Behavior is the Product of Incentives: a note on yesterday's posts

You may very well be wondering why I published two posts yesterday, within hours of each other, about the same broad topics and themes, with one being incendiary, the other being academic. Well, I can understand if this is a bit frustrating, and I promise I won’t do it again - it was in a sense a kind of experiment, or to prove a point.

What were the results of the experiment? They were stark! Substack has a lot of metrics you can access; the incendiary, gossipy post got almost 30,000 views, while the polite one got less than 6,000 views. As of right now the first post resulted in 248 people getting on the mailing list and 72 people signing up for a subscription; the second got 21 people on the mailing list and 13 subscriptions. On Facebook the incendiary edition got 105 likes and 7 shares, while the more subdued version got 25 likes and 0 shares. I don’t have any way to quantify impact on Twitter but even a cursory investigation shows many, many more people talking about the first post than the second. The audience has voted with their feet. It’s true that the first post has been up for 5ish more hours than the second, but it’s also true that the mailing list had several hundred more members when the second post went out. Some people wrote me to say that they were canceling their subscriptions because I was back on my old bullshit, but the net impact to the visibility and profitability of this newsletter was highly positive.

The first post was mostly driven by my cynical understanding of how to get eyeballs on a new project, derived from 13 years of professional journos playing my game: negative attention is still attention. I’m sure this is true in a lot of industries, and it’s definitely been true with me and writing - it is better to be passionately followed by a few than to be tepidly admired by everybody. Extreme opinions inspire loyalty among a minority that is ultimately more valuable than the unenthusiastic approval of the whole crowd. Like back in my freelancing days. Yes, three quarters of the editors assigning freelance work hated me. But the remaining quarter saw that I drove engagement and wanted to pay me for my reliable production of traffic. When you’re trying to sell yourself in any industry you see a hole you could fill and fill it. In media, a big hole is "People Who Don’t Care About Being Popular on Media Twitter.” The number of media people in that category is vanishingly small, so it was an easy hole to fill. I’d write about them and they’d get mad and they’d tweet furiously about it and that raised my profile, bringing me plenty of hate but also readers that didn’t hate me that I wouldn’t have had otherwise. I believe everything I said in the Nitro Edition post, but I also knew exactly how Twitter would react, and they did.

My point is not that every time I’d write a highly controversial post it would be part of some highly-calculated long con. Usually when I wrote those things it was the opposite of calculated. The point is that from very early in my writing career there was an obvious reward structure in place, and like anybody would I responded to that reward structure, usually unconsciously.

From a bird’s eye view none of this should be surprising. People have been complaining about the superior attention-grabbing power of the prurient and the explosive, when compared to the sober and responsible, since well before the internet. And in the internet era especially there is a constant lament that what generates traffic, and thus advances careers, is sensationalism and appeal to the lowest common denominator. Gawker would publish 5000 word treatises on the state of union drives in newspapers or whatever and get 500,000 views; Neetzan Zimmerman would post a video of a guy getting hit in the nuts with 250 meaningless words appended and get 6 million. Ideally the viral stuff subsidizes the stuff with depth, but you still have to have the viral stuff to pay the bills.

In my writing career I have written vastly more academic and serious posts than I have combative and bitchy posts. Vastly more. I probably wrote maybe one post like the first one every two years - but that is what they remember, that’s what expanded my profile, that’s what resulted in greater opportunity. In the industry I’m synonymous with angry critiques of media culture and media people; people spit when they hear my name, but they recognize it precisely because of the negative attention. When they think of me they don’t think of the hundreds of posts I’ve written about education policy because those didn’t offend anyone. Readers always, always tell me that they just want to see the academic posts, just the serious posts. What they don’t seem to realize is that if I had stuck to writing just those thoughtful essays they wouldn’t have heard of me in the first place. Had I not gotten a reputation through making others mad, I would never have written for places like the NYT Magazine and Harper’s, never gotten my book deal from St. Martin’s, never been approached by Substack to do this project. These are unhealthy incentives. But they are powerful incentives.

Obviously, it’s not all hate clicks. People hate read, they don’t hate sign on to give you money every month. So what drove all those subscriptions from the first post? Well, like I’ve been saying, many many people really dislike the media and feel deeply alienated from media culture. And they’re not all Fox News viewers.

While the superior performance of the more sensationalistic post is a reflection of a global dynamic, I do think there are some facets that are particularly important for 21st century digital media.

  1. The fact that media culture is so easily manipulable - the fact that I reliably derived attention and traffic by shooting broadsides at media Twitter for over a decade - is a consequence of the homogeneity of that culture. If there was more political, cultural, and personal diversity within the field, far fewer people would have felt they needed to defend the honor of the culture writ large. Why defend a social group if it’s broad and varied enough that you don’t particularly recognize yourself in it? But media culture is in fact incredibly homogenous, which means that a critique that hits close to home hurts for many people. Media culture is irony; it’s politicizing everything while taking nothing seriously; it’s social climbing; it’s New York-obsessed; it’s addicted to Twitter; it’s for the college educated; it’s filled with status anxiety; it’s the product of deep personal insecurity; it’s woke. I can criticize that stuff because it’s specific and it’s specific because everybody is so much the same. It would be better, in many dimensions, if it were more diverse.

  2. Just not engaging is a powerful tool. If you were Sarah Jones, why would you respond to that first post at all? Some will say “you criticized her on a public forum, of course she’s going to respond” - but those are the exact same people who expect me to not respond to similar attacks on a public forum myself. Look, this is a newsletter that gets delivered to your email. If you don’t want to see it, it’s very easy to avoid! Why perpetuate the cycle? I suspect it’s just to enjoy other members of your culture racing to have your back. But that only exacerbates the underlying cyclical problem. If you don’t like a dynamic, don’t perpetuate it by playing into its reward structure.

  3. I can’t find numbers on this but it anecdotally seems that there’s far more turnover in the industry than there used to be. Once upon a time you wrote for the college paper, got a job at the local alt weekly, then graduated to the big state paper and finally to a national like NYT or WaPo, all over the course of 40 years. Now it’s perfectly common for people to hold staff writer positions for five different publications in the span of a decade, in part because of the sheer volatility of the industry. (Remember Vocativ?) What this means is that you are essentially always on the job market, and that means in turn that you can’t risk offending anybody. That writer whose piece you criticize publicly might be the editor who is giving your job interview a year later. So the professional incentive is to make nice, in addition to the social pressure to conform in order to be liked.

  4. Substack and Patreon are attracting creators and audiences because a lot of people feel that the range of voices and opinions in conventional media has become terribly narrow. (Again, the internet homogenizes: when you are constantly bombarded with the opinions of your colleagues and peers you can’t help but be subtly conditioned by those opinions.) A healthy response to this would be to ask hard questions about your industry and why many people feel they need alternatives. But you can’t have serious, introspective discussion like that when your social culture dictates that you can’t take anything seriously lest you look like you’re actually sincere about something. As far as I can tell, media’s general response to Substack has been what it is to everything these days - “lol lol nothing matters lol nothing matters lol lol.” If you’re Doing Irony all the time you lack the analytical and communicative tools to address very real problems.

Finally, let me say: I was dead serious in that first post about how useful it would be if someone from within the culture I’m critiquing engaged critically with these topics. That person would no doubt be far less harsh than I am, which is fine. But one way or another, the way that the field has become less and less ideologically diverse is worth exploring; the collapse of the distinction between professional and personal relationships is worth exploring; the way Twitter and the internet in general condition people to get along rather than to make waves is worth exploring; the relationship between the public perception of who journalists and writers are as people and the huge declines in public trust of media is worth exploring; why nobody ever writes about this stuff, the media culture of omerta, is worth exploring. Get on that, NYT Mag! I promise, that piece would do numbers. It would blow up on… Twitter. It would generate a bunch of response pieces. It would be the big topic of conversation that day. You just need to find a writer with a little guts.

Tomorrow a lighter post on the entertainment industry, then quiet for the weekend.