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.