Why this is not a paid newsletter
I’m in the throes of writing a post on the political economy of AI - it’s not going to be ready this week, and it will be a bit of a beast. I’m guessing it will end up somewhere just north or south of 4,000 words. That is an unusually long piece, but then, this is an unusual newsletter. And deliberately so.
This newsletter is currently hosted by Substack, an aspirationally for-profit entity with a business model. That business model is to get writers to (a) grow an audience, and (b) monetize that audience by charging a subscription fee, from which Substack can rake off its 10% cut. I’m not at all sure that it is going to work out for Substack, but it’s a reasonable set of trade offs for the author. The platform is clean and easy to use. There aren’t any obtrusive ads, though there are features designed to ‘encourage’ writers to go into pay-mode, and readers into pre-committing that they will pay up. I’m grateful (and mildly embarrassed) that enough people have said that they would pay for this newsletter, that I could turn it into a modest little sideline if I wanted to.
But - and again I’m enormously grateful for people’s generous pre-commitments - I don’t want to. I’m lucky enough to have a great academic job, which comes with an expectation that I’ll engage in public dialogue. This is one way that I can talk to people outside the academy. I can imagine radically changed life circumstances in which I might turn to a paid newsletter (I certainly don’t see anything immoral in paid side-gigs that don’t interfere with your ordinary responsibilities, and sometimes do them). But I’m much happier doing this for free.
I was struck by this paragraph from a new interview with Casey Newton, who has recently left Substack:
I think you and I both wanted to live in a world where reporters could just roam free, write whatever they wanted, and it would all just work out in the end. And I think for a long time, it did. I think we’re now in this worse world, where, in order for the media businesses to work, whatever you’re reporting and writing, somebody has to want to pay you $10 a month or $100 a year to read it. So I’m happy with the state of things for us, but I also acknowledge this is not the ideal state of tech media.
If you rely financially on your readership, you necessarily have to think a lot about how to attract and retain readers, and get them to pay. Algorithms and profit models pull people relentlessly towards common obsessions on common topics, very often expressed in commonplace ways. Sometimes writers can break against this: if you have deep knowledge on certain topics, people may be willing to pay to hear what you have to say. But for most people, the incentives are not to do anything very surprising. Cosma Shalizi and I have a forthcoming article suggesting that even our conspiracy theories are becoming standardized by search and social media.
I’m very lucky because I don’t have to worry about conforming to the needs of the attention market. It’s an enormous privilege to be able to write whatever you want, and have good reason to expect that it will indeed just work out in the end, because your income doesn’t depend on what you write. I can write a 4,000 word newsletter, even if it might drive some readers away. I can talk about the topics that I’m genuinely interested in, not the topics that I expect to generate clicks and subscriptions.
Because I’m not looking for money, I can write a newsletter which is self-consciously weird. It talks a lot about AI, which is a hot topic, but it talks about it in an off-kilter way, drawing on different sources, debates and ideas than most people who talk about it. And it can jump into something completely different when I feel like it. None of this is how you build a consistent brand. That, in a sense, is the point. I don’t think there is nearly enough high weirdness on the Internet, and I’m trying to be the change that I want to see in the world.
I can completely see why many people mightn’t want to read this newsletter. In fact, it’s a bit startling that there are significant numbers of people who do. But I quite like the imagined relationship I’m building with readers. If you grow bored or annoyed with me, you can unsubscribe, without any fuss or sense that you’re hurting my livelihood, or even my feelings. Or you can keep on subscribing, if you like what I have to say sufficiently to put up with a new email every week or so, and read regularly, or dip in or out as seems good. I do wish I had a little more time to talk to people in comments. But creating a good self-sustaining comments section would take time and energy that I can’t consistently spare.
So in short, I write in large part because I want to write. If you like what I am writing, consider it a gift to you. And you, in turn, are giving me the gift of your attention. But neither side incurs any deep obligation, which lowers the stakes and the pressure.
It’s very possible that I’ll move off Substack at some point soon (I am in the throes of getting a personal website redesign, and will port over email addresses and turn this into a Wordpress based newsletter if it isn’t too much of a hassle). I’ve been happy with the service, but not super happy with some of what senior management has done in the last several weeks. Still, don’t expect this ever to turn into a paid newsletter for the reasons I’ve laid out. Thank you - and more next week!