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New Media is Dead, Long Live New Media
tuesday report # 13 // buzzfeed news is dead, and the future of media is still just the new york times; twitter vs. substack launches influencer arms race; a storm of fire links
Welcome back to the Pirate Wires weekly digest. Every week, the Tuesday Report delivers a brief, lead story followed by a storm of fire links to catch you up on everything you need to know. This week, before we get into it: the whole Pirate Wires team is in Miami. If you’re a paying subscriber, and you haven’t yet RSVPd for this afternoon’s happy hour, email me directly, and we’ll add you to the list.
On the radical notion of paying for shit. Ten years ago, it was close to consensus opinion that Buzzfeed was the future of news. Their editors spoke the language of the internet, mingling viral listicles and quizzes with spurts of legitimately great reporting funded by the company’s wildly-popular nonsense, and they captured the nation’s attention. The juxtaposition of frivolous bullshit with award-winning journalism looked weird, even offensive, but it felt new, and in keeping with the ethos of the time it was all “free,” which is to say it was funded by advertising revenue. When old media giants like the New York Times dove into a subscription revenue model, in which readers were expected to pay for writing, the tactic was criticized as hopelessly outdated, and even naïve. But consensus was wrong about pretty much everything, and it’s strange we didn’t see it at the time: “new media” lost with ads, an old strategy that looked new, and old media won with subscriptions, a new strategy that looked old. Sure, a 20th Century paper cost a dollar or whatever, but that hadn’t been the industry’s primary source of revenue since the late 1700s. News was in the business of advertising, and in this regard it was the Times that changed, not Buzzfeed. The Times won. As of last week, Buzzfeed News no longer exists (with rumors VICE is soon to follow), the Times remains dominant, and every upstart media company in town is either employing the formerly “naïve” subscription model, or making use of tools like Substack, which bootstraps the model on their behalf. Next up, something that doesn’t make sense, and is anyway probably not legal: direct competition from the public square.
Until now, social media platforms — which facilitated the prior media war, propelled “new media” companies to prominence, and ultimately drove them all to self-destruction — have remained neutral. Every media company, along with every independent upstart, was permitted to compete in the public square. This is no longer the case.
Elon Musk’s improbable first strike against Substack, now sinking independent creators on his platform at the expense of already-dominant companies like the Times, represents the confounding gunshot start to the next media era, which is presently set to follow one of two potential paths: 1) if Twitter acts alone with independent prohibition, talented writers will leave, the platform will become a boring mid dump for sycophants and state propagandists, competitive social media platforms will cannibalize Twitter’s audience, and the company will die; 2) if every major social media platform follows Twitter, the platforms will win — first against upstart media companies and independent creators, then against the old guard press. But, in their victory, social media platforms will themselves become the media. Another word for media: publishers. This transformation will inevitably run afoul of antitrust watchdogs and Section 230 watchdogs alike, almost certainly triggering federal action, and all for a stream of revenue presently dwarfed by Facebook’s market cap.
Why? And how did we even get here?
Kids will not believe me when I say this, but people didn’t always absorb their “content” by way of mysterious algorithmic black magic on endlessly-scrolling crack feeds. We used to type web addresses into our browsers, and actually visit our favorite sites. This, going to “www dot college shitpost dot com” or whatever, was itself considered a radical departure from reading physical papers and magazines. Almost all of today’s giant social media networks existed a decade ago, but they still mostly considered themselves places for sharing pictures with friends and stalking exes, not all-encompassing information portals through which the human race administered its entire reality. It’s been a wild decade.
As mobile grew the population of the social internet, new media pumped its content on the newly-concentrated social networks, advertisers rushed to the major platforms, everyone entered a cash-delirious bull run, and social media algorithms began to shape our world. Companies that swam with the invisible current were rewarded, while the tone deaf were ignored. But riding the current wasn’t free. After a few years, every company and writer that “won” the generic cash grab looked around and realized the cost of that increasingly thin slice of pie was their unique identity. In competition for attention from the Everything Feed, one must become the Everything Feed, and once you’re everything for everyone you’re nothing. You’re worse than nothing: you’re competing with thousands of foreign content farms.
With no unique identity, media companies lost the loyalty of their audience to the gold rush social platforms. With no remaining loyal audience, once-interesting companies became slaves to the algorithm, and even slight changes in social media policy were catastrophic. But the great flattening was not equally distributed.
By reorienting its readership toward subscription and email, companies like the New York Times not only continued to grow, but — with the exception of a brief Trump derangement — basically maintained their identity. The Daily Wire, which is mostly considered a victory of conservative media, actually followed a similar pattern as the Times. Editors shared work on social, won subscriptions, and maintained loyalty. Clickbait bullshit, which eventually gave way to our endless culture war, impacted everyone to some extent, but only media brands with a direct channel to their audience, and a credit card number, survived.
Today, the Times is valued at $6.5 billion, after a high just over $9 billion. This is a tremendous victory given what was meant to be the old guard’s final decade. Still, it’s only a victory in comparison to other media companies. At its own height in 2021, Facebook was a trillion-dollar company. So why does Elon Musk want Twitter to function more like Buzzfeed than Meta?
At first glance, nothing about Musk’s scorched earth war with Substack makes sense. Right at the top, nobody who lived through Parler, Truth, or Mastodon believes Notes, Substack’s “Twitter clone,” is a serious alternative to the platform. Everyone wants to be where everyone already is, and there is nobody in tech who doesn’t understand that basic law of networks. Then, Substack’s core product, a content management system for newsletters, is also nothing like Twitter Subscriptions: Substack is broadcast, Twitter is social; Substack facilitates a writer’s ability to gather addresses and send email, Twitter is follower-based; Substack is designed for the publication of real pieces, with video embedding, social media embedding, pull quotes, and pictures, whereas Twitter Subscriptions is a bonus platform for article-length tweets, paid replies (which is actually a great idea I can’t believe it took this long to launch), and audio chats; finally, and most importantly of all, Substack’s business model — I’m sorry to say — is not gonna make it.
From the beginning, Substack granted writers full access to their subscriber list, including emails with an easy-to-export feature, and the banking information of their paying customers. This allowed writers to walk away from the platform at any time, which was and remains Substack’s major selling point; email is a place to build a life raft in case of hegemonic social media dictator shit, and that was rampant at the time of Substack’s founding. People often mistake creator-friendliness as Substack’s chief flaw, but creator-friendliness is why Substack exists. The company’s flaw is its business model, which, in tandem with creator-friendliness might be longterm existential.
Instead of charging a standard SaaS fees for every user, Substack drives revenue with a ten percent cut of income generated by writers on the platform. Problematically, as with almost everything else, writers fall into a power law distribution of success. In other words, of the tens of thousands of writers who use Substack, the company only needs the top ten to survive, and that top ten can leave at any time for any reason. Elon is a businessman. There is no way he intends to clone this model, and I find it almost impossible to believe he sees the company as a threat. But he does want those writers. Why? The answer still doesn’t make much sense, but he doesn’t want to be Substack, I’m pretty sure he wants to be the New York Times. And CNN. And the Babylon Bee. And everything else.
I think the strategy looks something like this: blocked from sharing their writing without Twitter’s walled garden workshop, and with no other easy way to bootstrap their own company, most young writers, perhaps more trusting of the new guard than the prior administration, will turn to Twitter as their primary source of income. With writers prohibited from direct contact with their audience (and its banking information), any little bit of business writers grow on Twitter will be captured there forever. With every independent writer on the platform, Elon really would present an alternative to the entire conventional press. For consumers, the choice would feel like “every opinion” in exchange for the single, mainstream media worldview. At that point, links to the New York Times, along with every other mainstream outlet, could be banned.
It still doesn’t really make sense. Why would Elon compete with media giants rather than the social media giants he could, with his resources and talent, usurp? I don’t know, maybe he’s as distracted by Twitter as the rest of us, myopically focused on the single population that lives on his platform, rather than Zuckerberg, his actual competition, who isn’t tweeting. Still, there is a chance Elon could once again be contrarian and right. Is Pirate Wires not only the future of media, but a threat to Meta? To Google? Could this budding cult of personality be so potent a media force it must be nipped now, while it can still be challenged? Okay, I’m listening.
The thing is, despite what media influencers who hate the man would have you believe, Elon didn’t invent the chaotic social media hellscape. Hell appears to be an innate quality of social media at scale, which nobody, on any platform, has ever been able to fix. Through the torrent of chaos, people have begun to look elsewhere for sense-making. Subscription, for a few dollars or an email or both, has been a small price to pay for sanity. I have a hard time believing Zuckerberg is drooling over Substack’s revenue right now, and I know Mark doesn’t want that 230 heat. But if I’m wrong, and all the giants come together to snuff out David (me) in the cradle? New media, conceptually, becomes an endangered species. Rebel status. The knights are gone, and the Empire has won.
So share this letter with a friend, because in a few years email might just be the last safe sea for pirates. Until then, fuck it we’ll have fun.
Absolute MELTDOWN: Twitter removes blue checks from legacy accounts, journalists go mental (FOX)
Canadian Broadcasting Corporation halts Twitter use after being labeled “government funded media.” 70% of the CBCs budget comes from the Canadian government, but it says the label undermines its credibility. (Twitter)
Elon correctly labels NPR’s Twitter account “government-funded” in effort to piss off journalists, reverses course (for all government-funded western accounts) after journalists freak out (NYT)
THIS WEEK IN PIRATE WIRES
Fun strikes back at Stanford. After social life on Stanford’s campus was stifled by a series of COVID-era policies enacted by stodgy bureaucratic administrators, the student body decided enough was enough. Sophia Danielpour and Kyle Haslett ran for student government positions on a campaign promise to restore the “organic, wacky, and inclusive spontaneity that made Stanford so special.” They won the election — and our hearts — in yet another vibe shift landslide. Nick Russo reports. (Pirate Wires)
Senate hearing on AI and defense. “We need to spend at least 5% of our budget on capabilities that will terrify our adversaries,” said Palantir CEO Shyam Sankar, who provided testimony. Joined by Josh Lospinoso, Shift5 CEO, and Jason Matheny, Rand Corporation CEO and Commissioner of the National Security Commission, the committee hearing covered AI regulation, how the DoD should leverage AI, and the infamous open letter, which nearly everyone in the room — even the politicians — thought was unwise. Read Brandon’s full report here.
Jeff Jackson, TikTok King. Less than four months after being sworn into the House, North Carolina congressman Jeff Jackson is already the most popular politician on TikTok. His rapid rise to social media stardom is thanks to a counterintuitive strategy: calming people down. His credibility as a sooth-saying voice of reason is built on a foundation of claims to transparency in personal and campaign finance, which have yet to be scrutinized. Nick takes a closer look. (Pirate Wires)
Why do women blow relationship issues out of proportion online? Evolutionary psychologist and author Diana S. Fleischman takes an in-depth look at the peculiarities of female-only online spaces, particularly the proliferation of highly punitive, hostile relationship advice as it concerns men. Diana contextualizes this behavior with a discussion of the challenges ancestral women faced during caveman times. (Pirate Wires)
The White Pill: Science Victory. This week Elon Musk launched his Starship atop a 40-story, 33-engine rocket named Super Heavy, which flew for four minutes before tumbling into a fiery oblivion. Neckbeard Twitter trolls notwithstanding, the real story here came pre-explosion, as the successful initial launch heralds the beginning of our civilization’s rapidly reusable rocket era. This week’s White Pill explores the implications of the test flight, and includes a ton of links about excellent advances in medicine, space, energy, astronomy, and more. (Pirate Wires)
The Strange and Fascinating World of r/Meth. River dives deep into the meth subreddit, a lively online community of drug addicts who spend their days sharing advice, meth-centric spongebob memes, and stories about the “shadow people.” (Pirate Wires)
Catastrophic Bug Affecting Facebook Ads Roils Advertisers. Early on Sunday morning, a bug caused Meta to charge advertisers well beyond the budget limits they’d set; in turn, advertisers halted spending entirely on the platform. Brandon Gorrell reports. (Pirate Wires)
Lyft announces 1,200 layoffs (NYT)
Tech winter continues; bloated private unicorns face down-round reality edition (Bloomberg)
Apple smokes Epic Games in defense against antitrust suit (Bloomberg)
Apple rolls out 4.15% APY savings account (Axios)
RIP, Netflix DVDs. When your mom decides she wants to re-watch Steel Magnolias for the 47th time (this will happen soon) you’ll have to teach her how to stream it. (NYT)
Don’t miss out on your free Facebook money. If you used Facebook between 2007 and 2022, you can now submit a claim to receive cash from Meta as part of a $725 million settlement re: data privacy issues stemming from the Cambridge Analytica scandal of 2018. (WaPo)
Get ready for 6G wireless. The White House is meeting with industry experts to begin strategizing for the next generation of wireless communications. (WSJ)
EXTRA: Great new video from John Coogan on how the defense industry works, and how the defense industry needs to work for America to have a chance at victory in any major future conflict.
The dawn of ChatCCP. China demands AI join communist party. (NYT)
Want to train your AI on Reddit user posts? Pay up. Reddit plans to start charging AI developers for access to its API. (NYT)
AI companies training LLMs on (in small part) pirated data, Russian propaganda, and Breitbart. Also: 4chan, kiwifarms.net, orthodox Jewish and evangelical Christian megachurch websites… in short, a lot of content the Washington Post doesn’t like, which mostly was the story here. The top websites used to train LLMs are predictable: Wikipedia, NYT, top journals like PLOS. (WaPo) Tl;dr the AI is a lib, but it once briefly dated a based goth chick, and may still have sympathies for that particular genre of human.
Humane teases wearable AI device prototype. Co-founder Imran Chaudri used it to translate his voice into French during a Ted Talk. (Axios)
FTC to go after AI companies for products deemed deceptive. Also under the microscope: AI that “violates civil rights.” (Reuters)
Magazine editor fired for publishing AI-generated Michael Schumacher interview, claiming it was authentic. (NYT)
Streaming platforms pull Drake deepfake after Universal Music Group files complaint. On Monday, Ghostwriter977 uploaded an AI-generated song, “Heart On My Sleeve,” that replicated vocals from Drake and The Weekend. One day and 15 million streams later, the song was snuffed out. She says they miss the real Drake, girl, deepfake me? (Axios)
Tucker leaves Fox (!!!) (NYT)
CNN fires Lemon (!!!) (NYT)
Newsom calls in National Guard to combat SF drug dealers (SF Chronicle)
Fox reaches $787.5 million settlement in Dominion defamation suit (NYT)
Trump outlines plan to end homelessness. He wants to ban so-called “urban camping,” and is pitching a massive relocation program (YouTube). Flashback:
McCarthy floats stricter work-reporting requirements for SNAP access (NPR)
Biden admin considering evacuation of embassy in Sudan. Fighting between the Sudanese government and a rebel paramilitary group has escalated in the capital of Khartoum, where the embassy is located. (NBC)
Marianne Williamson outperforming Biden on TikTok (Twitter)
Trans lawmaker silenced in Montana. State Rep. Zooey Zephyr (D-Missoula) has been barred from speaking on the chamber floor until she apologizes for saying Republicans would have “blood on their hands” if they banned cross-sex hormones and trans surgeries for minors. (AP)
Trans middle school teacher removed from campus. The Hernando County, Florida teacher reportedly remarked “she wanted to shoot some students due to them not performing to their ability,” but immediately clarified that she would never actually harm a student. (Hernando Sun)
Newly released court filing says at least two 9/11 perpetrators were CIA recruits. The declaration was written by a lead investigator for the Office of Military commissions, the legal body overseeing the legal cases of 9/11 victims. (Grayzone)
New FIRE report shows huge spike in campus punishments for protected speech. In the last three years, 509 scholars were punished for speech that’s supposed to be protected. In the entire two decades before that? Only 571. (Twitter)
Judge orders Chicago to reinstate municipal employees fired for refusing COVID vaccine (NBC Chicago)
UN campaigns to end free speech (Twitter). Question: why is America still paying for this failing non-profit?
2 men charged with running covert Chinese police station in Manhattan. The Chinese government has been accused of similar operations elsewhere in the world in order to covertly harass Chinese dissidents. (Politico)
Paper-bagging Lilo and Stitch. Disney is making a live-action remake of the 2002 animated film and people are upset about the casting. Did they cast non-Hawaiian actors to play the Hawaiian roles? No. Is it mostly Hawaiian people complaining? No. The backlash is largely coming from black women who feel that the Hawaiians cast are too light-skinned. Over 200 years of interracial marriage in Hawaii means that even people who claim to be full Hawaiian are, on average, only 78% native. Copy/pasting cultural critiques specific to the black American experience onto other ethnicities is nothing new, but this case is particularly naked (and funny). (Twitter) (Twitter) (PLOS ONE)
Taylor Swift called bullshit on FTX. While other stars were shilling for SBF’s fraudulent company, Taylor Swift didn’t budge when they tried to woo her for promotional efforts. She asked them, point blank, “Can you tell me that these are not unregistered securities?” We love a fiscally responsible queen. (The Block)
Don’t worry, Taiwan, Vivek Ramaswamy has a plan. Simple: “open a branch of the NRA in Taiwan, put an AR-15 in the hands of every family, and train them how to use it.” (Twitter)
Arbitration panel orders MyPillow guy to pay Nevada man $5 million. Mike Lindell offered $5 million to anyone who could disprove his claim that China interfered in the 2020 election. A Nevada man took him up on the offer, but Mike didn’t pay up. Now he has to (unless he can get the ruling overturned in court). (WaPo)
We’re in Miami sun all week. Stay blessed, and remember: subscribe, or die.