On the Road

(beep beep yeah)

Jul 16, 2022
∙ Paid

It’s starting to look like the midterms may shape up into a real change in the Senate. Those in the Democratic Party who fear the loss of both houses of Congress are heartened by Trump’s desperate attempt to announce his 2024 campaign just in time to poison the Republican attempt to shake off the attempted coup. This leaves ample time to rubberneck the Twitter buyout by Elon Musk, which still looks to me like a negotiation on price. Although I’ve long been a Twitter fanboy, I’m finding a lot more to be thankful for the ecosystem being built out by Substack. The term newsletter may be where this bus came from, but its destination is at the convergence of streaming, new and old media, and the struggle to save democracy.

Substack’s iOS Reader client is the tip of the iceberg in this realignment.1 It may just be a small startup’s attempt to rationalize the power of blogs, podcasts, streamed video, and social community, but somehow the potential of this platform massively exceeds the machinations of its nearest competitor, which of course is Twitter. Its capabilities include a notification system that alerts subscribers when new content and comments are released, an embedded video component that gives off analytics about views and number of minutes spent viewing, support for podcasts, audio narration, and the beginnings of a social cloud based on recommendations. Settings tools like free video previews extend the paywall to blur the distinction between what is above the line (visible to all email, browser, and Reader clients) and below the line (only available to paid subscribers.)

You can imagine where adaptations of Twitter tools could enhance the Substack platform. @Mentions of paid readers could create cross talk between influential members of other Substacks; the metrics of those groupings could inform leaderboards and be extended to create paywall permissions across newsletters. Twitter itself is coming in the opposite direction with its integration of the Twitter Revue newsletter authoring acquisition and the announced TwitterWrite 2500-word post tool. The instability of the Musk possible acquisition and Twitter’s lawsuit cloud the company’s ability to resolve what Musk has described as the need to migrate at least some of the market toward Substack’s subscription model. But Substack has its own challenges in managing the current market downturn while maintaining innovation.

As a viable class of media creation and distribution tools, the Substack/Twitter impact on the mainstream news media could be substantial. In effect, the January 6 Hearings can be seen as a limited streaming series with significant impact on the small group of centrists that may decide the outcome of the midterms and set the stage for the next presidential race. The cable news networks are busy fighting for ratings of a broader and more diffuse audience than the one that actually decides the election. The integration of video and audio commentary in Substack, however, suggests attention is being paid to a different calculation than one based on eyeballs and recycled partisan headlines. Instead, the fundamental is the establishment of a relationship with an audience looking for signals of engagement and connection. If the advertising model creates the audience as the product, the subscription model creates the analytics as the product.

The paywall becomes the arbiter of a new coalition, not just of the value of the subscription payment but the authority and trust engendered by the behavior of that influential group. Their investment is one of time, voting for production of insight that validates the acquisition and effective sharing of that stream in decision making. It’s akin to the old trade publishing space where I made the transition from record producer to tech editor. Back when magazines were printed on paper and just before they moved online on CompuServe, the price for a subscription was filling out a questionnaire designed to speak to the reader’s impact on tech buying decisions. This also was the birthplace of what is now known as the influence sphere.

Filling out the form was a very creative (i.e. fictional) exercise, in that many of the questions posed were about technologies you only might know about if you actually worked in that area of the technology business. Main frames? Lotus Notes? Netware? These were foreign languages with special characters you’d only encounter in computer science labs or on the job. But then there were a few products that came with toy applications like HyperCard where you could just pull yourself up by your bootstraps and learn by reading… and doing. In the case of Visual Basic, it wasn’t free but the whole platform was available with manuals for about a hundred bucks. Even cheaper than that was a free subscription to a magazine, where you could learn enough to be able to fill out the form with a careful attention to how big is the organization you ostensibly work for. It depends of course on what the meaning of is is.

Substack trades reach for rich. No matter how big or small, the metrics of growth and time spent remain consistent across the in-play population the startup serves. As long as the trends and behaviors of Substackers remain accessible across readers, viewers, and authors, a self-perpetuating energy drives continued success of the platform. Independent and mainstream voices share common values—trust, transparency, fairness—attributes under stress in the social mediocracy we face. To paraphrase Churchill (?) we may suck, but less than the alternative.

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