thinking about audiences, substacks, and writers


New Years’ resolutions, like lottery scratch cards, are best as a meditation on the direction of your life rather than a concrete plan for your future. I had an ex who made new years’ resolutions, and he still does. I never do. It suits his optimistic personality, but for me, it’s just giving myself another way to fail. Years ago, however, I read that Benjamin Franklin tried to make himself a better man by carrying a card on which were listed 13 virtues, and each day he’d choose just one to focus on. Let’s ignore what his virtues were: it was the process that interested me. So in the new year, I do something similar, noting down what I’d like more of in my life, from virtues to more practical things. Then tilt your rudder towards them; a resolution to do them every day will lead to failure, and surrender. But even if you manage it once a week, well that’s something. Make it a habit.

Since starting utopian drivel, I’ve tried to make it a habit, a form of writing marked by its regularity. As I approach 100 essays or audio pieces, I have begun a similar process of meditating on what substacks are, or can be. The form of writing, after all, helps shape its content. Yet I can’t help but feel I’m doing something wrong. I approach writing these pieces in a similar way to how I approach articles for magazines, trying to think of a self-contained, cohesive piece that contains and explains a single idea or two. Even when I started this substack, I was aware that the form offered an opportunity for something different, however, a more personal and intimate style that brought the writer and reader closer.

If nothing else, I wonder what the future is for longer-form articles within the modern attention economy. Recently I was joking with a friend that if you have a really controversial opinion that you don’t want to get in trouble for, write a long piece about it. It will never get read, and if it does, it will be read by someone who is invested enough in the idea not to reach immediately for a screengrab to tweet about it. The attention economy isn’t powered by essays or developed ideas, but by the shocking phrase or sentiment that can be digested and embraced or denounced within a minute or two. I’m no less guilty of that than anyone else, of course, but as I write more and more, and longer and longer, essays, I feel dejected when a week’s work disappears into cyberspace with a few desultory likes, while my stupid quote tweet reverberates in my mentions for weeks. It’s a stupid and exciting public sphere we’ve built. 

Dwelling on this, I’ve been trying to pin down which online written and spoken forms do I listen to, which forms of serial writing appeal to me. The stuff I keep coming back to are things like the substacks Dead but Delicious by Daemonum X, David by Davey Davis and the podcast 301 Permanently Moved by Jay Springett. What marks out a lot of these sorts of productions are that they acknowledge the intimacy of the inbox. They are like the quick, frequent conversations with good friends, a catch-up rather than a get-to-know-you. They operate as part of an ongoing conversation about their subjects, everything from sodomy to good organisation, and not the discrete articles in disinterested, authoritative voices that mainstream publications release. That’s a vitality and a familiarity that I crave these days. 

One of the things I think substacks excel at is the availability of both written and audio versions. I don’t know how everyone uses them; probably a lot of people simply use the written substack as a place for notes that annotate podcasts. But I enjoy the choice of reading or listening, of taking some time out to slowly work through some ideas with a writer, or to binge their thoughts through their soft voices as I fry onions. What all these publications, and more, achieve, is due, in part, to their serial nature. At some point, as Stalin (didn’t) put it, quantity becomes a quality all of its own, and I too believe that, comrades.

Conversely, as part of the experience of being a writer in the digital age I think I’m becoming aware that not all likes are the same. There is a qualitative difference between different types of engagement with your work. A quick like on a meme means something different to a like following a prolonged engagement with ideas. Do likes even mean anything? Well, in the first case, I put less and less value on them. In the second case, more and more. There’s a difference between audience reach as a metric of success and actually having a meaningful, if small, audience for your ideas who you are repeatedly interacting with. A genuine audience of peers is the lifeblood of smaller, non-corporate cultures, queer cultures, literary cultures. This Muschampian idea of an informed audience as a stepping stone to a more profound culture is something I’ve talked about before. As a listener and reader (rather than a consumer) I have found myself rewarded by being a long-term audience member. I think maybe that’s what my substack can offer me, and you. 

With that audience, you can discuss the things you’d not find space for with short-term audiences. The sort of shorter form, more intimate writing that I follow on substack seems to work because it’s both more casual, and demands more engagement. After weeks, or months, or years of following other writers, I feel like I’ve gained an understanding of their thinking in a way I couldn’t either from reading longer essays, or from books. You can build a relationship of trust that gives you space to think things through, to follow a thought, to say things you wouldn’t say otherwise: things to do with audiences, with the investments and demands that readers make, and the economics and politics of writing online in 2022. I’d like to discuss those things, too, with that sort of audience. It seems like an ambitious way to write and to read.

So my ambition, if not my resolution, this year is to turn my writing on utopian drivel towards a form that develops that sort of relationship with readers. I find it invigorating, reckless, punky, even, to throw anxiety to the wind, to be more risky, to say what’s on your mind in the now, to publish, and be damned. I hope in doing so it can reinvigorate my own writing and overcome some of the fears that come with writing online, and try to produce stuff that integrates the audio, the visual, the literary into a form that suits your inbox. If you’d like to be part of that audience, please consider sharing and subscribing, if you’re in a position to do so, to the writers whose work you enjoy. Let’s try to make ourselves a more ambitious audience for each other.

Thank you again to all my subscribers. Please feel free to forward to anyone who might be interested.

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