The Failing Galaxy Brain

There are hundreds of us...*HUNDREDS!*

This is Galaxy Brain — a newsletter from Charlie Warzel about technology and culture. You can read what this is all about here. If you like what you see, consider forwarding it to a friend or two. You can also click the button below to subscribe. And if you’ve been reading, consider going to the paid version.

Welcome to Galaxy Brain, where we’re off to a very slow start.

I hate to say it but Glenn is right. After a whole ten days of entrepreneurship I can report that I am not newsletter millionaire. Nor can I afford to operate my aspirational dog sanctuary (despite Montana’s abundance of open spaces for canines to prowl). I am a poor now, which carries with it a heavy burden of filing newsletters between hopping train cars and setting fires in abandoned rail yards. The good news is that I’m no longer a member of the “upper class intellectual profession” so I am now legally allowed to be exhausted according to the IDW Matrix Of Legitimate Feelings. Who said downward mobility doesn’t have its perks!

And so we soldier on, bindles proudly placed on our shoulders!

Since you’re here, I’d like to use Glenn’s important media commentary as an update on this experiment.

Things are goin pretty OK here at Galaxy Brain Corp. We’re currently in the upper end of hundreds of paid subscribers, many opting to go yearly, which is a nice vote of confidence. I’m pretty humbled that in ten days I’ve managed to cobble together an income that will assure I don’t starve. But what is most exciting is that it seems to grow about the same rate each day. In other words, it feels sustainable! There’s no massive influx of people who come in for one thing who will likely leave the next month. The graph looks like this. No hockey stick, just sustainable growth.

But that is not good enough! You see, I am a “test case.” My leaving the New York Times was, as everyone knows, a Very Important Moment in the august institution’s almost 170-year history. To justify the move of trading a large platform for a ricketty newsletter, surely I must have had assurance that I’d make a truckload of money — and fast. This is a popular opinion. The day after I launched my Substack, Ian Bremmer tweeted that I would be making a million dollars annually within a year.

Personally, I find the speculation fascinating. I think it’s indicative of how nobody really knows how to value journalistic output. The media industry tends to undervalue its staffers relative to their contributions and most journalists I know underestimate their worth. Similarly, people seem to greatly overvalue institutions and their reach. Again, I remain a fan of the New York Times and admire my former colleagues there. The platform is powerful and can drive real impact. But I cannot tell you the number of people who assumed every column of mine hit a million-plus page views or drastically shaped public opinion — also not true!

Watching myself as a proxy for an Important Trend offered some good perspective on the shallow nature of most media punditry, where a handful of individual decisions, all made for different reasons, are portrayed as sweeping trends. The day of my announcement, I watched a number of people (many of them from Silicon Valley) suggest that my leaving heralded a true crisis for the Times and also prestige media institutions. The dam was about to break wide open. There were others that suggested I’d left because of internal strife. Adventures in confirmation bias!

The real reason I left wasn’t to get rich quick. If it was, I would’ve probably taken a lucrative Substack Pro deal. It also wasn’t a deep disagreement with the Woke Mob™ that runs the New York Times like some kind of Deep State©. If it was, I would’ve written a long, insidery introductory post about the paper and my gripes, which would have been in my best financial interest. I left because I wanted to build something new. Because I wanted to develop a closer relationship with an audience, which is hard to do at scale and while chasing algorithmic engagement. I also wanted to experiment — with form, with styles of writing, with seriousness and with engagement. To that end, I’ve helped launch Sidechannel, a Discord community I started with seven other writers. Over the last week, thousands of people have joined and so far it’s all incredibly generative, good faith discussion. Already I’ve been flooded with tips, story ideas, and really constructive pushback on the pieces I’ve written. I’ve probably never felt so optimistic about online communities. It’s exactly what I hoped it’d be.

After being trapped in Glenn’s mentions now for a few hours, I can safely say what I’m trying to create is the polar opposite of whatever it is he is doing. I’m currently in about six threads where Glenn is replying to legitimately anyone and everyone and seems to be in about a dozen distinct feuds. He appears to be a naturally occurring, renewable energy source for online outrage.

And outrage is very good for business. I know this from spending my entire professional career online and watching as tossed-off dunk tweets on sundry jabronies octuple the engagement I get on tweets for reported works of journalism I spent weeks on. This morning offered another good example. After Glenn’s tweet, I took in a few thousand dollars worth of subscriptions in an hour or so from kind souls who want to support me in order to clown him. To which I say: CANCEL ME, GLENN! DADDY IS THINKING ABOUT INVESTING IN SOME NON-IKEA FURNITURE.

Where were we? Ah, yes. Here is a tweet:

This is a pretty interesting admission, honestly! In his case I think he’s right that many of his subscriptions are a bit more of a cause situation than a transaction for services rendered (aka good writing). He is providing something valuable to an audience that you can’t get elsewhere (unless you include his ceaseless, aggrieved tweets) and that is a style of media criticism that doesn’t really seek to be productive (since there are many real, legitimate critiques of the media) as much as it wants to create a one-dimensional villain. In this sense, Glenn’s blogs don’t have to provide much in the way of content — they could be merely a righteous headline followed by grievance Lorem Ipsum. That, in and of itself, is a service in his own echo chamber that is worth paying for.

I’ll freely admit that there is some ‘support the cause’ quality to my venture. I think a fair amount of the creator economy is based off of good old fashioned patronage. But I also believe in the transactional part. And that’s the community bit. It’s why, once I end the free trial period, I’m going to make a big effort to build out subscriber threads and stay in conversation with you all. It’s why when you pay, you get access to Sidechannel where the engagement is, hopefully, generative.

A lot of those conversations don’t scale all that well — at least by social media platform measures. That’s OK. Because real conversations have multiple stakeholders — they’re naturally inefficient, full of friction. Outrage scales so well because it’s usually a one-way conversation. It frequently serves and enriches one person at the expense of others. It’s extractive. The internet loves to extract.

But it’s not part of the internet I want to live on. If it was, I would write posts with headlines like “Glenn Greenwald Wets His Diaper Over One NYT Reporter Tweet. Who Will Get Him A Clean Diap?” and watch the subscriptions roll in. I don’t begrudge you if that’s your jam, but it’s not mine and diapers are expensive.

This is a lot of words to say that I think many people are missing the reason that some journalists are going independent. I can only speak for myself but a big part of the reason I left is to build my own platform for my work that looks very different from any platform where people like Glenn succeed. Online warriors like Glenn posture as being outside the big media ecosystems but their outsized fame is a reflection of what it privileges: conflict and polarization. Glenn says he’s offering something people don’t get elsewhere but the main thing he’s supplying — indignant, often peculiarly placed outrage — is everywhere. I’d love for my work to reach a huge audience and I hope it will. But I’m fine sacrificing some of that if it means not having to constantly fight and chase engagement, often by amplifying the people whose opinions I find shitty or straight up abhorrent. Sometimes my work will be quieter but maybe it won’t make me and everyone who consumes it feel like dog shit. Personally, I think that’s “offering something valuable that can't/won't be elsewhere.” If you want to support that, I will continue to give you all I’ve got. Thanks so much for all of you who have already.

We’re off to a “very slow start.” Good.

Ok! That’s it for today. If you read this newsletter and value it, consider going to the paid version, and come hang out with us on Sidechannel.

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