1/ This week the New York Times columnist David Brooks praised Substack.com as a vanguard for free speech and intellectual freedom. “The first good thing about Substack is there’s no canceling,” Brooks wrote. “The next good thing is there are no ads, just subscription revenue.” Brooks’ exemplar is journalist Andrew Sullivan who recently left New York Magazine to launch his own Substack page with 60,000 subscribers.
2/ Brooks’ insight is important for the current debate on academic publishing in the COVID-19 environment. I was able to work at the former Disinformation website between 1998 and 2008 in part because publisher Gary Baddeley and creative director Richard Metzger combined an artistic vision with financial control. Academic Nick Srnicek made me aware of the post-2008 rise of what he termed Platform Capitalism: low interest rates that enabled multi-sided markets to flourish as platforms like the pre-lawsuit Gawker, Medium, Airbnb, and Uber. When I took out an Academia.edu subscription a year ago I began to see my research track record to date as a series of data points.
3/ Substack’s innovations are not necessarily new. I started a blog in about 2003-04 on LiveJournal called The Apocalyptic Style of Geopolitics before migrating to my personal website alexburns.net. My current research program blog vegatheory.com is modelled in part on George Mason University economist Tyler Cowen’s successful blog marginalrevolution.com. I also managed a daily newsletter in 1999-2008 for Disinformation which had a subscriber list. Substack provides this functionality to manage subscribers. Importantly, it also enables authors and bloggers to build an audience using their platform—and to get paid.
4/ What Substack enables is what portfolio manager Anton Kreil calls “building your own infrastructure.” In the post-2008 world, the institutional funding for Early Career Researchers (the first five years after PhD conferral) became difficult: the COVID world is replaying this outcome for a new cohort of ECRs. The two main challenges are data collection and engagement and impact. Substack, a WordPress blog, and a Twitter account helps to address the latter. If your focus is on social media and tweetstreams like Queensland University of Technology professor Axel Bruns then the same infrastructure can help with (online) data collection as well.
5/ It took Andrew Sullivan fifteen years to build his audience. It took me about 5 years - amplified by Richard Metzger’s publishing and television show interests on contemporary occulture - to build an audience at the Disinformation website. I’m essentially doing the same again with this Substack newsletter and with my vegatheory.com website, which will kick into gear as my post PhD research program unfolds. Substack gives me the opportunity to reach a targeted audience with research notes and more longform pieces - the platform’s analytics give me real-time feedback on impact and engagement that I don’t get from academic journal publishing. I look forward to actively engaging with you - and thank you for your continued support.