Last Call

from the 03.11.22 recording session


The Gang is on a mini-hiatus this and next week, so I’ve been exercising some of Substack’s new tools. Some days ago I posted the most recent Gang in full, switching off the check box that sends the post to both email subscribers and users of the Substack Reader app. This produces a newsletter entry in the app but appears to suppress a notification, which is what I was looking for. Even better would be a switch that archives the post and takes it out of the Inbox. Even so, Substack’s move from newsletter to subscription platform is way ahead in the refactoring of social media.

Elon Musk’s foray into Twitter politics seems relevant to this social platform. The mainstream media is all over this stuff, not just the news networks but CNBC and other business outlets spent much of the last week on Elon this and that. The coverage moved the war and Trump right off the lower thirds, only to have the free speech absolutists reinject Trump as what would happen if Musk was successful in acquiring the company. This is an eyeball calculation on the TV side, but it’s a short term sugar high as Trump’s luster dims due to the fact that nobody really cares outside of the Base’s 30 percent. If the media is dragged screaming and streaming into the subscription economy, then the real innovation is the analytics, notifications, and mobile transport of subscriber list relationships with a smaller but increasingly influential audience. In effect, Twitter has more to fear from Substack than they do from Musk.

Fear is really not the right word. It’s opportunity that is driving this equation. The quality of the subscribed relationship is in its ongoing handshake with the subscriber. It’s much like the fundamental of the Cloud, where what have you done for me lately is the motive power of software as a service. In the Substack Reader’s case, the support for RSS as an integration tool for non-Substack producers encourages the adoption of notification services of the IOS client. How does Twitter & Company counter the move to Substack without supporting a (relatively) open integration technology? It accelerates the portability of Twitter/Revue newsletters as a cooperating service rather than just abandoning the older platform.

What happens if Musk succeeds in forcing Trump back on the platform? Not much: I’ve already started looking for a route-around for messaging services. Substack sends an email notification when someone comments on a post. The platform lets you constrain creating comments to subscribed users, but you can read them regardless of their origin. I haven’t checked yet whether the email notifications could be replaced or augmented by IOS notifications via the Reader client, but if (when) it does, it offers an integration path to multi-OS tools like Slack as a hub. The percentage of Substack readers coming from the Reader app is slowly growing as notifications click right into a video, comments, and replies. The app-only release of the Hey Bulldog post so far has resulted in 67% of the viewers coming from the Reader app. Parenthetically, it would be nice to enable Substackers to click directly from the Reader to the Dashboard and its analytics data.

A month from now, when Twitter/Musk is about as played out as the Slap is, we’ll still be looking for good streaming material on our big screens. Netflix seems to be running out of gas (more in a minute), crypto is grooming a new set of suckers to fleece, and I’m waiting for an electric van with a Mercedes engine. Masks may be optional on public transportation, but the science for me and my granddaughter suggests working from everywhere is the bet to place. Speaking of Coachella, Doja Cat is something to behold; she brings a new aura to eclectic. Lucky for me, Snoop Dawg is becoming an elder statesman of not just hip hop but anything else on TV. His voice is somehow soothing as he delivers the calm authority of You don’t need to get this in order to get it.

MSNBC is in big trouble with its Rachel Maddowless infrastructure. This month she’s Monday through Thursday, in May a single Monday a week, and then what? CNN is plusless; 10,000 viewers made the newsletters look like mainstream media. Clubhouse and Twitter Spaces are circling the new media drain, and podcasts are the OGs. It reminds of the music business just before the British Invasion. Or an episode of This Is Us where we cut back and forth between Yesterday, Today, and Tomorrow. It’s peeling back the Butcher Cover, kids.

Yet things are oddly not to worry. After giving up on cool post citations and repetitive topics, the newsletter format is turning into a free for all mashup of irritating paywall plug-pulling and methodical thought leadership. Nobody mainstream is keeping the fort operational, what with the mix of armchair generals and Trump whisperers on the bus empty-handed back from Florida. The Gang is on hiatus because we are being torn apart from within. The gambit is free speech, and it doesn’t seem to matter if the virulent right is getting all the benefit of the doubt. Looking past the political effectiveness of the perpetrators, eventually social media is going to have to take its medicine. My thought is: leave that up to the marketplace. Which brings me to why do I like Twitter if it’s fomenting all this egregious crap.

Well, this cesspool of lies and grievance is really not all that new. I didn’t like Republicans much back when and even less now. Now that I have a grandchild, I should be more susceptible to the right’s argument that we’re bankrupting the future. But every time I see who lines up on the side of suppressing votes, overlooking criminal behavior by the most hated President in history, you know the spiel… This is not complicated, but the subject keeps coming up. I’ve tried everything: logic, teasing, more logic, subtle withdrawal of affection, and now this hiatus. But why Twitter?

Twitter is a marketing paradise. You can tune your stream to reflect the signals you feel are important to the rest of the universe, regardless of the real possibility of reaching anybody at any given moment. It’s a magnet for the ideas, jokes, and reminders that fill our lives, together with the constant offer of free access to the hive mind. That may not sound all that useful, and it certainly does not assume any sort of viable business model — but it’s free and if you don’t use it, you lose it. That was enough in the early days when we were just screwing around, but now it’s a part of our DNA. That’s not a fact; it’s just how I feel about it. And not coincidently, that’s why I am writing this on Substack. It’s slightly better than yelling back at the TV. In fact, it is now the TV.

In the old days, my dad used to take us for a ride on the Staten Island Ferry. At 15 cents, it was the cheapest ride in town. Toss in some hot dogs and cokes and fresh sea air. If you could make it here, you could make it anywhere. But the real business model was unencumbered access to my Dad for two and a half hours. Same with Twitter, the cheapest ride in town. The true cost of social media will be negotiated by the Absolutists on both sides of the divide.

Twitter was a daydream that proved too big to fail. Now the Street suggests Netflix is too big to succeed. Somewhere in the middle is where these lines intersect. Twitter v. Musk is pitched as the culmination of what happens when hippie morons get rich. None of these guys are morons: not Musk, not Dorsey, not the social surfers and market makers. They’re only reflecting the stakeholders, which is us. YouTubeTV + Coachella + free paywalls is where the market is voting with its feet. Netflix can do just fine with an advertising tier as long as they continue to provide full-season drops of 10 or so hours. Free paywalls means scoped analytics and a structured flow of permissioned notifications. The Substack Reader is a honey pot not just for content but for momentum trails. We may be flying by the seat of our pants, but we’re much more well instrumented.

Far from misinformation, these are high octane fluctuations in opinion and emotional underpinning that drive pursuit of the implications of these surges. On the product side, it’s feature prototyping and realtime testing of uptake and noise reduction. In these early days, roughly two thirds of newsletter posts are skimmable, but the cost of triage is onerous. The most successful of these practitioners follow some basic rules: don’t promote, provide. An interrupted thread may attract interest, but delivering value grows with repetition. The relationship reaches a turning point where the calculation is made that this source is worth the dropping of less consistent value. Often the failing media sources can be replaced by attrition, as weekly series are aged out by multidrop strategies. Like few Twitter threads, the forks (1883) are better than the initial foothold into the stream (Yellowstone.)

News programming is under stress not because it’s advertising based but because it’s implacable in time management. Talking head roundtables produce little new on a day-to-day basis. The same experts offer the same analysis and very little traction with the politicians and celebrities they’re trying to influence. But don’t worry: the voters will deplatform them in the primaries. How many never-trumpers does it take to screw in a lightbulb? The most successful of these personalities on CNN and MSNBC are cutting back from daily shows to weekly and alternate media formats. What the newsletter/podcasting studios understand is that the audience has a certain window of time they can commit to in aggregate. Social media, and in particular Twitter, offers a flexible notification-based stream of data that replaces an advertising frequency model with a need-to-know sponsored relationship.

Repetition does not necessarily lead to respect, especially if the information comes wrapped in an aura of ineffectual hidden agendas. And the time freed up by jettisoning legacy media will inevitably flow toward more responsive platforms that are given permission by the audience to include them in the editorial structure of the programming. In the wake of 3rd party tracking across the Web comes a more purposeful ecology of user permission in return for trusted services.

The full video is for paid subscribers