The Subscription Effect
Why I've shifted to blogging as a paid exercise
I’ve never liked the term “paywall,” as it is inherently pejorative, casting a request for payment as a physical barrier rather than an economic position. I prefer the term “paypoint” or “payment request.” You don’t have to pay. You only pay if you want to get the information. There’s no “wall” any more than there is a “wall” preventing you from shoplifting cosmetics or candy from the local CVS. (In fact, that “wall” is far easier to breach in practical terms, but the cultural and legal implications are too dire for anyone but actual thieves to consider it.)
Arguments aside, I’ve been blogging for more than a decade without direct remuneration and in the blind — without a strong relationship with an audience, but rather with a loose relationship with a broadcast hub. While it supported an organization I admire (the Society for Scholarly Publishing), there were some clear limitations that ultimately made me seek an alternative:
- Poor quality commenting. Even though comments were moderated, anyone could comment, and often did, to the detriment of the blog, my mental health, and the conversation I’d hoped to start. Trolling — both lite and full-bodied — was common, masked in artifice and big words, and often took the form of secondary agendas heaped on a post by someone just spoiling for a fight or wanting to boost their flagging egos.
- I didn’t know the audience. Having an unpaid service means a lot of people use it who you don’t and can’t know. You don’t see their email addresses, know whether they use it a lot, and so forth. That made it increasingly difficult, especially as the audience apparently grew to represent a wider swath of professions, to come up with perspectives that mattered to them. With a paid subscription service, I hope to get to know a smaller group better, serve them more carefully, and make something more targeted and useful.
- It was time for a change. Once you decide to do something for free, you’ve set the economic terms. Even as the blog grew from a modest daily dusting of paragraphs to a highly regarded powerhouse of writers and lengthy thought pieces, the economic terms couldn’t change for me. It was time to pivot, to get out of the terms I’d set for a decade, and try things on new terms.
- Substack appeared at just the right time for me. While it’s been around for a while, and getting plenty of positive press (here, here, here, and here), I discovered Substack while doing my normal discursive reading and listening, and while I was trying to think of a new way to experiment with media. Substack presents an alternative that fits with a lot of trends I’m seeing — shifting to subscriptions, independent writers and thinkers attracting respectable audiences, technology being built for specific needs and less for general application, and audiences exhausted by information onslaught and wanting someone to save them from the storm. The timing was irresistible.
There are other reasons to pivot to paid, but these are the primary reasons I’ve made this shift.
This week, paid subscribers will read about Retraction Watch’s new database, the end of disruption, and some of the hidden costs of online. Next week, I anticipate some posts emanating from the Charleston Conference, as well as at least one discussing whether Silicon Valley is full of makers or takers. Subscribers also get access to the online archives holding all the articles they’ve received via email.
I hope you’ll join me in this experiment in subscription blogging via email. Who knows where it will lead?