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Bold Substacker Cuts Out Middleman! And...Accidentally Promotes Hate.
Ted Gioia demonstrates both the good and the bad of having no gatekeepers
Image: Luca Sartoni, CC
Ted Gioia, jazz critic, sf critic, and all around cultural polymath, is one of substack's biggest writers, and one of its most indefatigable boosters. Last week, he wrote a typically enthusiastic post in which he talked about his path to self-publishing success, and encouraged the bold and visionary to join him in sticking it to the legacy media gatekeepers who borify and stultify sincere, honest writing.
Gioia is an engaging writer, and his post, "How I Disintermediated My Writing Career" is entertaining even if it at time veers into self-help exhortation. He makes a good case for the virtues of self-publishing on the web in general and on substack in particular.
He also, unfortunately, demonstrates the kinds of errors you can stumble into without gatekeepers. Worse, he shows that the ugly failures of the white male establishment media are often mirrored in self-publishing. If we want our culture to get better, it's going to involve, not just feel-good rebellious self-boosterism, but a certain amount of less exhilarating care.
Gioia's case for self-publishing is straightforward. When he had to publish through legacy media outlets, he had to deal with editorial gatekeepers. That meant he spent a lot of time "'pitching’ stories to editors, arguing over word counts, and dealing with all the behind-the-scenes turmoil of pleasing people who weren’t my actual audience."
Gioia has wide-ranging interests, but he was pigeon-holed as a jazz journalist, and had difficulty getting editors to let him write about science-fiction, literary fiction, and all his other interests. Social media, and eventually platforms like substack, gave him a chance to talk about whatever he wanted, and he ended up discovering a large audience for his work. He frames his success as a valedictory, ongoing, defeat of stodgy, controlling legacy media outlets. "Every year, legacy media outlets shrink a little more, and alternative channels grow a lot more. Just do a simple trendline extrapolation, and draw your own conclusions."
I've been doing freelance writing for twenty years now, and Gioia's argument has a lot of truth to it. Writing for editors can really suck. Editors sometimes meddle with your prose just because they can. They often turn down weirder or more idiosyncratic passion projects. They also engage in a good bit of political gatekeeping. I've had pieces killed when I told editors I was a prison abolitionist. I've had editors delete my work from their site because right wing fascist trolls emailed them lies about me. A senior editor at the Washington Post at the last minute killed this piece about how Tucker Carlson directs far right harassment at leftists and marginalized people. No explanation was provided.
Blogging on my own site, on Patreon, and eventually on substack has given me a chance to write weird things I couldn't write elsewhere: reviews of obscure poetry chapbooks, commentary on academic papers on polarization, a long piece on Kafka and how no one owes you hope. Sometimes I even publish my own poetry. Whatever! And some number of people seem to enjoy it and maybe comment and even pay me. It's cool.
The Less Good
There are some real downsides to self-publishing though. In the first place, if you're a terrible speller like me, you’re going to make a bunch of embarrassing errors. (Did I spell “embarrassing” right? I think so, but I’m never sure…)
More broadly, when you self publish, you're not just a writer—you're a marketer, and a business analyst. When someone commissions me, I just write the thing; I don't need to worry about if it's popular or if anyone reads it. When you self-publish though, you've got to look at who reads what—and then you have to decide whether all those weird things you write for your own enjoyment have an audience. It's fun writing reviews of obscure poetry chapbooks, but if that's all this blog was, my readership would be...well, lower. Probably lower enough that I wouldn't be making any money. And while I do write some things for no pay, if I wrote everything for no pay, I wouldn't get paid. The cats would suffer.
Also, having done this for twenty years, I can say with some certainty that, contrary to Gioia's narrative, self-publishing isn't necessarily a path to influence, fame, fortune, or even a stable income. I cobble together gigs here and there and work on various self publishing platforms. I make a living, but while some people are certainly blowing up and becoming major influencers in the teeth of the stodgy gatekeepers, I am not among them. Whether I write for stodgy gatekeepers or for my own platform, my audience is perhaps more than I deserve, but nonetheless modest. The substack is an insurance against the ups and downs of freelancing...and freelancing is an insurance against the ups and downs of the substack. Sometimes, as over the last couple of weeks, when neither the freelancing career nor the self-publishing platform has been doing well, I wish I had insurance on the insurance..
And as I've noted before, self-publishing can be even more a treadmill than freelancing; there's always something else you can write, some more work you can put in, in the hope that you'll grow your followers or convince a few more people to hit that pay button. Gioia's been extremely successful—and I'm not sure that extremely successful people really understand how much of a grind self publishing can be for folks who are less fortunate.
The other problem with cutting out the gatekeepers is that not every writer uses their platform responsibly or thoughtfully. Careless actors, or outright bad people, can amass huge followings via algorithm/luck and then use their power to spread disinformation or worse.
Gioia’s essay unfortunately, and inadvertently, highlights these problems. In order to illustrate the power of self-publishers and the dwindling relevance of gatekeepers, Gioia tells an anecdote about Youtube creator Pewdiepie.
I recall the amusing story of YouTube star PewDiePie who got into a dispute with legacy media. He later told how the Wall Street Journal came “knocking on my home address offering me ‘a chance and platform to defend myself.’”
This was a ridiculous offer—because PewDiePie had seven times as many subscribers as the Wall Street Journal. Of course, that was a few years ago, and the gap is much larger now.
So if you want to know the benefits of disintermediation, just mull over these numbers.
· PewDiePie subscribers (current): 111 million
· Wall Street Journal subscribers (current): 3.7 million
Gioia's description of the conflict around PewDiePie is extremely misleading. The main people criticizing PewDiePie weren't indiviuals at "legacy media." They were marginalized Black and Jewish people. And they were criticizing the Youtube creator for repeatedly using racial slurs (including the n-word), and for promoting far right content to his 111 million subscribers.
Aja Romano at Vox—one of those gatekeeping media companies —explained PewDiePie's history of slurs. She also discussed his promotion of a white surpemacist, racist channel and his connections to an alt right Youtube culture dedicated to normalizing racism and antisemitism through ironic anti-establishment posturing.
PewDiePie’s endorsement of the E;R channel continues a long trend of the vlogger using his influence in a way that helps to normalize white supremacist alt-right rhetoric to an alarming — and, on YouTube, increasingly widespread — degree. He does this by casually incorporating it into his videos under the guise of shock humor, then shrugging off any offense as an “oopsie” when outcry ensues. In 2016 and 2017, for example, PewDiePie faced intense backlash for multiple instances in which he promoted Nazi symbolism and anti-Semitism, including a video where he used a racist slur during a gaming live stream.
Is PewDiePie a Nazi true-believer who is trying to sneak hateful content into his videos? Or is he just an irresponsible dipshit who doesn't care whether he's spreading hateful content or not? It doesn't really matter. PewDiePie doesn't have to deal with gatekeepers, and he has used that freedom to spout the n-word and promote virulent antisemites to his large followers. Gioia's utopia of independent thought looks a lot like the same old bigotry we've come to expect from mainstream outlets, dialed up to new heights.
And what about Gioia himself? Was he unaware of the nature of the controversy around PewDiePie? Or did he deliberately downplay it and mischaracterize it in order to celebrate the supposed awesomeness of independent creators? I'd prefer to think that he just didn't know. Again, though, the intention is less important than the result. And the result is that Gioia is promoting what's essentially an alt right narrative; brave spewer of antisemitism and racism fights legacy media outlet and wins. (The alt right has their own very ugly ideas about who controls legacy media outlets, of course.)
How Different Is the New Boss?
Many larger substacks hire editors, and Gioia may do that as well. But an editor at legacy media might have urged Gioia to google PewDiePie, or pushed him to be more transparent about the actual controversy about PewDiePie's content.
Or an editor might not have done that; legacy media outlets often support more buttoned-up versions of PewDiePie—as in the NYT's disgraceful anti trans coverage. Old school media has some safeguards, sometimes. But they too are often dazzled by power and influence. They too often get so caught up in their own narratives that they fail to do basic fact-checking, or use circumlocutions like "a dispute with legacy media" to massage away inconvenient details.
I'm not arguing that Gioia is a horrible person, or that he made an unforgivable error. I enjoy reading Gioia's substack; I think he's well intentioned. But I think self-publishers and their readers would do well to cultivate skepticism towards anti-establishment boilerplate. When it comes to the issues that really matter—like rejecting hatred, for example—self-publishers aren't necessarily all that different from the legacy media they claim to be overthrowing. It's not exactly a coincidence that so many of the really big self-publishers—PewDiePie, Joe Rogan, and Ted Gioia too—are from the same white male demographic that rules most boardrooms at legacy media outlets.
New tools for self-publishing create a lot of exciting opportunities. But ultimately real change requires collective action to empower everyone—not least marginalized people. Making a better world requires more than railing against the old boss, and more than just switching business models. The revolution may not be reported at legacy media. But I’m skeptical that it’s going to be blogged for monetization either. Certainly it won’t be vlogged by PewDiePie
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