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Walled gardens mean online writing is dead. Long live online writing!
Federated social networks as the future
Almost every writer I talk to reports a similar phenomenon: starting soon after Elon Musk’s takeover of Twitter (now X), it began to get harder for an article—any article at all—to go viral. Plenty of others have noted this as well. Twitter’s power was always that it was where the cultural now happened, but that cultural now needs content, and Twitter’s former masters, whatever their flaws, knew that its power was in the flow of information. It’s not political neutrality they were that concerned about, but rather they knew it was a barter town, a land of many doorways, and it acted primarily as a clearance and trading house for outside information. So links to outside sources were allowed to go viral, even if it took people, and their lucrative eyeballs, off the platform.
This property made the old Twitter punch so far above its weight, culturally I mean, despite its always-low roughly two hundred million active daily users. Long ago back in the 2017 hinterlands, Facebook decided that its goal was to keep people on the app: therefore, they prioritized images and video and Facebook-only posts, along with endless notifications that someone, somewhere, had liked a cat picture. Which led to the platform’s current cultural irrelevance. While plenty of people still use Facebook, you rarely hear “In a Facebook post. . .” on the news, whereas it’s still common to hear “In a Tweet. . . .”
Shortly after the takeover, Musk began to pursue a similar strategy to Facebook, trying to keep eyeballs on the platform, first by giving people longer character limits on Tweets, then introducing a paid subscriber function as well, and finally just nerfing all outside links. The problem for Musk? The actual content created by the users of Twitter has always been mostly pithy observations and dunks (I am similarly dismissive of my own posts on the platform). Which is why, when I log onto X now, I see mostly warmed-over red-pilled reruns (“Hey kid, have you ever thought about how men and women sometimes are different? Isn’t that crazy?”) or viral snuff films (“Hey kid, ever see a machete fight in a street?”). There are still good moments on X, but the best times are pretty consistently when some outside source—like a Substack link—overcomes the shadowbanning and goes viral, and everyone can react in real time.
Besides making life far more difficult for writers everywhere by nerfing links, the recent change also ensured X would be less relevant culturally, since the conversation is now driven more by content produced on X itself. Perpetual motion machines don’t work, and for similar reasons social networks can’t run solely on their own fumes. Eventually, entropy catches up.
Without a land of many doorways, what happens next? For writers, or content creators of any kind really, it’s a terrible blow to no longer have an information clearing housing to pop into and share things. It means that discoverability of good writing is suddenly harder than ever, and you have to think of all sorts of annoying ways (post screenshots! do threads with the link at the end!) to get around what is essentially universal shadowbanning. A significant number of the top writers on Substack itself drew in a lot of their initial audience from their Twitter presences—a migration that would be far less effective now.
While this may seem like simply the consequence of Musk’s personal decisions, it’s just part of a broader trend. At a high level, social networks are evolving into one of two types: either they are large but high-walled gardens, with a covetous boundary drawn around the entirety of the network (Tik Tok, Facebook, Instagram, now X), or alternatively they are federations, which instead draw many internal boundaries and create a confederacy. Federated networks offer a kind of decentralized centralization. An archetypal example is Reddit: a million little fiefdoms of activity, each “subreddit” a forum devoted to some particular topic.
Is Reddit the most successful social media network? In market cap, no; although they are usually within the top 10 most-used social media websites, and have had steady user growth since 2012, they’ve never reached the user base of the big hitters. But forget that the company is merely profitable instead of being a billionaire spawning pool. What about the moral impact? For I think Reddit, despite all its flaws, probably does make the internet a better place. Look no further than how almost all Google searches can be improved by just adding “reddit” to the end of them. Really, try it. I’m not much of a Reddit poster myself, but the second I have some esoteric question: “How should I train a dog to do this trick?” or “How do I make homemade wine from wild grapes?” I can quickly find an entire subreddit community devoted to answering it. I’ve never experienced anything like that on, say, Instagram, or even the old Twitter.
Substack is a federated network too. It’s why I like it. A true federated network balances the partitioned aspect (the content) with a discoverability aspect (the algorithm). For this latter part Substack now has an attached social network, Notes, that operates much like Twitter used to, as well as an associated app—just today, a new version of the Substack app launched, one with a design I actually like (rare for an app). But ultimately the core of Substack remains the boundaries drawn around its personalities. Communities that coalesce around authors don’t have to interact with one another, and that’s actually a good thing. Any sort of global feed is a supplement, not a replacement, of the federated nature of the platform.
Which will win? Federated networks or walled gardens? Long-term my money is on the federated networks. Facebook is notoriously shy about posting user numbers, but it appears that the platform has been in decline for a couple years, especially among younger users. I can easily imagine a future without Facebook, say in 10 or 20 years, and it’s becoming easier to imagine a world without The Network Formerly Known as Twitter as well. Meanwhile, it’s hard to imagine a future without Reddit. No, Reddit’s steady growth will continue, and Substack’s growth will continue too, no matter what happens with the other larger social networks, simply because the federated nature of the two makes them, well, a lot more useful. They improve the experience of being online.
So writers shouldn’t worry. It’s going to take longer, but eventually the federated model will prove superior, or at least, surprisingly competitively durable. And with the demise of the last big information clearing house in X’s turn toward being a walled garden, there is something freeing about all this. It means that the internet is what you make of it.
To indulge in some pessimistic realism: What do people expect anyways? To be famous? As a writer? Are you kidding? There’s no such thing. Even famous authors aren’t actually famous, not anymore. Sally Rooney, perhaps the most critically-acclaimed young literary author, can walk down any street in America and will never be recognized. All the old giants are dead. There is no literary 80s “brat pack”—all those careers are unreplicable now. And that's just being Bret Easton Ellis, let alone an actually famous historical author.
I used to be a researcher at Columbia University and I would take my lunch on the steps of the lawn, and in front of me would loom the library. Upon its weathered face is carved the names: HOMER HERODOTUS SOPHOCLES PLATO ARISTOTLE DEMOSTHENES CICERO VERGIL.
I remember thinking, munching on my sandwich: no living person, from now until the end of history, will ever join that pantheon. It’s over. It’s always been over, and it’s been over for hundreds of years. The demise of the open internet is just some tiny step in long road.
And yet, you can still be read. There’s no great prestige in writing a newsletter, at least compared to some other literary endeavors. But there are readers. Oh boy, are there readers. Anyway, most traditionally published authors, even successful ones, don’t make a living from their books—their primary salary comes from academia, where they teach people to be writers, who then can in turn get their primary salary from teaching others to be writers, and so it goes. But plenty of Substack authors pull a respectable salary from their words alone. Not only that, but there can be, I think, a space for art here. For the difference between a massive but high-walled garden and a federated network is the honeycomb-like structure of the latter. All the little parts, sequestered away. And does not all art necessarily exist within its own delicate conditions, squeezed into some isolated part of something larger? Is art not, necessarily, a hard-to-grow hothouse orchid reserved solely for those willing to seek it?