Substack, patreon and the problem of free expression

by Kevin Currie-Knight


We live at a time where we simultaneously hear much about the rise of censorship, and where it has never been so easy to disseminate information and opinion. They are problematically censoring my speech, so I am writing a blog post about it informed by a plethora of freely available podcasts telling me how bad the censorship problem is! Maybe this is ironic. Maybe we are most convinced that things are getting worse only when they are arguably at their best. Or, maybe there is no irony here at all. Maybe the fact that it is so easy to publish in this day and age is the solution to those stolid “legacy” and social media outlets who seem to be censoring.

There is, however, a new model – what I will call the “filter forward” model – of content delivery that seems to get around the problem of censorship by large organizations. Individual content creators publish direct to consumers, who (generally) pay by a subscription model. While there is some promise here, I worry that this model has significant downsides and will replace one problem with a very similar one. I’ll explain.

Recently, a number of journalists have left conventional news outlets ostensibly for reasons of being or feeling censored. Matt Taibbi left Rolling Stone magazine out of concern for how the magazine was becoming an ideological echo chamber. Andrew Sullivan, Bari Weiss, and Matt Yglesias all left their respective “legacy media” outlets because they thought that their heterodox opinions increasingly were not tolerated. And finally, Glenn Greenwald jumped ship from The Intercept, a magazine he helped to found, because of The intercept’s apparent refusal to run a piece looking into Joe Biden’s possible involvement in corrupt activities through his son.

In a prior age, these defectors likely would have had to find, or start, another outlet to publish “under.” But with the exception (for now?) of Bari Weiss, all of the above journalists went to one place: Substack. Substack is less a magazine or newspaper than it is a marketplace, where journalists and writers can sell their output to consumers directly via a subscription model. Nor is substack the only such place where entrepreneurial content creators can bypass middlemen of yore — radio stations, magazines, newspapers — and offer their content directly to consumers. Patreon, Medium, Soundcloud, YouTube, OnlyFans (for, cough, that kind of content) and other platforms use this direct-to-consumer model.

In his 2012 book Too Big to Know, philosopher of the internet, David Weinberger presciently described this as the “filter forward” model of knowledge production. In the past, he argues, we used to filter out. If you wanted to write, you had to convince some a publisher that your work was worth appearing in a particular venue. They filtered out the stuff they deemed unworthy and published only what they believed would appeal to their audience. Today, argues Weinberger, “we seem to be making the cultural choice – with our new infrastructure’s thumb heavy on the scale – to prefer to start with abundance rather than curation. Include it all. Filter it afterward. Even then, the filters do not remove anything; they filter forward, not out.” Today, organizations don’t filter. Consumers do.

Substack (or Patreon, Medium or Onlyfans) promises to be a “freer” experience for content creators in a similar way. In each case, creators create and release content without having to clear it by any larger editorial vetting process, and consumers pay via a subscription model to receive that content. A journalist can write and release her work as she sees fit, and if I want to get access to that work, I subscribe not to a magazine she writes for, but to her work specifically. The content isn’t filtered before release, but, in a sense, after, by the consumers. The creator “wins” because she is free to publish as she’d like, and the consumer “wins” because he can support and receive content from the creators he is interested in without subscribing to some larger bundle of creators and whatever vetting process governs it.

In a way, this does seem like progress from what Weinberger calls the “filter out” model of yore. There, what the large media outlets decide not to publish never has the opportunity to be seen by an audience. Not only are consumers left unaware of the content that didn’t make it through the gates, but they are unaware of what the filtration process is that led to those editorial decisions. Pace Herman and Chomsky’s analysis in Manufacturing Consent, that often means that whatever biases the publisher has are rendered invisible to the consumer. It also means that writers – who want to move their stuff through the gates – often have to write with those gates and their specifications in mind. That is arguably a recipe for a very skewed (or skewable) outlet.

For the most part, I really like the promise of this new “filter forward” model for the reasons specified above. But I do worry about some things. First, journalists like Glenn Greenwald and Matt Taibbi may feel freer when they do not have to write with editors in mind. But they are likely exchanging that for the equally constraining possibility of writing with a paying audience in mind.

Somewhat ironically, Taibbi, Greenwald, Sullivan, Yglesias, and Weiss may be less susceptible to this pressure given that they all established their bona fides years ago working for traditional media outlets. Matt Taibbi changes his mind and writes something that doesn’t reinforce the expectation of his customers? He’s still Matt Taibbi. But journalists and writers with less standing may have just as hard of a time gaining and keeping subscription-paying customers as they would if they worked for a magazine, if they fail to stick to a certain script.

As much as I love diversity and individuality, I worry that this “filter forward” media trend has no chance of solving the problem of a fractured and increasingly balkanized media landscape. I don’t put as much value on unity as some do, but I worry that this inevitably leads to customers paying only for content that is willing to reinforce their biases. If Matt Taibbi (rightly) worries that news outlets have become increasingly eager to serve as bias-reinforcers for their target audience, I can’t see how the “filter forward” model is going to do anything but hasten that problem. When I consume traditional news sources, there is at least the possibility of being confronted with stories that do not reflect my biases. When I pay directly  and only for the content I want, even that opportunity is effectively gone.

So, I am ambivalent. (A familiar spot for me.) I can’t help but celebrate, as Weinberger does, the diversifying and in some ways liberatory potential that comes when this new approach to media disrupts the old. Yet, I am also skeptical of some of the hype around this new model. Yes, there will be gatekeepers. Customers’ gates can be every bit as restrictive as editors’ gates. That they are smaller and more numerous doesn’t mean they can’t be powerfully slammed shut. And bypassing traditional media outlets doesn’t assuage the potential for biased media as much as it allows one million biased flowers to bloom, allowing customers more control of what voices shall say to earn customer support. Time will tell, and I hope I am wrong. But I hope we are not just replacing one problematic scenario with another.


9 responses to “Substack, patreon and the problem of free expression”

  1. s. wallerstein

    Yes, customers are going to only pay for contents which reinforce their biases, but already most of us tend only read those media which reinforce their biases.

    The solution: have children. Any moderately thinking person is bound to have children who don’t agree with his or her political opinions and who constantly contradict our biases. In my case, that has not changed as they have grown up and reached chronological middle age.

    And while we can click on another website if the article we are reading challenges our biases, we can’t click our children out of our lives, if only because we need them as much as they need us, probably more as we reach old age.

  2. Reading this got me thinking about The Electric Agora, about where it fits in or might fit in to the picture. Dan’s commitment and energy and Twitter presence have, with the help of contributors, created an independent site with some potential.

  3. Mark, I think the stable of regular writers, all with very different orientations and interests is absolutely key. This thing would *not* have been successful if it was just my blog.

  4. jofrclark


    In the presented “filter forward” trend based on subscription, the age old publisher’s problem of creating marketable content in order to keep the lights on now falls largely on the writer herself rather than the publisher (in exchange for less censorship), and writers start looking more like publishers. Creating enough marketable value to defend a subscription depends on “bona fides” garnered through some other activity rather than the weight of a recognized publisher’s name.

    But aren’t social media outlets essentially “filter forward” publishing platforms without a subscription? They create readership by removing nearly all hurdles (including subscription and bona fides) to being both a content producer and content receiver by facilitating existing and new connected networks (e.g. existing social networks or by # interest networks). These social media “publishers” are also currently struggling with the age old publishers problems of how much (if any) content to censor prior to publication (e.g. hate speech, inciting violence) and how much content to label as problematic concurrent with publication (e.g misinformation defined by some criteria) without eroding their marketability.

    Same publishing and content producing problems as ever, just reshuffled and re-expressed. What I worry about is that the publishing platforms (as before) are still getting disproportionately rewarded relative to the content producers. Why is Zuckerberg rewarded at a level many orders of magnitude over the writers that produce the content he depends on for his platform why isn’t some of that wealth “payed forward” to the writers?

  5. s. wallerstein


    In your excellent dialogue with Dan about the conservative movement, you explain how you joined the movement seeking a “band of brothers”. I’ve never been involved with conservatism, but I got into the left over 55 years ago, for similar reasons. Political involvement is also a great place to meet and impress women.

    If we can keep in mind our original motivations for forming our political opinions, especially for forming dogmatic and
    closed opinions, the biases of the media will never be a real problem for us because we’ll read or listen to or watch it, aware of that those pundits who opine with such authority and sureness of their political certitude and moral self righteousness developed their opinions for similar reasons although along the way they may have conveniently “forgotten” how their beliefs arose.

    A bit of self-awareness and of being honest with oneself is a sure antidote for political correctness on the left and on the right. For the sake of mental health most of us would do well to carry out a daily genealogy of our political beliefs and of the beliefs of those who opine so Olympically.

  6. It never ceases to delight me – and I mean that honestly – the interesting disagreements Dan and I are capable of generating and sustaining, despite some really interesting similarities in how we think about things. And I can certainly say that for some of the disagreements I’ve had with other regular contributors. I like being part of a group where we can and do have those disagreements, as I’ve been part of too many groups where that was frowned upon. As Dan says, it is that diversity of orientation and interest that gives Electric Agora some extra sauce.

    And I’m glad Dan is down for twitter presence, because not only do I not have twitter presence, but am absolutely unwilling to jump aboard that giant cesspool. I’ve tried enough to say with much confidence “no more!”

  7. I have had my own running critique of the media in my head for many decades now. Things have certainly worsened since the 1980 – as I mentioned in another comment elsewhere, pressure from the Reagan right, Clinton’s deregulations, the commercialization of the news, transition to infotainment, and more and worse…. But while it has gotten worse, it was really never very good. There’s a rhetorical critique from the ’30s of how the New York Times reported the Depression by the great Kenneth Burke, if you can ever dig it up (I don’t have it to hand). But criticism of news media, sometimes churlish and self-serving, sometimes incisive and on target, has been going on since they first started showing up back in, what, the 15th century? It always helps to remember that journalists are people, not machines. When I was young I learned a lot about photography and film-making, and the first thing I learned was that the person behind the camera decides what is seen and what it means. I got into experimental cinema to find some way to disrupt that, but it’s pointless. Even Warhol’s “Empire” (the Empire State Building for 4 to 24 hours, depending on which version you see), is Warhol’s comment on architectural monumentalism in New York City – and on his own ennui, of course, as pretty much every thing he did was.

    As for the discussion concerning various internet platforms; frankly I’m glad I don’t get much of it. At home I’m on dial-up. I don’t even have a cell-phone – why should I want to called while working, or taking a walk, or eating lunch? I’ll decide when I want others to be able to talk to me! (Since I work late, it’s never before 11AM.) I suspect ‘social media’ is a tar-baby, the fly-paper the Three Stooges always had so much difficulty pulling their hands off of. I can’t even read books online, I need paper I can turn over and travel through.

    I can promise, pessimistically, that whatever ‘improvements we make,’ things will get worse, they always do. “But I hope we are not just replacing one problematic scenario with another.” There’ never been a solution that didn’t cause problems.

  8. January 8, 2021: Donald Trump has been banned from any and all Twitter accounts.

    I post this here, rather than on the previous article, because it reminds us of the limits of “free speech.” Of course, Twitter is not a public-sector platform, it is privately owned, and determines its own rules. Nonetheless, the people of the United states have a vested interest here. (Libertarians want that ignored, but such is impossible – public speech is shared speech, it is from, to, in and of the community.) First, then, the right of free speech is granted by a government; there is nothing sacred or “natural” to it. It is in the interests and to the benefit of all citizens of a liberal republic with democratic aspirations to legislate as broad a “right of free speech” as possible – but this “as possible” is not without limits.

    The Supreme Court has long held that calling “Fire!” in a crowded theater is not protected by the First Amendment. Both case law and statutory law hold that there is no right to incite violence, riot, or sedition. Doing any such comprises criminal behavior.

    In his speech to the right-wing mob on January 6 Donald Trump committed all three transgressions. Impeachment is likely. If I understand the law aright (and I may not), hopefully the now Democratic Senate will adjourn removal proceedings (since they won’t get the removal vote from enough Republicans) ‘until, and unless and if Donald Trump is elected or appointed to any Federal office position.’ If he is so elected or appointed, the trial for his removal would then immediately proceed. We cannot have another minute of this right-wing revolutionary criminal. He may only be in it opportunistically (for money or to feed the ego of his mental illness). But the damage he has done, what he could do, is not acceptable.

    The question going forward is how to prevent further Donald Trumps from holding high office. That’s a bothersome and difficult question, but it must be entertained. Forget the ‘Adolf Hitler’ comparisons; forget even Mussolini (with whom Trump shares much, both in political approach and in personality). The question is simply and only, how do we never ever have another Donald Trump, who once dominated the media through his Twitter account?

    The sad state of the media is a problem; the sad state of ‘identity politics’ is a problem. But the January 6 insurrection demonstrates that the existential threat of Trumpism far outweighs either of these. Because Trumpism will now even survive Trump.

    America is at a cross-roads. The basic assumptions about ‘rights’ and about journalism that this article depends on (at least in the US) now hang in the balance.

  9. The timing of your essay dropping, man! Holy crap. Creepily prophetic.