Subs? Stacked.

newsletters and social networks.

Nearly two years ago when I wrote one of the earliest features about Substack for the Times, I called it something akin to a new/old social network, a product I decided I would be using instead of Twitter, Facebook or Instagram. My thesis was basically “Tweet less, ‘stack more,” a half-baked plan for feeling better about the time I spend online.

I definitely failed at the whole “tweet less” part. (Who was I kidding?) But my biggest fuckup was missing the core strength of Substack. It is not a complete substitute for social media. It is both complementary, and yet seems in direct tension with, how social networks….work.

A brief history lesson, if you’ll indulge me:

  • Social networks like Facebook and Twitter have largely made money by selling marketers advertising space, and then placing those ads inside of our feeds.

  • People seemed to be okay with it (at least, initially). Over time, we amassed large networks of friends and followers. Those networks, or “graphs,” are quite valuable, but also are largely stuck where they are. The big companies don’t want to make it easy for you to pick up your graph and leave.

  • This kind of “capture” is important; as long as the companies hold your graph without making it too easy to leave, they’ve locked you into their ecosystem.

  • And the system seemed to work. FB and TWTR gave us hours of, uh, entertainment and the ability to communicate with our friends. In return, we let them make money off of those interactions. In other words, we allow the companies, not ourselves, the ability to monetize our personal graphs.

  • Enter Substack, and a resurgence of interest in the classic email newsletter form. Substack gains attention because A) it’s got big money and big names backing it, B) it’s dead simple to use, C) paid writing gigs are hard to come by and D) there’s no barrier to entry.

  • The idea catches on in greater numbers: Instead of letting the networks cash in on our time, attention and connections, Substack (and others like it) makes it simpler for writers to make money on their own web of connections. Their own Graphs.

  • Email newsletters become….hot again? Or at least the field sees a new influx of entrants, flooding in alongside the other, longstanding email newsletters with already large, existing user bases.

  • The influx of people realize the value of a different, key Graph: The email list.

  • As we can see, my email list belongs to me, is not stuck inside Facebook and can be exported to go with me wherever I want. Moreover, if I start charging for my newsletter, I’m the one who makes money, not Facebook. (Substack takes a ten percent cut for its trouble.)

In essence, I see the resurgence of the newsletter — and really, the ascendant power of Substack — as the rise of users and writers taking back the power of their own personal graphs and networks. For writers — especially writers trying to eke out a living — the email list portability is crucial. And it’s certainly more attractive for writers to make money from their words rather than cede those dollars over to a social network to stick ads in between their posts. (I’m calculating how much money Twitter has made off of the endless stupid tweets I’ve posted and it’s making me depressed.)

Even better is the simplicity of the email list as the key graph: Everyone has a fucking email address! But not everyone has a Facebook account, and even fewer still have a Twitter handle. The email address is the lowest common denominator of the consumer internet. And hence, the perfect component of creating a personal graph.

~A brief side note: The power of the email list has been obvious for some time to a great many folks who deserve credit for doing this long before venture capital came into the picture. That’s certainly true for Ann Friedman, Helena Fitzgerald and many other women who were early to the newsletter boom using services like TinyLetter and MailChimp. (I got beat up for it, deservedly, at the time I wrote the NYT substack piece for failing to mention them. Kaitlyn Tiffany later had a good overview of the landscape and history of newsletters in the pre-VC era.) ~

It is the dynamic between email newsletters and how social networks and publishers view them that I currently find interesting. I think Facebook and Twitter worry about the rise of an independent, personal graph — the email list — that isn’t reliant entirely on the power of their respective social networks. People already kind of have these graphs in their Gmail address books, but haven’t really put them to good use. Imagine how powerful one might be if they actually made their email addresses work for them! Imagine how worried the social networks could be?

To be clear, the initial relationship between social networks and Substack is symbiotic, not antagonistic. When I first created this newsletter, I blasted it out across Twitter to 160,000+ people (and probably a lot of bots). That has hands down been the biggest early driver of signups.

But what I wonder about is the moment when we might find it less necessary to spend time posting to Facebook and Twitter and more to our own independent email networks. Perhaps one day we start thinking “why am I tweeting all these thoughts out in public when I could be charging for them over email?” Maybe we’ve been giving the milk1 away for free for far too long, and need to start charging for it? Maybe I spend too much time “marketing myself” in dumbass tweets?

I think the social networks see this coming. Twitter, to its credit, already acquired Revue, a newsletter company, and has even explicitly it wants to keep Twitter as “a better home for writers,” bundling Revue with Twitter. Facebook, too, is hard at work on building its own Substack-y type tools as well.

I also think this is going to be a growing issue for traditional news publishers and magazines home to many writers; they, too, want to own the email list, rather than hand a base of subscribers over to a writer who can up and walk out the door.

But to be clear: The power is still overwhelmingly in the hands of publishers and social networks at the moment. They have the audience and name recognition, they have the built-in networks and readership.

I also think making an actual independent living from substack subs alone will be deeply difficult for many writers who don’t already have huge followings. In that sense, they’ll need the power of their social graphs more than ever to even hope to build an email list. “Star writers,” or celebrity journalists, will have a much easier time striking it out on their own if they come with that built-in base of fans willing to pay for their stuff. But again, that following needs to be huge to end up with a substantial amount of revenue; the amount of people willing to pay for your thoughts in a newsletter is far, far smaller than the amount of people willing to put up with your thoughts on Twitter.

Still, the tools for self-publishing and independent distribution are proliferating. Writers are starting to catch on, however late it may be. And the biggest networks and purveyors of media are watching closely.

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Thanks for reading. Sorry it’s been a while since I last posted. I love feedback, so email me if you have any. (unless you just want to call me names. Then you can skip it.)

lastly, a note on music: listen to the Black Pumas if you haven’t yet. reminds me of early, non-bad black keys records.

1

I’m not sure if I’m the cow in this metaphor and my tweets are the “milk,” but you get the idea.

day four

san francisco

Wake up around 7:30 a.m. after going to bed late last night around 3. Stayed up watching “World War Z” and “28 Days Later” because i’m a masochist. I lost count of how many times I heard the word “virus” and “infected” in both films. (I don’t recommend watching either right now.)

I immediately grab my phone and see a bunch of notification for Facebook. Some guy I haven’t seen or spoken to in 11 years decided to play “devil’s advocate” in the comments of a post I wrote last night. I expressed frustration around the photos of people crowding into bars and parties in the wake of the outbreak. He decided to give the flipside of that argument, and insult my “faux outrage.” I vaguely recalled him liking to pick Facebook fights years ago. Some people don’t change much. Time to de-friend his ass.

I take the dog outside and head to get a coffee. Hypocritical, I know. But I justify the coffee by thinking I want to support one of the local businesses I visit every day. It is the one pleasures I give myself right now. (I imagine they’ll be shuttering stores throughout the city soon, anyway.) I have a routine for every time i leave the house — which is primarily to take the dog for a walk — to minimize contact with others:

Next to my front door is a travel bottle of hand sanitizer. I take that with me along with a fistful of paper towels if I need to open any doors or touch anything. I keep track of when I have to touch something and use the hand sanitizer in between those moments. Soon, I’ll buy a pair of gardening gloves so I can ditch the towels. I haven’t used an N-95 mask yet, but we’ll probably get there soon.

Two weeks ago when the news started getting more traction, walking outside didn’t feel much different than a normal day in San Francisco. BART and MUNI might have been a bit more empty. But people were still going to bars, restaurants, shops.

This morning was different. The gravity of the situation is sinking in. Stores are mostly empty, save for lines out the door at Safeway, Whole Foods, Walgreens. My favorite coffee shop is a fraction as full as usual. Half the people I pass on the street are wearing masks.

Went to the pet store to get dog food on the way home. Woman came in, full mask, leather gloves, rubber boots — like she was heading to clean up a biohazard. She practically jumped back away from me and Bruna when I finished paying. My instinct was to be offended and mutter “GFY”, but I know I shouldn’t think that way anymore. I’ll shift my thinking from “Go Fuck Yourself” to, like, “Good For You,” I guess.

I’ve mostly been working for the past 16 days straight, which feels good. Keeps the brain occupied, and frankly I feel like I can actually do something beyond sitting and watching CNN all day. I’m collecting stories from peoples lives about how things are going down. Will start helping the National desk, heading out and around San Francisco to collect stories from the community. I’ll be looking like the Pet Store biohazard lady at that point, I’m sure.

To that end, if you have examples of things that could be stories around the coronavirus — whether they’re tech related or just interesting in their own right — I’m all ears. Don’t respond to this substack email, send me a note at my work email: mike dot isaac at nytimes dot com.

Talk soon, i’m sure.

mike

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listening:

reading:

#SuperPumped

the book is here

hey kids,

I’m convinced half of all blog entries involve some turn of the phrase, “i promise i’ll begin posting more often.” Mine is no different, but I’m sure I’ll say that again by the next time I update.

In any case, after two years of intense reporting and five years of covering the company, my book, Super Pumped: The Battle for Uber, is out now in the U.S. and U.K.

I cannot tell you how thrilled I am to be able to share this with you all. It’s a book on Uber, but dare i say it’s also much larger than that. It is an artifact of this moment in technology, and how we think about the products and companies of Silicon Valley that shape our everyday lives in ways we are only just beginning to understand.

If the first 25 to 30 years of technology coverage was characterized by a sense of hope and optimism, I believe we’ve entered a new era of tech criticism, a moment where we’ve realized that a small patch of suburban Northern California has had an outsized impact on the shape of global politics, the vicissitudes of our fast-changing culture, on the flow and structure of digital discourse, and on how we navigate the physical world.

Most of all, we’re beginning to understand that even with the best of intentions, technology can be a corrosive force, as fast-growing companies usher in a host of unforeseen side-effects that can bring about as much societal damage as they do progress.

I believe Uber is the avatar for this shared moment, a company characterized by hubris and excess, great heights and stunning new lows; i believe Uber forced us to look at what we expect out of technology, and how future generations of founders can build the next wave of startups while trying to attempt the pitfalls of the past.

I’d be honored if you purchased the book, here or in your local bookstores, and if you enjoyed it, please leave reviews on Amazon and GoodReads:

Amazon Page for Super Pumped

GoodReads Review Page for Super Pumped

Thanks to all who have supported me and the making of this book. And additional thanks to every one of you willing to buy the book and read this insane story. I truly hope you enjoy it.

And if you can, please come out to any one of my upcoming events across the country (and beyond!):

https://www.mike-isaac.com/events

— Mike

Mike Isaac: Cruisin' USA

it's book tour time, baby

hi kids

been a minute since i wrote a newsletter, so im gonna have to start doing that again. frankly, i blame twitter.

but on to more important things. namely, a chance to hang out IN PERSON, TOGETHER, for my BOOK TOUR!

my book on Uber comes out September 3rd in the United States and the United Kingdom (PRE ORDER IT NOW) , and i’m doing a tour to promote it. yes, i will actually leave my house, something that will be difficult for me, a hermit who loves nothing but his dog and the tv.

for real though, i’d love to meet you and hopefully say some interesting things about Uber, tech and Silicon Valley writ large in a series of conversations i’ll be having with authors and journalists around the country. we’re doing roughly a dozen dates in the U.S. plus a few in London, and I’ll continuously be adding to my events page on my website as we schedule more through the end of 2019 and into 2020.

Details below:

more info available on the EVENTS section of my site, below, and I’ll be updating it regularly as we get closer to the tour with addresses, conversation partners and links to ticket sales. (some of these tickets will go fast, so hop on ‘em!)

https://www.mike-isaac.com/events

if you want to come out and buy a signed copy of my book — plus shoot the shit with me in public, or possibly call me names and yell at me if you dont like my coverage — it would mean the world to me!

ta ta for now. i promise ill blog more things that are (slightly) less self-promotional soon.

nothing bad can stay

the impermanent internet

thesis: the permanent social internet is dying. the impermanent social internet will need to replace it. and it will be even more difficult to make money on such an internet than it was before.

first, a bit of history.

facebook, twitter and the like were largely predicated on the idea that people actively desire a record of their activities online. in 2011 or so, facebook rolled out "Timeline,” basically a roadmap of your entire facebook life. most product development thereafter focused on documenting interactions between users and assuming FB’s customers would enjoy these things. the word “canonical” came up a lot when i spoke to execs back then.

this kind of internet, as it turned out, also happened to be convenient for building a business. if facebook knows everything about you, it is easier to sell ads against you. and pretty much every product on FB was built to extract as much information about you as possible.

now, these companies are in a pickle. as facebook matured, we discovered the unintended consequences of living a life online. an errant, ignorant tweet from our teenage years can get us fired—or worse, canceled. our parents could have created an entire instagram dedicated to our poopy-diaped years without our knowledge or express consent. forget running for office if youve ever tweeted about, like, anything.

I cant remember at what point my posts started becoming a liability rather than a rich text of my life. it was probably around the time G*merg*te happened and the gutter of the internet started weaponizing peoples’ pasts against them. or when i started writing about reddit for the nyt, and some of the more vicious, men’s rights activists types decided to go after me. (MRA’s are the true shitbags of the web. try to never invoke their ire.)

the bottom line is that we dont want our histories to come back and fuck us.

Evan Spiegel, for all his faults, realized this early on. (he’s a very guarded, private person, which shaped his idea of the kind of internet he wanted to create for himself.) ive long believed the creation of snapchat was largely a response to a post-Facebook world, and the ideas around the permanence of putting our lives online. it was a stroke of genius from evan, even if ultimately not an enormously lucrative independent company.

that’s where we find ourselves now—evan’s world. people are beginning to post less publicly online. even Mark Zuckerberg has said as much. “In 2019, we expect the amount of Stories that are shared to outnumber the amount of Feed posts that are shared,” he said, referring to Facebook Stories. (fb and IG stories are FB’s blatant ripoffs of Snapchat.)

This is a big deal. Facebook’s moneymaker has always been the News Feed, filled with 15 years of posts, photos and status updates. but in an impermanent world, the fewer so-called “organic” posts that appear in the Feed—meaning, the stuff you or i post on our own accord—the fewer paid ads facebook is able to insert between them. (the company has basically already maxed out on stuffing FB and Instagram feeds with ads, anyway, so this only compounds that problem.)

so what to do?

to Facebook’s credit, the company is mobilizing fast. Zuckerberg is all in on stories (poor snapchat!); he’s created a stories product for every property he owns—Facebook, Instagram, WhatsApp— and is promoting the hell out of them. It’s impressive to see an enormous company turn on a dime like this, and few orgs at Facebook’s size would be able to do this so quickly or effectively.

there’s one more big problem: Making money off of Stories is not as simple as making money from the News Feed. the advertising formats are fundamentally different. it’s easy to skip a story ad with a tap of the finger. you don’t linger on the image or video as long when you realize it’s an ad. and the less time you spend on ads, the less Facebook gets paid. that’s a remarkable contrast to how much time people spent lingering on news feed ads.

here’s an example: snapchat, which has been impermanent from the very start, ended 2018 with a little over $1.1 billion in annual revenue from its different ad formats. Facebook, by contrast, raked in more than fifty times that amount, some $55 billion, most of that coming from news feed ads. that is an insane amount of money. but it is also based on a permanent internet, one that is quickly going away.

so we are left with a few questions. as people realize their digital pasts are a liability and post less frequently, are some of these companies going to grow smaller and less lucrative? will facebook — the biggest social network on the planet — end up shrinking? will those annual revenues dry up?

and what happens to Twitter, the absolute furthest behind in terms of any and all product development that deals with an impermanent internet? (in my mind, twitter is super fucked if it doesn’t start testing different versions of itself to experiment with ephemerality. but god knows whats going on over there these days, since it takes them 3+ years to formulate a plan to deal with its harassment problems.)

anyway, food for thought. those bullish on FB will cite the company’s ruthless and efficient history of execution. they’ll believe that new, innovative advertising products are yet to come, and that they will make the company stronger (i.e. richer) than ever. those bearish on FB will probably look at the enormous amount of flak it’s taking from literally every regulator around the world, and wonder if it will be broken up into parts. or maybe people are actually pissed off enough right now at the numerous scandals and data leaks that they’ll actually delete FB en masse. (i doubt it.)

this newsletter/blog post—as is the case with blog posts—is permanent, so i will eventually have the benefit of hindsight to tell me if i was fantastically wrong. or, as is often the case with the internet, we will undergo another enormous shift with how people carry out their digital lives.

maybe i’ll delete it later.

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it is saturday and it is raining, so here’s some travis:

https://open.spotify.com/track/1OpO3L2VnUF90tWFWtC7y4?si=um9Q8NQsSeu3DihLJV9LbA

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