thing, people like you have about a 1/1 chance (because you were prepaid by substack) of being successful. This lures in a lot of people with strange and interesting ideas, who have each a 1/100 or so chance of making it big on the platform. (where big is $50k/year or more in subscriber revenue)

The real thing is that if there's 1000 Brians each one generates $4000/year in revenue, so $400 a year for substack, they worked 1000 hours for $3600, or about $3.6 an hour. Substack made $400k from these 1000 Brians, who weren't able to succeed but they (substack) didn't have to put in much work to get those 1000 cheap writers who had small followings. Maybe 1 of those guy's hits it big and has some unique thing like say my sweet dumb brain. https://mysweetdumbbrain.substack.com/?utm_source=discover who hit it big.

I remember doing a similar project on youtube where I got 30 people to make minecraft content and found that at the end 28 of them had 100-1000 subscribers and 1 had 50k and 1 had 140k subs. I figure substack works much the same way, you put in 100s of hours of work for the chance of hitting it big and being a big name, but if you fail and only hit it small the platform still profits but you personally fail.

Yeah the post they made had a vaild point and some invalid ones, I tried to focus only on the "you're making content chasing a lottery that's stacked against you, you aren't Scott Alexander or Glenn Greenwald, your chance of becoming the next my sweet dumb brain is not very high"

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> So here's the thing, people like you have about a 1/1 chance (because you were prepaid by substack) of being successful. This lures in a lot of people with strange and interesting ideas, who have each a 1/100 or so chance of making it big on the platform. (where big is $50k/year or more in subscriber revenue)

This is absurd. Your argument boils down to, "Don't do anything economically worthwhile, because people might misinterpret the reason for your success and waste their own time/money." Now, if Substack was advertising the success of big writers and obscuring the fact that they were already widely read and well-established, *that* would be something. But that doesn't appear to be what's happened here or even what's being alleged.

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Nah I think that most people should at the individual level understand the risk involved.

Substack is doing a great service.

I failed the tone badly and substack doesn't have an edit function

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>So here's the thing, people like you have about a 1/1 chance (because you were prepaid by substack)

Either Substack is paying their writers secretly, in which case the public assessment is that Scott wasn't prepaid and had much less than a 1/1 chance of being successful, or writers tell people that they got prepaid and no one forms unrealistic expectations about Substack because they can see that Substack is not offering them any prepaid deals. No one gets deceived here!

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Right, for some reason I thought that other than matt/scott most of the prepaid authors were secret.

If that's not the case then most people should realize that the odds of success are extremely low and you can do actually 1000 hours of labor and get paid $0-$4000 for it, not only that, it is the most probable result.

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Keep in mind, though, that alternative blogging locations are places like Blogger, Wordpress, Ghost, or Medium that don’t pay anything, and might charge you. Or Twitter, for that matter.

Writing for money is crossing a line between amateur and professional. But it reminds me of talk about “unpaid labor” which would seem to imply that paid is better.

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Exactly. If I publish something on my own web page, I am also "working for less than minimum wage". Should perhaps all non-professional blogging be banned?

Switching from my own web page to Substack would mean, in short term, that I wouldn't have to worry about setting up and updating the software; someone else does it for me, for free. Is that a bad thing?

In long term, it would mean that if I accidentally become a popular blogger, I could try to get some income, again with almost no extra work from my side. (I imagine I would go somewhere in the settings, activate some checkbox, provide my IBAN, and confirm that I have read and understood thousand pages of legalese.) Then I need to write an extra paid article once in a while, see if it works, and either keep doing this or give up. That sounds like a very cheap and convenient way to make the experiment.

Many years ago, it was also possible to get paid using Google AdSense, but these days the number of people generating tons of viral text is so large that if you don't do clickbait and SEO semi-professionally, your income will probably be something like $1 a year. With Substack, you can make more if you get one(!) paying subscriber. But that still won't be enough to quit your job, obviously.

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> I remember doing a similar project on youtube where I got 30 people to make minecraft content and found that at the end 28 of them had 100-1000 subscribers and 1 had 50k and 1 had 140k subs.

Nearly every human endeavour exhibits power laws like this [1]. It's naturally emergent, and there's nothing intentionally nefarious about it.

Maybe you think top earners should be partially capped and redistributed to the bottom, as with progressive taxation? Then again, that might partially destroy the value behind the platform. What alternatives do you have in mind?

[1] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Power_law

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Nah, I'm more saying that *person X* should strongly consider that the probability of hitting it big are really low, I agree power laws are what is going on here, but people should look carefully at power laws before deciding if they made the correct decision

I like substack, but I understand how it can blow up in your face

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1. I'm not really sure how going with substack can "blow up in your face" in a way that going with your own blog would not. Maybe you mean people who otherwise would not have written anything just wasted their time? I can maybe see that, but I think writing has plenty of cognitive benefits that make the investment worth it even if no monetary reward follows.

2. Your exact argument is why Scott almost didn't go with Substack. The point being, you can't always know upfront where you will end up on the power law spectrum.

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> Nearly every human endeavour exhibits power laws like this

I don't think so. The activities that exhibit power laws are primarily the ones where the whole world (or everyone with particular interests) follows the few most successful/famous/best individuals, and the individuals are not fungible: athletes, musicians (since the recording era), writers etc. Other professions have skill-based salary differences, but usually smaller, and not following a power law.

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