Discover more from Not Not Rocket Science
Hello, Patreon: Substack and the Zuckerberg-Dorsey two-step
I'm leaving Substack until they quit this tired dance
I’m writing to you all from my couch, where I am enjoying the first day I’ve had with no to-do’s on it for… well, I don’t recall, so let’s just say it’s been a while. This past week was a busy one in general (I spent the Monday through Wednesday in the NASA Astrophysics Advisory Committee meeting, and Thursday/Friday trying to catch up on everything else), but mostly I’m tired because I had my first dose of the vaccine on Saturday! Which I am very, very excited about— albeit in a lying-on-the-couch sort of way. But seriously, aside from being a little tired, I feel great, and I hope everyone gets their vaccine as soon as they can.
Unfortunately, I’m not really writing you all just to share this cool vaccination news— I’m writing because I’m switching platforms after Substack’s editorial choices— to support transphobic, abusive creators, and use the income from marginalized writers to do so— have come to light.
Yeah OK, there was a lot in that sentence, so let me break it down.
For the past several years, we’ve all been in the midst of a big debate over the role and future of journalism, the differences between social media networks and news sources, and most saliently, the responsibility of platforms for what transpires on their service. Even the use of the word “platform” or “service” has been up for debate— those words are the preference of companies like Facebook and Twitter, who have been emphatic that they are merely vessels of information, neutral serving platters that bear no responsibility for the extensively documented ways they are weaponized to sow disinformation, target people for harassment and abuse, and any number of other things. Facebook and Twitter are of course not the only companies whose hand-wringing has been in the news, of course— where would we be without YouTube and its Frankenstein’s monster of a recommendation algorithm, responsible for radicalizing so many people? The list goes on, and actual journalists have covered this phenomenon very well, in a lot of places, far better than I can here. Personally, I really enjoyed the podcast Rabbit Hole, which gives a compelling dive into how these forces influence so many people’s lives:
So What’s Up with Substack?
Many of these debates are about who should simply be able to use a particular platform— for example, Trump’s continued use of Twitter (until it was not so continued). But in the case of Substack, it’s not so much the “who can use it” question that concerns me (after all, I use Twitter, and all kinds of people I don’t agree with do too).
I recently learned from this post by another Substack writer, Jude Ellison Sady Davis, that Substack has been providing significant advances to a number of writers— effectively making it possible for those writers to, well, write. Full time, and then some. Substack has been very opaque about who has received their funding (more on that in a moment), but choosing to pay anyone selectively amounts to a specific editorial stance, however murky. As Annalee Newitz writes:
By doing this, Substack is creating a de facto editorial policy. Their leadership -- let’s call them editors -- are deciding what kinds of writing and writers are worthy of financial compensation. And you don’t know who those people are. That’s right -- Substack is taking an editorial stance, paying writers who fit that stance, and refusing to be transparent about who those people are.
“Oops, All Assholes”
Except that actually, we do know of at least some of the people Substack paid.
More from Jude Ellison Sady Davis’s excellent piece (emphasis mine):
Substack has become famous for giving massive advances — the kind that were never once offered to me or my colleagues, not up front and not after the platform took off — to people who actively hate trans people and women, argue ceaselessly against our civil rights, and in many cases, have a public history of directly, viciously abusing trans people and/or cis women in their industry.
Glenn Greenwald started his Substack by inveighing against trans rights and/or ACLU lawyer Chase Strangio, is currently using it to direct harassment at a female New York Times reporter, and has repeatedly used his platform to whitewash alleged rapists and domestic abusers. Freddie de Boer is an anti-“identity politics” crusader who became so infamous for harassing colleagues, particularly women, that he briefly promised to retire from the Internet to avoid causing any more harm; he’s currently using his “generous financial offer” from Substack to argue against “censoring” Nazis while pursuing a personal vendetta against the cis writer Sarah Jones. Matt Yglesias, who publicly cites polite pushback from a trans femme colleague as the Problem With Media Today — exposing the woman he named to massive harassment from Fox News and online TERFs alike — reportedly got a $250,000 advance from Substack. It’s become the preferred platform for men who can’t work in diverse environments without getting calls from HR.
Those are just the assholes. Increasingly, Substack is tolerating and funding extreme trans-eliminationist rhetoric: They host Jesse Singal, a high-profile supporter of anti-trans conversion therapy who is also widely known to fixate on and stalk trans women in and around the media industry. I would list Jesse’s targets, but at this point, I don’t know a trans woman in media who doesn’t have a story. Graham Lineham is a transphobic bigot so extreme and abhorrent that he’s been permanently banned from Twitter, Medium, and basically every platform but the one I’m using to talk to you right now. He reportedly considers Substack a major source of income.
This Dance Sucks
I don’t earn much from Substack, but it does help me— the funds that some of you contribute allow me better ability to contribute to causes I care about, and supports the work I do outside my job description (e.g. mentoring, organizing, a lot of my public outreach and speaking), which is unpaid. I have enjoyed Substack’s interface, and the fact that there’s the ability to distribute the newsletter for free. What I want more than anything is for Substack to fix this situation, but it doesn’t seem like that’s all that likely. Which is a shame, because they had (and have) other options:
I and other writers on Substack (including my friend Chanda Prescod-Weinstein, who brought Jude Doyle’s post to my attention, and whose sublime book you should buy immediately) are now in the position of having to decide to stay or go. The “right” answer is different for different creators, but here’s what I’ve decided to do: currently, anyone with a paid subscription to this newsletter is now set to complimentary access. If you are an annual subscriber, please reply to this message if you would like a refund, and I will gladly refund you. And also:
I originally joined Substack to share my writing; I love to write, and wanted a place to put work that wasn’t neatly packable into an article pitch to have a home. But writing is only a fraction of what I do, and more significantly, it’s only part of what I want to share with others on the internet. In the past few months, I’ve been making some moves towards creating some new art, new opportunities for conversations about the things I love, and more. I’m not totally ready to share details yet, but those plans promise to be more interactive and fun than just reading an essay here or there (which is strong language from me, someone who loves to read every essay, here and there). Sure, I guess I could link a video or audio recording into one of my newsletter posts, but it’s not really what Substack was designed for.
But, it IS what Patreon was built for.
In the coming months, I’ll still be sharing writing— but I’ll also be doing Live Chats/Q&A, personal updates, and as I get fully vaccinated and return to my aerial gym, I’ll be sharing some new creative movement work too.
The only drawback of Patreon is that you can’t follow me for free— BUT, I’ve tried to price tiers so that it’s cheap, and if $3 is still more than you’re willing to pay, you can also scroll down on the join page, select “Make a Custom Pledge” and send me a dollar. You could even then send me a message on there that says “give me that dollar back” and I will do it.
Thank you all!
Lastly, if you’re a Substack writer and thinking about what else is out there, click through for this excellent thread of alternative choices, tailored to what your needs and dreams are.