#172: Cult of Personality

It's time to leave Substack.

EDITORS NOTE: 

Today will be the last Office Hours with Ernest Wilkins on the Substack platform. 

It's time to go.

I've had nothing but excellent experiences with the Substack team. My start on this platform came from a DM from Hamish in late 2018. Initially, this thing was a Tinyletter, and I saw an opportunity to build something that reflected my voice and perspective. Substack has been a great platform to be a part of; I appreciate all of the people who were introduced to my work through it. Becoming a Substack Mentor last year was a highlight for me when I needed it most emotionally. Being featured next to those big names was a validating feeling when I lost all my freelance income. It was most important because it introduced me to Safy, my mentee—the Brock Lesnar to my Paul Heyman. She's gonna be the Next Big Thing, and without Substack, we wouldn't be connected. The platform also allowed me to take the leap into full-time employment as a publisher. While I'm still drowning (this is the part where I remind you that becoming a paid subscriber is a really cool thing that really cool people do), Substack helped me keep my head above water at times over the last year when things got shaky. 

I try to remember that there are extremes in life. Things are rarely as bad as they might seem, but also, things are seldom as good as they might seem. Being TOO positive (I see you, hustle porn and rise & grind culture) makes it really hard for you to be realistic about the positive experiences you've had in business, which can interfere with how you make your decisions,  and usually sets you up to take a loss. I have no delusions of grandeur about Substack suffering some kind of loss once I and others like me leave the platform. They won’t. . But I also refuse to be cynical about the newsletter industry at this moment. The people who are dooming and glooming the real disruption that these tools provide are incapable of fully appreciating what's in front of them, or see it as a threat to their careers. 

The folks who treat Substack like it's the worst thing in the world are doing too much. 

The folks who decry genuine criticism of Substack as “Cancel Culture” are full of shit.

In the middle, there's folks like me. Folks who saw the writing on the wall from the get, and who once they get their sea legs will say “so long, and thanks for all the fish.” 

I understand that actions like what I'm taking reek of pretensions or some kind of posturing meant to come off as me seeming holier-than-thou. Still, I have no political base to whip into a fury. I could easily have written this from the perspective of creating a fear-based narrative. I believe that's how a lot of the politically-minded writers are finessing the right as we speak. Let me tell ya something, brother; it's far more effective and profitable to tell y'all that all of your fears are going to come true (and/or all of your wildest dreams are going to come true) than to be a Debbie Downer about NFT's. I trust that my readers are adult enough to hear things they will disagree with and be curious to learn more, not dunk their heads in the sand.

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All that said, I'm leaving Substack a few different reasons. 

*Before we get there, I think it's essential to provide some context for folks who haven't been up on the drama* around Substack. There are some dynamite points brought up in this piece by Jude Ellison Sady Doyle. This piece  does an overall good job at laying out some of the issues that were expanded upon in Jude's writing (though I disagree with the "scam" thing. If that's the case, every social platform that has ever existed is a sca—oh wait)

Firstly:  Substack and the people who make the decisions in the building see value in catering to the opinions of people either... 

  1. Don’t like folks who look like me.

or 

  1. Don’t like folks who look like me but are in denial of that fact. 

For purely ethical reasons, I want nothing to do with center-right dickheads. Guys, I'm from Chicago. Don't let the blue state thing fool you; I've heard every center-right talking point you can listen to my whole life. Half the Matt Yglesias's and Bari Weiss' of the worlds "independent thinking" is just reheated talking points churned out by University of Chicago jagoffs who dress like William F. Buckley and read goofy fascist shit like Storm of Steel when they aren't ruining every bar they go into. 

From a platform standpoint, it sucks because Substack is a GREAT product. I believe they stuck the landing on all the hard stuff that nearly all creator economy brands seem to miss: building community, creating a destination people want to go to, and prioritizing visibility. And despite arguments to the contrary, Substack is a publisher now. By paying people to publish on their platform, they are a publisher to 99% of the average American, if they've heard of Substack at all. I'm not "Ernest, a writer.” I'm a "Substacker.” Through 0% of my own choice, I am lumped in with everyone who has ever set up a publication on this platform. As such, it doesn't matter what my politics are, I'm going to be lumped in with a bunch of people that I truly would love nothing more than to kick in the chest.

The thing is, they fumbled the ball here, even if they don't want to seem to admit it yet. Having language against hate speech in the TOS, then not enforcing it, then saying "it is important to us to not have hate speech, so that's why it's in the TOS" is not being accountable. Besides, the Substack Pro thing would have gone a lot easier if they were transparent off rip, methinks. Like, does anyone know the criteria to be chosen, other than "big audience"? Isn't that what we just did with Digg and all those other sites? I think it's messy as hell that they picked people for those Pro deals based on what appears to solely be a "large audience?" but never telling anyone who they are? That doesn't sound right, no matter what first amendment language you use to explain it. 

Secondly: The biggest reason I am leaving is because Substack's embrace of center-right talking heads has directly led to a decrease in my income on the platform. No hyperbole here. I've lost anywhere between $400 and $1100 in churned subscriber revenue due to paid subscribers not wanting to give money to this platform anymore. I need it to be clear that for the two years on Substack before this, I had a 0% subscriber churn rate. Go ask your buddy who works in publishing about that stat. It was one of the only stats I indeed was proud of.

But I don’t blame those people for unsubscribing!  I believe in everyone's right to support what they want with their hard-earned money. But I also believe I should create the best possible environment for the folks who support my creations. 

Thirdly: . I am leaving Substack because I can feel myself succumbing to the same hierarchical thinking that plagued my time as a journalist. We’ve established that Substack is now a Publisher...and I’m very aware that what I’ve been doing here doesn’t appeal to the type of consumer they’re trying to attract. Therefore, to subject my feeble lil' brain to a fake competition to reach "the top" is frankly a waste of time.

Now, I don't want to come off as bitter or jealous because I wasn't chosen for one of these Substack Pro deals. Even if they were courting left-wing minorities (and for all I know, they might be?), I don’t see a world in which Substack would have offered me any money. My audience isn't huge or even impressive to the average media publisher. I don't have a book deal, a development deal, an agent, or a reel of talking head segments. I've never been in the NYT or WaPo or the Journal or the Atlantic. As a businessperson, I'm the living embodiment of "scrappy," or whatever we use colloquially to say, "broke but ambitious." Keyword on that "broke" part. Save for a few Hail Mary gigs and the enduring love and support of my wife, this isn't some kind of profitable situation for me yet. I get up every morning and work on this thing because I believe in it. Apparently, you do too, so I'm leaving Substack to create an experience that will be the best for you, my beloved subscribers.

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I see the Newsletter Industrial Complex going down the same way podcasts and blogs did: A few players spark interest in a media thing as an opportunity to finally "make it", which leads to an influx of folks trying to hit it quickly, which leads to a few notables dropping heat consistently and everyone else either getting bored and moving onto the next thing or letting their brand lapse because they thought success would come quicker. I confidently believe Substack will become the home of the center-right, and I'm not the only one.

It gets depressing, you know. From early on, marginalized folks are not meant to succeed in these industries if we play by the same rules. From the printing press to the newsletter to the news app, unless strictly stated beforehand, we will always be deprioritized, save those of us with broad appeal to big numbers and white crossover appeal. Honestly doesn't this whole thing feel like we're going to see a grant or something placating the writers of color or marginalized folks with medium-size audiences that are still on Substack in a few months? Some kind of "blazing new voices" horseshit?

I don't want to be one of those tokens. Not for any amount of $. I want to succeed or fail on my own terms. I don't want a handout because some white guy feels terrible, you know? How many times does success in life for folks like me come down to that?

I never planned to be here forever anyway, so this is me pushing myself out of my comfort zone and forcing myself to stand and deliver. I'm doing this all for you readers. I want you to be proud of your subscription, and I want you to get mad that people are sleeping on what we're building. I want to make you smarter. I want to make you better understand the cultural industries and the bridge between the people with taste and the people with money. I want you to take something from this newsletter and finesse it into a colossal check that will change your family's lives forever. I believe where we're going next will deliver the best value for you, the reader, in exchange for your continued support. Now, onto details:

  • As this is the last newsletter on Substack, we're going to be dark for the next two weeks while migrating current subscribers over to our new home. There is nothing for you to do on your end other than to tell everyone that gets what we're doing here about Office Hours.

  • Paid subscribers: I'm committed to bringing you a better overall experience. I'm moving away from the Slack channel concept, as I know it reminds people of work. I'm working on a few scenarios where we'll be able to have a community exchange around the topics around the newsletter. If you have thoughts on things you’d like to see/get, please reach out! 

WANNA HELP ME OUT?:

  • Free Subscribers: It would mean the world to me if you could become a paid supporter of my work. Like I said up top, this is currently my full-time job and Daddy needs a new pair of…everything?

  • Sponsor the newsletter: Are you a brand in a culture that wants to get in front of about 3,000 readers between 19 and 45 across 14 countries? My open rate averages between 38% - 45%. Email us for one of those shiny decks about how we can help you!

  • Tell Friends: When we go live in our new home, tell everyone. Tell people to sign up now, so they don't miss the next issue. Just TELL people about this thing!

  • Bookmark the new home of the newsletter: OfficeHoursNewsletter.com. Right now, it should bring you to this Substack page, but that will change soon. Like I said, bookmark it.

  • Follow this thing on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram. 


AROUND THE WORLD

Deanii Scott, left, and Sylvia Obell are the hosts of the Netflix podcast “Okay, Now Listen.”
Deanii Scott, left, and Sylvia Obell are the hosts of the Netflix podcast “Okay, Now Listen.” Tayler Smith for The New York Times

Black Friendship, Broadcast (NYT)

One of the most obvious things about a good podcast that so many people ignore is the fact that I should feel like I'm part of a fantastic club when I listen to it. These two have that energy in Costco-sized packages. Their pod is like listening to two of my cousins talking shit and having fun, which adds to my enjoyment of the pod, lowkey. Very happy for their glow-up, I am so happy for these two.


"Politics is personal, and whether or not a voter responds to a politician is dependent on so many factors—both internal and external—that it's easy to speak too broadly. Biases around race, gender, and sexuality complicate our discussion. And we cannot forget that likability is ultimately a question of taste and sensibility—which are class proxies.Like I said—it's a hard conversation, requiring a lot of nuance.

We did not get a nuanced online discussion of Pete Buttigieg during the primaries."

SHEESH, what a read from a former digital staffer for Mayor Pete.


The Rise of the Athlete Podcaster (New Yorker)

I love this piece, as well as any attempts by ex-pro athletes to branch out into the next phase of their career on the media side.


Maker of Dove Soap Will Drop the Word ‘Normal’ From Beauty Products (NYT)

Fuck "normal". Who is normal? What is normal? For all the "normal" people you can think of, are you sure you're not just using "normal" as an excellent way to say "that person is boring"? 


TUNES:

NEW PLAYLIST: COOKIN’ WITH THE WILKINS’

I really dislike most “cooking” playlists, so I made a better one. This is what we listen to when we’re making delicious meals aka tater tots in the air fryer. BEST ON SHUFFLE.

Listen on: SPOTIFY / APPLE MUSIC / TIDAL


CATCH UP ON SEASON 2 OF THE PODCAST:

While we’re dark, listen to season 2 of the podcast. We’ve featured interviews with some big thinkers across cultural industries. Click here to pick your preferred podcast platform and subscribe so you never miss a new episode. As a bonus, that link contains every episode of The Office Hours w/me podcast, including all of Season 1.


Office Hours with Ernest Wilkins is written and curated by Ernest Wilkins in Chicago, Illinois. GO GO WHITE SOX, 2021 WORLD SERIES CHAMPS BAYBEEEEEE.