This Week In Discourse - Some worrying signs
Subscriptions are in trouble. Twitter's worse than ever. What's a blogger to do?
In which your intrepid internet liaison confronts his fears and insecurities before emerging victorious out the other side. It’s the Week in Discourse!
Jeez, there’s certainly a lot of people dooming about the future of subscriptions-for-content online. TechCrunch is closing down its TC+ subscription product. Time Magazine dropped its paywall last year to move back to an ad-supported business. In fact publications as far and wide as WaPo, Quartz, The Atlantic, the Chicago Sun-Times and more have all backed off paywalling and requiring subscriptions because those models aren’t working for them. Stratechery notes that every streaming service other than Netflix has enormous churn. Even Substack - where ‘sub’ is literally in the name! - is piloting a new program around ads.
Reading all this panic about the dying future of subscriptions for written content has been just great for my mental health.
The piece that clawed me back from the edge was a post by Ryan over at Garbage Day. He notes that plenty of subscription services are doing fine, both big and small. The NYTimes and Netflix are still doing gangbusters on the giant end of things. Smaller sites like Nebula, Defector and Dropout have built profitable, sustainable niches. And Substack is still growing, so there must be some kind of market here.
Day also notes that ‘subscriptions’ isn’t even a single business model:
There are three: binge, access, and parasocial. They overlap with each other — and, honestly, a good subscription business consistently offers all three — but none of them really behave the same way.
For instance, a few years ago, I learned that the binge model works best for me. I paywall more content, whether it’s in weekend digests, my Discord server, or at ticketed live events. You pay me, you get more. After talking to other newsletter writers that paywall scoops, or access, however, I discovered that they tend to have much bigger spikes in paid conversions, but their churn tends to be worse than mine. Which makes sense, they get a good scoop, readers pay the monthly fee to read it, and bounce. At the same time, I will (probably) never have the kind of consistent subscriber growth of a YouTuber on Nebula or a podcast on Patreon because I’m not a niche internet celebrity.
Speaking as a writer here - It’s a weird business to be in. I throw this content out there with the hopes that some of y’all find it interesting and worthwhile, and maybe you toss a couple bucks my way each month. To sweeten the deal, people tossing the bucks get regular subscriber-only posts. That’s the bargain.
It’s exhilarating at times. I get to be my own boss, set my own schedule, and write what I want to write about. The blog has grown continually since I started it nine months ago, and I’m extremely happy with that. But it’s also terrifying. The site doesn’t make anything near a livable wage yet - Infinite Scroll is growing, but it’s just not there at this point in time. And if it fails, there’s no external force to blame other than myself. That’s the yin and yang.
Part of the reality of making content online is that it’s what some economists call a ‘glamour industry’. Like being an actor, a singer, or a professional athlete, there are a huge number of people who like to do it, who attempt to do it, but only a tiny percentage of those folks will ever make it big. The median basketball player doesn’t even make it to college basketball, much less the NBA. The median actor isn’t George Clooney or Zendaya. Hell, the median actor isn’t even a regularly working character actor with bit roles on some TV shows. The median actor is a waitress or bartender in LA who’s done a couple commercials and then eventually gives up on the dream and moves back home. The returns all go to a very small percentage of superstars who make it huge, and the other 99% exist on the margins or fail outright.
I’m still reasonably optimistic that there’s a future for a ‘middle class’ of content creators, bloggers and podcasters who don’t have an audience of millions but who do have a dedicated niche or just enough fans to sustain them. That’s both my cold-hearted, independent analysis of the situation and also my desperate hope as one of the people who would really benefit from a middle class like that existing.
We’re not there yet with Infinite Scroll, but the trajectory is still upwards enough for me to believe it’s possible by year two or three. I do want to give an enormous thank you to all the paid subs, for making all this possible. And if you want to become a paid sub, now’s a great time! There’s a paywalled post coming tomorrow - my review of Kyle Chayka’s new book Filterworld.
Very, very disappointed in Filterworld. Why does almost every book written about the internet suck? Sub to find out tomorrow.
Twitter Bot Problem
Something else that’s worrying me: Twitter, in the last couple of weeks, seems to have fallen off a cliff in terms of quality.
The bot problem is getting bad. At this point I’d estimate about half of ‘popular’ tweets are spammed with M Y N U D E S I N B I O spam bots - and by popular, I mean a tweet with as few as ~200 likes. The bots are everywhere. The scheme to use paid verification to stop bots has failed utterly - tons of these bots are verified and paying the fee. A report found active networks with thousands of bluecheck spambots amplifying each other and flooding replies with either garbage AI responses, scams or nudes. The problem is so severe you can actually trick them into swarming posts artificially.
The site is genuinely flooded with this stuff, and while you can block/ignore them to some extent, it’s absolutely degrading the experience. There are some posts that devolve into bot-responding-to-bot nonsense, just a parade of AI generated vomit being cycled around. Elon’s entire supposed purpose for getting into this racket was to fix the spam, and he seems to have given up entirely. At some point you have to wonder what the bot operators are even getting out of this, what their business model is - The Information speculates it’s about stolen credit card rings.
On top of the spam, the site has seen an explosion of racism unlike anything I’ve ever seen in the last two weeks. I’m not going to do a lot of linking here, but I will link to a tweet I put out saying “Hey, sure has been more racism than usual?”. If you want to punish yourself, read the replies to that completely neutral post. If you really hate yourself, click the hidden replies for some of the most unhinged racism you’ve ever seen. Partially this is a result of my particular algorithm - a couple of big accounts I regularly interact with starting fighting with racists and so I’m seeing it more now. But it also seems to come from the top - Elon Musk is now replying to white supremacist site VDARE and spouting racist Great Replacement conspiracy theories. And yes, he really means it.
The whole thing is depressing. I’m someone who genuinely enjoys Twitter, insane as it is. I’ve always enjoyed it, and watching it slowly go down the toilet is awful. To echo some of the anxieties from above, it’s also where I make a lot of connections and generate a significant amount of blog traffic from. From a selfish standpoint I feel like I can’t really leave… but increasingly I’m thinking the day is coming when I’m going to have to. I don’t know if that means becoming a Threads poster - Meta has declared they won’t algorithmically promote anything political, which really harshes my vibe there. Maybe it means I need to jump into TikTok? I’ve always been more of a written word kind of guy as opposed to a video guy, but perhaps I just need to suck it up and do what the kids are doing these days?
Sad times either way. Twitter is getting worse, and it won’t even be a slow death. It’s got quite a lot of bad, awful phases left.
Is Social Media Just a Phase?
There’s a really interesting essay from Bryne Hobart about whether the ‘social’ in social media is actually a permanent feature of online activity or whether it’s a phase. It’s worth checking out. Essentially, Hobart notes that a lot of the ‘10s were spent trying to social-fy every online experience, and that rarely worked out. Google Plus bombed because people didn’t want to integrate social into other Google experiences like Gmail, Maps, etc. AirBnB was envisioned as more peer-to-peer and social, but quickly realized that full-time professional AirBnB managers were the dominant business play, not people renting out a spare room a few times a year. You get the idea.
More generally, something I’ve been thinking about a lot is how social media seems to be bifurcating into two distinct experiences. On the one hand, you have gigantic sites that exist as few-to-many broadcast tools in support of parasocial rather than social relationships. YouTube, Instagram and TikTok all fit this mold. They aren’t really ‘social’ in the true sense of the word. They’re just a replacement for traditional TV and magazines. You can still follow your friends on these sites, but the direction they’re trending is towards professional content creators and armies of non-posting followers, not peer-to-peer interactions.
On the other hand, you have group chats, Slacks, Discords and Telegram groups that are increasingly private. These are ‘social’ in the sense that they are built around friend groups or common interests, they foster community, and they are true peer-to-peer social communication. But they’re not really social media in the classic sense - they’re walled gardens. They don’t broadcast to the world.
There are still services that sit in the middle and try to do both - have both giant famous content creators AND small-time friend to friend communications. But increasingly it seems like the growth is at the ends, and the middle’s getting squeezed out. I’m curious if the comment section has also noticed this trend, and how you’re dealing with it.
In Which I am Very Mad at Rebecca Jennings
Rebecca Jennings had two pieces for Vox this week, and I’m mad. To be clear, the pieces themselves are great. But sometimes a piece is so good that it actually makes me upset that I’m not the one who wrote it, and that happened twice this week. So go to hell Jennings, stop being so goddamn smart and insightful all the time. Save some for the rest of us.
The first is on the pressure to have a TikTok presence for people who are not traditional social content creators. Jennings is mostly talking about authors and artists, but as mentioned above that’s something I’m also feeling acutely as Twitter dies and I try to figure out how else I’m going to funnel new readers into Infinite Scroll. It’s a great piece about how quality isn’t really enough any more, and you need to be in self-promotion mode all the time if you want to make it in many of these industries.
The second is about how social media has changed our language as everyone tries to coin new terms and name new trends. Jennings calls this ‘trendbait’.
Right now, language is exploding on TikTok. It is kind of beautiful until you understand why. With every scroll, new terms compete for space in your brain: “orange peel theory,” “microcheating,” “girl hobby,” “loud budgeting,” “75 cozy.” They are funneled into the collective consciousness not because they are relevant or necessary but because random people have made videos inventing these terms in the hope that the wording will go viral. The other day, I saw one where a guy was like, “Does anyone else just love a ‘dinner and couch’ friend? Like, you just have dinner and then you sit on the couch?”
This is absolutely true. A thousand years ago, when dinosaurs roamed the Earth, catchy phrases were coined by professional writers. Only a few years back, those phrases were coined on social media but as part of an accidental creative process - think about yeeting, on fleek, yaaaaas, TFW we stan and slay, or any other 2010s coded internet slang. But these days, it feels like people are really trying their hardest to purposefully coin the next phrase.
Yes, they’re literally trying to make fetch happen. Except instead of fetch it’s ‘beige flag’ or ‘pre-asking’ or ten thousand varieties of girl-trends.
This sort of thing is harmless on the surface, but I do worry that we’re fucking up young people by spamming them with a never-ending series of Types of People that they should emulate or conform to. There will always be cultural archetypes and young people will always try to form groups where they fit in. But increasingly it feels like that process has gone into hyperdrive, and I don’t think it’s good for kids to view the world through pre-determined Types of People as much as they do on social media. It feels like a constraint on growth that limits one’s understanding of the complexities of the world, and reduces people from actions and inner choice into a bland set of pre-determined boxes from which there is no deviation.
Tucker Carlson flew to Moscow to interview Vladimir Putin. He predictably embarrassed himself, and not just in the “doing this at all is embarrassing” kind of way. He repeatedly, obviously tried to get Putin to say NATO was the reason Russia invaded Ukraine, but Putin kept ignoring him to rant about 800 year old Russian history lessons.
The latest in weirdo trad accounts - DignifAI. It’s an account that uses AI to put clothes back on women. Last week I pointed out how much the Very Online Right draws from incel culture, and I keep being proven right.
Bluesky has opened up, and anyone can join. A lot of the usual tech commentators are taking this as a Big Step Forward for Bluesky, but I suspect this finally happened because they realized that even if they open fully, they still won’t get deluged with signups. I’m still bearish and think they may have missed their moment by not doing this faster.
If you forget your Apple Vision Pro password, the only option to reset is to physically haul your butt into an Apple Store. Great system. In other news, a very particular kind of guy is mad that VR porn doesn’t work on the headset, calling it a $3,500 chastity belt.
A frank interview with one of the people filling the internet with AI-generated spam.
Adin Ross, fresh off being scammed for six figures by a famous rapper, has once again been scammed for six figures by a different famous rapper.
The latest new thing? Fake AI drivers licenses to fool identity verification services.
Charlie Warzel on Evidence Maximalism.
An outstanding short story - Why don’t we just kill the kid in the Omelas Hole?
A fun game of combinations. Very neat, would explore again.
Streamers really need to clean their room
And finally, you’ll never in a million years guess what they named Cinderella in Dutch. See you next week.