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Why I’m Using Substack “Notes” Sparingly and May not Use it At All Going Forward
Notes Seems Less Impressive as the Days Go By
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I agree: So far, Substack Notes is superior to Twitter.
Mainly I say this because, unlike Twitter, again so far, there isn’t the general grotesque, toxic feeling you get when on the other app. That said: Given contemporary human psychology, and what we know about “the madness of crowds,” aka about social-media-driven group think, nasty, ruthless angry tribal diatribes wherein entropy occurs more rapidly than waves crashing on a random shoreline, I’d say it’s only a matter of time. Give it a few months.
But also, if I’m being fully honest and responsible and self-aware: There’s simply The Problem of Michael. Aka: The Problem of Myself. Like all of us (to varying degrees) I have an ego. Clinging between the Id and the superego, I sometimes react to things online childishly, and sometimes calmly, rationally and wisely. I think more or less all of us are to some degree affected by this unconscious conundrum.
The problem, for me, with Notes or Twitter or anything like it, is that it doesn’t provide a space for deep intellectual thinking. The reward systems seem to be very simple: Press a big, easy orange button, get the appropriate response from the clan or tribe who agrees with you. Whether you stand on the political left or the political right; this just sounds egregiously boring.
One thing that got me to join Substack from the start—I began my publication in late August, 2022—was the idea of providing a space for serious writers to write what they wanted to write without the culture of censoriousness we’ve increasingly witnessed on the cultural and political left. Now, I criticize the left far more often than the right because I am of the left myself. My theory is: Take care of your own house before criticizing someone else’s. Yes, the right has done some awful things—catering to Trumpism, January 6th, defending January 6th, election denial, the vast overreaction to “Wokeism,” state-sanctioned book-banning, fighting their own brand of [often white] identity politics, etc. And yet: It’s clear to me that, since around 2015, when Trump first descended that elevator and talked about Mexico and Mexicans in racist, non-flattering terms, the left has become captured by its fringe, most extreme wing. Since 2020, this has only expanded and grown worse.
Anyway. I don’t want to get into a boring, nihilistic left/right binary discussion. Click here for my book banning essay criticizing both sides, with plenty of articles, facts, links, etc.
Rather, my point in bringing up the political angle is that, as a classical liberal who still stands more or less where the party did circa 2015/2016, and as a writer published in traditional literary magazines and journals, a white straight male producing content online and physically, I was feeling more and more constricted as far as what material I could write, how honestly and openly I could cognitively explore on the page, and what, basically, I was “allowed” to say.
Leftists often say that the first amendment only matters when the government gets involved to actually suppress free speech. While this is technically true, the fact of the matter is that traditional publishing is run by the left and the left, as I mentioned earlier, has created a culture of censorship which has real-world consequences. Hate speech, for example, has undergone significant “mission creep.” Or one might call it “language creep,” wherein the concept of “hate” and of the “definitions” of words has shifted, and many cases become hollow. Everything has become more and more narrow and limited and ideological; the tribes are more and more vigorously self-righteous, more and more certain they have the “answers” to political and cultural problems. (Read my essay about this here.)
This type of self-righteous moral certainty is, of course, ridiculous. The more certain you are of your views and the more fixed, and rigidly ideological you become, the more culturally totalitarian your words and ideas sound. In reality we need a vast diversity of views and opinions to uphold a democracy, not just one narrow field of exploration offered by one political group on either side. For example, the new list of words you cannot use on Stanford University campus, or what happened when a conservative judge was forced by the crowd and DEI leadership to cease speaking.
My point with all of this is simply to say: Substack seemed like a way out of this quagmire to me. In early August, 2022, I was taking a walk around my Santa Barbara neighborhood—this was before I moved up north to Lompoc—and I decided to listen to the latest 5th Column podcast. This podcast, by three male journalists from Vice, Reason and Free Think—two white, one Black—had become like a sexy balm against the insanity of Woke media on the left and fascistic media on the right during the summer nuttiness of 2020. They spoke clearly, fairly and succinctly about the news issues of the day, especially controversial ones, and they criticized both sides when deserved. Their politics are a little obscure: I’d argue they’re all classical liberals with a sort of semi-Libertarian bent on some issues. But fiercely critical of both Trumpism and Wokeism. (As they should be.)
Anyway, on this particular occasion they happened to be interviewing Hamish McKenzie, the young Kiwi co-founder of Substack. I loved the interview. For the dozen years—since getting sober in 2010—I’d had a few dozen stories and essays published in little magazines and journals, including one story that was nominated for a Pushcart Prize, but I’d written 12 novels, and, despite much agent interest, none had been published. (Read about this here.) Yet I’d always felt insecure and irritated about the idea of self-publishing. I’d grown up reading the twentieth-century masters—Hemingway, Faulkner, O’Connor, Fitzgerald—and was raised by an author mother, who also had an novelist brother (my uncle). And so, I grew up wanting, like so many other writers of my era, to be traditionally published.
I wanted to get an agent and get a book deal. I wanted to walk into The Strand on 12th and Broadway in Manhattan and see my book on the shelf staring back at me. I wanted, desperately, to feel that beaming validation. I wanted to feel that pride, wear it like a seal-skin over my body. I’d become known. Be a famous author. Live in New York City. Leave a legacy in prose. One day my journals would be found, a three-foot mound of them, and the deep complexity of my nature, the mythos of my being, would be underscored and revealed. Maybe someone would make a film about me post-death.
Sound a little…narcissistic? Solipsistic? Megalomaniacal? Hey: I’m a writer who grew up in the late 90s, early 00s: What can I say? I read too many books, watched too many movies, was too steeped consciously or not in pop-culture, the raging need for fame and attention, adoration, even worship.
But these feelings started shifting when I got sober at 27. Not entirely. It took time. But gradually, as the years went and I became older and more seasoned as a writer and man, and as I got more and more comfortable with “who I am,” it started to finally dawn on me that: 1. I am a very private person, and deeply insecure, therefore fame would probably destroy me; 2. I am a white straight male writing about WSM-things and it’s the 2010s, meaning Not My Time; 3. I am a good, strong writer, but I’m not a “great” writer, I’m not a genius, I’m not a Dostoevsky or Hemingway or Falkner, etc; 4. 99.999% of writers struggle financially, don’t become famous, and are largely unknown; 5. If I could write for a living, fulltime, and just survive financially, I’d be happy.
But the biggest surprise to me was: 6. I didn’t have to get published traditionally. This idea had started percolating within me probably as early as 2018, 2019, but the internal cracks in the dam didn’t explode the entire structure until I heard that interview with Hamish on The 5th Column. I suddenly realized The Time is Now: I wasn’t getting any younger (I was 39 then, last year); I knew I had a lot of good work, perhaps hundreds of stories and essays and 12 novels, and I had drive, ego, ambition, talent, confidence. If my work really had any merit at all, why not test the waters and go directly to readers?
This, finally, was what brought me to Substack. My intuition turned out to be correct. Over the past nine months I’ve gained close to 700 subscribers, including 60 who are paying. I’m not yet making enough money to quit my book editing job, or to stop walking dogs, but it’s definitely the most money I’ve ever made off my writing. The more important part: Readers are loving my work. I get comments all the time, both on my posts directly and also via email or through my book editing website, that tell me how much they cherish my writing, how captivating my stories are, how visually provocative my prose is, how deep they find the concepts, etc. As a writer, there really isn’t anything more enduring and magnificent than this type of thoughtful, kind praise. (I also receive criticism and negative reactions/feedback sometimes, and that’s fine as well.)
Circling back to Substack “Notes.”
What I’ve loved about publishing posts is that I can write a piece, then wait a day, return to it, reread it, listen to it played back to me via the “Read Aloud” function in Microsoft Word (a very handy tool for locating errors, by the way), sit on it again for a day, come back yet again, edit and revise, rewrite, etc, and finally, when I feel the house has been sturdily build, post the thing. In other words, and I know this isn’t always the case either with my own work or the work of other writers on the platform, I can be careful, thoughtful, diligent. The writing has been worked over, criticized, analyzed, rewritten, etc.
With Notes it’s different. I’m sure some writers consider their Notes carefully, weighing the pros and cons, considering the accuracy, worrying how the comment might land against people who might disagree. But most don’t. Most seem, just like with Twitter, to sort of just knee-jerk arrow off comments in a fast, unthinking manner that more or less appeals to their “base,” meaning their tribe, the people they feel safe around, who they know will agree with just about everything they post. Of course there’s often that “one asshole,” the man or woman who has to be contrarian and buck the Note’s alleged truth. Often this person is either ignored entirely or else the producer of the Note steps in and debates with the person, or one or even multiple of the responders in the tribe do this work and it often devolves into entropy again.
So in other words: I find Notes largely pointless. As many on the left have said [accurately, I think] of Trump: His successful and horrible tactic was to “flood the zone” with bullshit. That’s what Twitter does. And that’s what Notes does. It’s not about Substack as a platform being good or bad. I much prefer Substack to any other platform. One thing I cherish about Substack is that it’s exclusively for and about and by writers. Another thing I love is the respect for free speech, both on the governmental level (first amendment) and also re the “culture of censoriousness.” And, as annoyed as I may get with my fellow liberals, I of course always and forevermore support their right to speak “their truth.” However: Ditto Trumpers and anyone else on any side/no side. That’s how it works: Either everyone is free to speak or no one is truly free to speak. Whether this happens legitimately (via the State) or de facto (culture, academia, publishing), both are fascistic and illiberal.
More personally, the obvious must be mentioned: I am 1. An addict, even if a sober one; 2. A man with a large, tottering ego; 3. A man with some anger issues; 4. A very messy, contradictory, complex human being. Meaning: I criticize the left and the right, and tribalism generally, yet it might be fair to say that I myself am a sort of “tribal centrist.” (And even this statement is not fully representative of my views.) I am a heterodox writer and thinker; this I can say is an accurate statement. I sometimes have ironically found myself doing the exact things on Notes I criticized others for: Namely, being tribal and dripping with judgment and ego and claiming my truth is The Truth.
The above only proves one thing: I am a weak, fallible, flawed human being. Like all of us. When push comes to shove I guess what I’m really trying to say is: For me, I write my best content, produce my best ideas, come up with my most nuanced notions, when I’m writing long-form individual articles, stories, essays etc on the platform. Not when I’m on Notes, which floods the zone, seems banal and nihilistic, plays deep partisan politics most of the time, and ironically seems more like a form of online fragmentation and even segregation than any other form. Twitter, like Notes, seems to divide us, not unite us. I think the best method for unity is for people to choose which publications they’d like to read and doing that, versus being exposed to the Grand Chessboard that is Substack Notes.
Besides this, the other problem is that of time. Lord knows how busy most of us are in 2023. Notes are a troubling time-suck for many (definitely for me) like YouTube or Twitter or TikTok (which I’ve never been on and never will). I don’t want to lose hours of my day or night adding new writers on Notes, creating my own meaningless little Notes, going down threads, etc. I’m old-school; maybe that’s the real problem.
The original pre-Notes Substack seemed perfect to me: Write a post, publish, explore other writers’ work, comment, etc. Rinse, repeat. But now we have The Twitter Taboo. Engage, engage, engage. Substack seems stuck between a semi-social media model and a genuine writers’ platform. There’s nothing inherently wrong with that, but I do wonder how far it can be taken before it bursts at the seams and finally just “becomes” a newer, better, more pro-writing version of Twitter. Maybe that’s the fate of all online platforms. They are always catering to varying degrees to financial and user incentives. Such is the nature of the capitalistic beast.
Oh well. For now, I’ll keep my head clean of Notes and will keep posting my writing every few days. That’s what matters to me as a writer. That’s why I joined Substack to begin with. That’s what I want as a writer and a reader. And that’s what many people seem to crave.