The Curtain 097: The Digital Media Ecology

How Substack perpetuates a power law. Plus: deformin in the rain, ASMR bee movie, and more.
The Curtain mailing list
Gus Cuddy
S02-09 (Issue 97)

Hello all,

Hope you’re having a great week.

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# Substack’s Power Law and the Digital Media Ecology

Like many other writers, I write and send this newsletter out via the Substack platform. Over the last year Substack has become immensely popular, the punchline of many jokes on media Twitter: “watch out, so and so is going to leave their job and start a Substack.” It’s a bit odd: Substack is just a service that allows you to easily send out newsletters, built specifically around writers. Nothing special. Mailchimp/Tinyletter have been doing this for many years. Writers don’t have “substacks”, they have newsletters hosted on Substack. Where Substack “innovated” is in how easy they made it for writers to monetize. There’s other services out there that do the same thing (I’m looking at Buttondown myself), but there’s no question that Substack has remained supreme. So supreme, in fact, that big tech like Facebook and Twitter have decided to start their own newsletter services. But at its core, Substack’s quest to empower individuals has led to a media ecology with just as much inequality as before.

I’ve written about Substack several times, most notably last year when huge writers like Glenn Greenwald and Matt Yglesias switched to the service. That signaled a larger trend in digital media, an “unbundling” of institutions to individuals. That unbundling, of course, is fraught with many questions. Notably: what role does Substack have as a publisher versus just a platform? Are they responsible for the writers they attract? It might have been easy for them, at one point, to claim Silicon Valley’s classic neutrality stance. But as the high-profile writers making the switch added up — and what they stood for became more clear — the mood started to shift. Clio Chang wrote a negative profile last year coining the term “Substackerati” to describe the clique of writers joining the platform: typically, they were outspoken against “cancel culture”, some of them displayed disturbing anti-Trans attitudes, and they positioned themselves as finally finding “free speech” outside of their respective stifling institutions. Oh, and they were all already hugely successful and popular.

Now it’s come to light that Substack has been paying many of these high-profile writers huge advances to leave their jobs and join the Substack platform, under what they’re calling “Substack Pro”. In her piece, Chang writes that “adherence to neutrality only enforces existing power structures” — Substack has merely taken the existing power structures and transposed them onto their platform. This “rich get richer” model mirrors the current economy. Worse, they deny that paying writers what amounts to a lucrative, six-figure salary is in any way an editorial or publishing decision, maintaining that they’re simply a neutral platform. There’s been a lot of takes going on around this; people are understandably upset. Jude DoyleDan HonAnne TrubekEmily VanDerWerff and others all wrote good pieces.

I’m especially disturbed by the power laws that Substack helps enable. The internet deals in mostly extremities: there isn’t much room for nuance. What’s popular gets more popular; what’s not popular remains unpopular. Despite promises of egalitarian decentralization, much of the modern internet has proven that a middle-ground doesn’t exist: you’ve either made it, or you haven’t. Substack determines who gets “Pro” treatment based on how many Twitter followers and how buzzy (for good or bad) a writer is. This widens the gap between successful writers and struggling writers; inequality spills out onto the internet in the ways in which we define power. Perhaps most important is who the “we” is that is defining that power: companies that promise to revolutionize, decentralize, individualize, commoditize are still largely founded and made up of white men. The rules of the game haven’t fundamentally changed.

As the future comes barreling forward and different digital media (and art) ecologies emerge, it’s going to be more and more important for us to enable the voices that haven’t been heard, empower those who haven’t been empowered, and have deliberately chosen values. I worry that the web just moves in endless cycles, each spiral gradually unearthing more problems, and each problem solved with a tech-bro solution to the problem that opens up ten more problems. The root cause is never arrived at; we’re constantly scrapping for new ways to make a “creator economy” or “monetize writers”, companies popping up to offer band-aids to problems that other companies created years prior, all instead of asking why we got like this in the first place.

# notes from the week

deformin in the rain

Film scholar Jason Mittell’s new article, “Deformin’ in the Rain: How (and Why) to Break a Classic Film”, is really something. In it he takes Singin’ in the Rain and digitally “deforms” it in several ways, chopping it and skewing it into “audiovisual artifacts” to provide new insight into video art. In all, Mittell tries on six different ways of working with deformation: still frames, motion, shots, speed, space, and sound. I enjoyed Mittell’s mixture of scholarship with experimental bonanza; he prioritizes GIF loops and even tries on different popular memes, like speeding things up every time someone sings the word “dance” in the “Broadway Melody” dream ballet:

(The originator of this meme gets another mention in this newsletter - “The Entire Bee Movie but every time it says bee it speeds up by 15%”)

It’s a fascinating way of “getting inside” the nature of video art.

asmr bee movie

Youtube ASMR people, a community which I don’t really understand but am fascinated by, got together and made a 95 minute “cover” of a canonized classic: Bee MovieThe result is… wild?. You’re supposed to watch it side-by-side with the original Bee Movie, which is the kind of ambitious, insane artistic project that I’m here for.

But I’m also intrigued by what Matt Webb wrote about the project on his blog, referring to this idea of “neuro-divergent media”:

What if there were neurodivergent-optimised versions of all media?

Not just ASMR Bee Movie but taciturn and slow-paced superhero movies, for people who are easily overwhelmed, like French New Wave meets the Marvel Cinematic Universe, or for completionists, speedrun Netflix Originals where each episode is only 3 minutes and expunges narrative irrelevant to the overall season arc, with everything fitting together neatly at the end.

# End Note

Circular art piece by Shane Drinkwater
Art by Shane Drinkwater

That’s all for this week—thanks so much for reading!

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