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Substack Notes as High-Quality Twitter
Keeping out the riff-raff and the future of democracy
When I was a kid, writing on bathroom walls was a thing. You’d go to pee, turn your head, and read a few sentences about the threat of Islam or the coming white minority and what it portends for the future of America. There would even sometimes be replies to previous writing — an early version of comment threads. Before my time, it was also apparently a thing to put the number of a girl you were stalking on a bathroom wall, a cultural trope immortalized by Tommy Tutone.
The last time I can remember seeing bathroom graffiti of this sort, not including the scribblings of urban thugs and their suburban imitators, is when I was an undergrad. Maybe I just hang out in nicer places now, but I’m under the impression that this practice has died off. People aren’t writing things on the wall while sitting on the toilet anymore. They’ve got their phones. And I’m pretty sure that the people who would’ve felt the need to share their political views on a bathroom stall a generation ago are now doing so instead on Twitter.
Like many, I’ve had a love/hate relationship with the site. The best part is the ability to connect with intelligent and thoughtful people through a convenient interface that facilitates engagement. The worst part is the ability to connect with stupid and hateful people through a convenient interface that facilitates engagement.
The media critic Marshall McLuhan famously said “the medium is the message,” and Twitter’s greatest strength has always been its main weakness. Around here in LA County, free public parks are often littered with homeless people who make the entire experience of being there unpleasant, but if a park charges even a token amount of money for entry, say $10, suddenly you can have an environment in which everyone looks like they brush their teeth. Twitter is the public park. There is no barrier to entry, so the bathroom graffiti scribblers ruin everything. This is in part because the app is simply very user friendly. The short communication format further draws in people who don’t have the intelligence or attention span to read anything over 280 characters at a time.
I don’t require people to pay in order to comment on this Substack, as some do, but the fact that default communication on this website occurs through longform essays drives away the kinds of people you don’t want to talk to. Generally, when someone disagrees with me here, they at least are able to write in grammatical English and show evidence of having read the article they’re critiquing. A Twitter account that belongs to someone who actually reads the article they’re outraged about is something of a rarity. Finding useful commentary in replies or quote tweets to anything I put on that website now requires wading through mountains of garbage. This seems to have gotten worse since Elon took over, to the point that it’s not worth it.
An obscure academic or writer may have a small, intelligent group of followers. But there’s a general rule in which the bigger the account, the trashier, stupider, and more unhinged the replies. I agree with Noah Smith that the internet is better when it’s fragmented. But part of desirable fragmentation is simply about quality control.
Many people have had their brains melted by partisanship, so they believe that only the left or the right has declined over the last decade. From my perspective, both sides are notably stupider than they were around 2010, with even smart people having to cater more to the worst of their own tribe. One small example of this is more people on both sides of the political spectrum seeming to believe that Americans have a lower standard of living than they did a generation or two ago. This is objectively false. Very few people who read essays or books believe this, but those who develop their worldview based on memes sometimes do. Both Trump and Elizabeth Warren are two sides of the same coin when they talk about how hard life is for Americans today and how the poor are getting screwed. This is the Twitter effect — the website has lowered the barrier to entry to be part of the discourse, and the discourse has gotten stupider, whether we’re talking about the rhetoric of politicians or those considered public intellectuals.
For these reasons, I’ve always dreamed of a Twitter with a minimum IQ requirement. Or, more importantly, a way to filter out the hateful and intellectually lazy; the stupid and curious are much more tolerable. With the rolling out of Notes, I hope that it’s finally here.
Substack distinguishes itself from Twitter by being based on a subscription model, not one that seeks to maximize number of eyeballs and therefore bring in ad revenue. Losers, almost by definition not being very smart or willing to take initiative, gravitate to places where communication is cheap, easy, and convenient. Just as how the homeless are never found in private parks, even seemingly de minimis barriers to entry are enough to keep many of them away from a social media site. People talk about Twitter’s advantage being in its network effects, but, as noted above, that means having large numbers of both high quality and low quality users. The latter category is a much larger share of the population, so they will eventually take over your feed if it gets large enough in an ad-based service. The ad versus subscriptions dichotomy roughly corresponds to differences between conservative and liberal media, explaining why even right-wingers, if they’re honest, have to admit the latter is of much higher quality.
Right now, many of the people I enjoy following on Twitter are posting on Notes, and getting 0 or 1 replies on their messages. Those who do reply are disproportionately other serious writers, and I’ve seen nobody respond to a serious point with a meme, an “lol,” or calling someone a “demon” or a “ghoul.” I’ll still be using Twitter for its reach, and occasionally to be entertained. But it’s way too inclusive to be a place to have useful conversations.
For Notes to succeed, it’s going to have to be mindful of where its comparative advantage is. This means taking steps to ensure that the conversations stay relatively small and selective. Simply not being Twitter might be enough for a while — again, the latter already has the network effects “advantage.” But the danger is that Notes might become a victim of its own success, and to prevent this from happening may require giving users more options over how to curate their own experiences.
I’ll refrain from making a list of suggestions here, but one thing I hope that Substack will consider is creating the option of not having to interact with anonymous accounts through a real verification system. A lot of right-wingers associate anonymity with freedom and the ability to avoid being punished by censorious employers. But much more often, it’s used to hide behavior that people would be cancelled or ostracized for in real life for good reason. Your employer would probably fire you if you went around under your own name telling women they’re ugly, and no reasonable person would blame them. My experience with anonymous accounts on Twitter is that for every one that has insightful things to say, there are dozens of basket cases who should be encouraged to stay as far away from political discourse as possible. No matter how it’s done, Notes will live up to its promise if it is able to maximize the value of the product by finding ways, both through engineering design and informal norms, to select high-quality users.
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