In which James Tynion IV gives his thoughts on the Substack platform, addresses concerns, and explains why he plans on moving there, and away from social media.
So, I thought I’d jump in today with some thoughts about social media, and some more thoughts about why I made the jump to Substack.
In short: I think social media is terrible! So, I’m leaving it.
As of today, I’m basically only going to use the @JamesTheFourth account to let folks know when I’ve posted a new article here on Substack, and maybe the occasional retweet. And then my goal is, sometime at the end of this month or the start of the next, to shutter the @JamesTheFourth account indefinitely. The @ReadTinyOnion account will continue to be active, with news about my latest comic book releases, but I’m going to be paying somebody to run that page, and it’s going to be fully promotional. This newsletter is going to be my only regular mode of direct contact with the internet. So, if you haven’t subscribed yet, you should!
There was a moment in the early days of social media where I bought in hard. I remember either a New York Times or New Yorker article about the benefits of “Ambient Awareness” and how Twitter and Facebook were a return to the sorts of small-town community, where you lived in a group of about 200 people and knew everyone’s business, but now that community didn’t have to be geographically locked! Your community of 200 people could live all around the world, and include your favorite writer, and your favorite musician, and what have you! Back in those early days, there was a kind of utopian bent on what social media could be, and I wanted to believe.
But now… It feels pretty clear that the endgame of social media is more dystopian than utopian. The algorithms that underly the platforms feed on engagement at all costs, and keep us frothed up and angry to try and force us to engage with it. I don’t know if you’ve ever tried stripping down one of your social media accounts, to use it less, but they fight back for your attention. They do not accept the idea that you do not want to spend hours on their platform every single day. It turns out that sticking literally millions of people in a single room to shout over each other for attention isn’t good for the spread of information. And it becomes a whole other thing once you hit a critical mass. You are receiving constant inputs about what people think about you, and what you said, and those inputs are demanding your attention. You can’t have any opinion anymore without dozens of people jumping down your throat or shutting it down. You can’t have a bad day when the internet doesn’t want you to, and you can’t have a good day when the internet doesn’t want you to.
And then I started doing research for my conspiracy thriller The Department of Truth, and read a lot more about the spread of conspiracy theories around the internet, and I really started seeing how dangerous these algorithms are. Like I talked about in my launch newsletter, there’s a natural human curiosity toward dangerous ideas, and I do believe that there is a healthy way to engage with dangerous subject matter… But then you hop on a platform that is run by a mathematical formula that requires you to engage with it at all costs. So you follow one natural thread of curiosity, and the platform itself keeps dragging you deeper and deeper and deeper down a terrifying rabbit hole. You don’t like a movie or a comic book? Here’s a rabbit hole dragging you into a culture war fight you weren’t invested in before. You don’t like a politician? Here’s a rabbit hole dragging you toward white nationalist groups. You’re curious about a conspiracy theory you heard someone talking about at work? Here’s the fast track to the most passionate recruiting material by the most diehard believers. I think this shit is literally rewiring people’s brains. It’s the kind of brainwashing that you get by joining a cult, but it’s being done to you by a mathematical formula with no agenda beyond making you keep using the platform, so they can keep showing you ads. The more fanatically bonded with that platform it can make you, the more it can sell you. And the more it radicalizes you, the more it’s going to sell you things that are going to further radicalize you.
I think algorithmic social media platforms are literally destroying the world, and that’s part of what made the Substack offer so appealing to me. It is a decidedly anti-algorithm platform.
I genuinely think that Substack has the potential to be better than Twitter or Facebook or YouTube precisely because it strips away the algorithmic rabbit holes and moves us a step closer to the kind of decentralized internet that started dying out in the mid-2000s.
I think there are horrendous people using the Substack platform, just like I think there are horrendous people using Twitter, Facebook, and YouTube. The difference is, if you engage with my material here on Substack, the platform isn’t going to push you toward creators whose views I find reprehensible. If you engage with me on Twitter, the algorithm is going to sort you into a list thinking it understands what you like, and it might thoughtlessly point you in the direction of some extremely fucked up people. If I used Facebook or Youtube, it would do the same. On top of that, those are ad-driven platforms that rely on the same kinds of algorithms, basically taking the content I create and using it to sell you products and companies I cannot and do not vouch for in a system I cannot opt out of. We are the products that algorithmic platforms sell to advertisers for money. That’s their business model. It’s gross, and I don’t feel comfortable being a part of it. That is a huge reason that I am transitioning off Twitter and into this format to speak to all of you.
Here, I have the power to promote who I want to promote and put money in the pockets of creators whose work I like and support. It’s a closed system, between me and you, that only links out to what I want it to link out to. And it’s a system that I have the absolute power to leave at the end of one year, with no strings attached, with my email list, stripe account (how you pay for Substack), and all the intellectual property I developed here with my co-creators. And you all get to know that I stand by everything you read from me. By seeing me promote something here, you know that I, James Tynion IV, am personally vouching for it. I have a big platform, so that matters tremendously to me.
What has been expressed to me over and over by people inside of the company is that they are vehemently against the algorithmic model the big social media companies use. More than anything else, if they changed that aspect of their business model, I would have a real problem with it, and would strongly reconsider staying on another year. But there are other serious controversies surround the platform, which I think David Harper spoke to in a balanced way in his SKTCHD article earlier this week.
I agree that there are bad actors using this platform. I am a queer person, and there are some people using Substack who make my skin crawl. But there are also a bunch of queer writers and creators of all stripes getting six-figure Substack Pro grants, and access to health insurance, who have never been offered that kind of security by any other company, certainly not in a way that lets them keep the rights to everything they make and walk away at the end of it. And comic creators specifically. And on that front, I am pretty militant… I think the best way to help queer creators is giving them financial stability, not fencing them in creatively, and giving them the security of fully owning their creations (which they are rarely offered). Too often queer people are hired by big corporations and put in a box where they are only allowed to do what their bosses say queer content is supposed to look like, and then they are hung out to dry when that approximation of authenticity is rejected both by the community it’s supposed to appeal to and the folks less inclined to want that change. The rejection is blamed on the creator who had next to no hand in making the decision and used as an excuse to cycle them out of the talent pool.
Saladin Ahmed had a great post yesterday where he talked about not ceding ground and resources on platforms, and that really resonated with me and is worth reading. I think a byproduct of growing up queer as a teenager at an all-boys Catholic High School in the middle of Bush-era America means that I’ve always just kind of accepted that there are a bunch of people who are just going to hate me, no matter what I do, but I’m not going to let people who dislike me and and people like me stand in the way of taking my career into my own hands, and helping other creators do the same.
This isn’t a decision I made lightly, or without reading and thinking about it a tremendous amount, and ultimately, I feel comfortable having made it. I don’t expect everybody’s lines here to be the same as mine, and if you’re not comfortable with the platform, I hear you and respect your decision, and I hope you check the books out when they come out in print down the road.
But either way, this is where I’m going to be for a bit. So I hope you consider subscribing, and I want you ALL to go follow the @ReadTinyOnion account on twitter, because the mothership twitter account is going away very soon.
The notorious demon Chip Zdarsky is the latest creator to jump into the Substack fray, may God have mercy on all of us. He probably won’t though, because of Chip.
Wednesday, I dropped the first entry in my newsletter that went exclusive to paid subscribers. “THINKING BAT THOUGHTS” is going to be a kind of memoir through my time writing the Batman title at DC. If you haven’t signed up for a paid subscription yet, you should, and go back and read that post!
I also realize I haven't been clear about any kind of moderation policy in the comment section here. I am the absolute dictator of the Empire of the Tiny Onion, and if you’re an asshole in the comments you’re going to get a lifetime ban from commenting, and you’re not going to get your money back. I have full discretion to decide what counts as you being an asshole. Figured I might say that now to get it on the record before it’s necessary. Be kind, be thoughtful, and let’s all enjoy this space together.
I’m about to start the long drive to Western Pennsylvania to get where I need to be for my signing at Codex Comics & Collectibles for Free Comic Book Day tomorrow, so this is me signing off for the week. I look forward to seeing you all soon!
James Tynion IV