All I Want Is a Place to Quip
Some people claim Twitter is dying. If so, there is nowhere else to post quips online.
If you’re very online on Twitter (which I must unfortunately admit that I am), then you might be freaking out. Elon Musk’s takeover of the service has produced chaos, or at least the impression thereof. It’s not entirely clear to me what, if anything, has really changed on Twitter, save for a lot of people freaking out about the supposed arrival of such change and the fact that it dooms the service to oblivion.
In the wake of this, some are trying to abandon ship. The threat of leaving Twitter (or Facebook, or any service) has always been empty, mostly a social signal. There are even stock jokes about it: Threaten to leave, post your goodbye, wait around to watch the comments come in, then don’t leave after all. The narcissism of departure.
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Among writers, Substack, where I am posting this, offers one alternative. Substack has long encouraged writers (and podcasters, and other mediatized social-network addicts) to jump ship to their platform because it offers the ability to “own your audience.” By which the company means that you can control your list and monetize your content, but also that they get a cut.
This story is so very not new that it’s even boring. In 2020, just as the pandemic was raging, Substack invested piles of money on advances for well-known writers, journalists, and other creators, luring them to this platform in the hopes that some would succeed—both for their own benefit and for Substack’s. The benefits of “owning” your audience are substantial, no doubt. Knowledge of who has expressed interest in hearing from you can help you tune your message to their needs or desires. The ability to target them directly, rather than through a mysterious and changing algorithm, offers control and certainty. An email list is portable, too, because email is a universal identifier. All of these things are true.
Some Substackers did succeed; others flamed out. Substack likes to send me emails about the ones who made it, sometimes sharing the six-figure incomes they are making on the platform (the top Substackers make even more). Most don’t, of course, because that’s how the power curve works. At bottom, this platform’s economics are no different from Instagram or YouTube or TikTok: Many come, few profit.
The Twitter-to-Substack pipeline was always important. When I first signed up for the service, just to see how it worked, in 2019, I had enough Twitter followers that Subtack’s internal systems flagged me and I got a personal message from Hamish McKenzie, a Substack co-founder. We did a Zoom that fall, before Zoom meant what it does today, and he was pleasant and everything was fine. I still didn’t start a blog here.
By this spring, Substack had a developed a whole audience team, and one of them got in touch with me again, because of some tweet I’d posted that got shared in their Slack. She was also very nice, and the sell was the same: Own your audience, monetize them if and when you want to, and so forth. But I still didn’t begin writing here.
There were reasons. Profit is not the only reason to publish. It’s not as if whatever all of us are doing on Twitter is profitable, after all: It’s essentially impossible to monetize your supposed attention capital on that service, apart from tips and “superfollows” (which few do) and links off-service (which few follow). Twitter is kind of a black hole for fiscal value, in fact. Nobody gets back even a fraction of what they put in.
I am also fortunate enough to have a real writing platform at the best American magazine, The Atlantic. When I write there I get access to the magazine’s platform, audience, and editorial team, which is incredible. They pay me to write, albeit perhaps not as much as I could hypothetically make if I could activate and monetize my audience effectively, and if I could do so over time. But then, I also have a real job as an endowed chair and program director at a major research university, along with my design and consulting business, and so forth. Ekeing another few grand a month out of the collective “you” who have read 700-words down the page might be nice, I guess, but it’s not my top priority. To do so, I get the feeling that I’d have to write, you know, blog posts, and that sounds like a lot of work—and a kind of work I’ve lost the taste for.
Blogging, I mean. Listen, I had a “home page” in 1995. I blogged all through the 2000s, on more than one site. Substack’s promise—own your audience and monetize them—isn’t new; there were blogging networks and ad service and all the rest back then. Then social media overtook blogging, and the audiences decamped, and here we are.
But the style of blogging also died, at least for me. I’d never be allowed to write 820 words (so far) of ramble at The Atlantic, because we write to respect our readers’ time. This isn’t writing to help people, it’s writing to give me the pleasure of having written. Nothing is wrong with that, but also, something is kind of wrong with that, given an alternative. If I have something worth writing about, I’d like to do it as well as possible, with the support of developmental, structural, line, and copy editing, for professional production and dissemination to hundreds of thousands of millions of people. I’m lucky to have that option, sure, but having it means I have it, which makes opening a newsletter on Substack more mysterious a task for me than for others.
And that’s where Twitter comes in. The reasons I “like” Twitter—and I do not, but I am compelled by it—are fairly prurient. It offers a tight and addictive attentional feedback loop. I have a lot of followers, relatively speaking, even if the service’s algorithm feels like it withholds commensurate engagement from me.
But mostly: Twitter embraces a delightful format offered nowhere else: One-liners, in the form of 280-character-constrained posts, with optional links and images. I love this format, both as a native way of expressing myself and as a companion to the aforementioned, highly privileged, storied American magazine platform for which I can write longform.
I wasn’t going to worry about this too much, but it really does seem like people might be decamping from Twitter. I’ve lost a modest fraction of followers (okay, look, less than 0.5%, but enough to notice). Whether they should or not leave is debatable, and I suspect the deactivations will level off and cease—most people just don’t care in the way the very-online Twitterati do. But even so, there’s new risk, and I haven’t covered that risk. That was the problem Hamish originally tried to sell me a fix for here.
The problem is, how could you cover the risk? There is no alternative. Some people are moving to Mastodon, a distributed, federated Twitter clone. But it’s finnicky and mostly empty, a refugee camp for the most irritatingly online of the irritating onliners. No thanks.
But Substack, as you can tell (1,164 words in) offers no constraints similar to those imposed on Twitter. This was, back in the day, the great joy of blogging: the unedited ramble. But not only has that mode of writing fallen out of favor, but also I don’t even remember how to do it. The thought of writing 500 or 700 or 1,200 word newsletter posts for the people who previously consume my 10-word quips seems like a terrible joke, like designing a vending machine that doles out 10-course Jean-Georges meals. What even.
I’m calling this a “micronewsletter,” for lack of a better frame for it, because I have no intention of ever having a newsletter. If this works out, I’ll post short things, probably random ones, and you’ll consume them. This is, by the way, a terrible strategy as per Substack guidance. The company tells me that I’m supposed to specialized, and that offering a clear and coherent benefit that gives my subscribers clear and immediate value is the best strategy for Substacking. Something like, “Leading economic indicators in East Asian markets,” or “Advanced macrame strategies” or “How to build a fort.” Constitutionally, I am not capable of offering you any such appeal. It’s just not how my mind works. I’d be better off if it did do!
Micro or no, the work involved in setting up a newsletter is substantial. You have to give it a name. You need to upload an image, and a “wordmark” and a cover photo. Substack demands an “About page” that “should explain in detail the benefits of reading your publication.” Reader, there are no benefits. I am shitposting! You have to write an email that goes to subscribers when they subscribe. Thanks, I guess, or I’m sorry? I don’t know what to tell you. You need to choose a theme, including colors and display styles. I have almost given up on the whole affair several times over the course of writing this post, and I might still not make it. I’m just tired, friends, and there’s always more to do.
Then there’s the itch. I feel some shame, to be honest, in offering myself an out by assuming that any of the hundred thousand plus supposed humans who supposedly follow me on Twitter might want to follow me anywhere else. Isn’t that a presumptuous thing to assume! But of course, life online is mostly presumption rolling downhill toward anger.
So that’s what I’m doing, I guess. I’m running an experiment in risk coverage. I have no intention of publishing a newsletter of the sort that people typically write on Substack. I hope never to write a post this long ever again, unless it’s for The Atlantic, in which case it will also have a thesis and editing. But I’m at least a little concerned that the very short-form writing we once called “microblogging” and have since written off as chaff may be at risk. That would be a bummer, because I like that format even more than I like the feeling of people liking it.
How does one end a blog post? I don’t even remember. Subscribe, I guess, if you want to put your name in my database. If I can figure out how to perform the writerly identity I’ve come to enjoy on Twitter, and if that platform does fall apart completely (which I somewhat doubt!), I’d like to keep doing it in some form. Oh, right, I remember how to end a blog post, I’m supposed to do a “call for response.” So, have at it. Would you sign up for quips and not posts? Would you, a nutcase, pay for that shit? Is the infrastructure of this service even conducive to the kind of witty banter that Twitter makes so easy? Do you feel subordinated by relegation to mere subscriber or commenter? I love you for reading this far, you are an angel, I wish upon you a well-timed, refreshing beverage.
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Specialized or not, I’m in. Although if you wanted to pivot to say, 10,000 word tear-downs of viral game mechanics placed in historical context - well, I wouldn’t be offended.
Good to see you here, Ian! Long time fan of your writing. I'm looking forward to reading your newsletter. Cheers!