How researchers get heard

Work in Semi-Public

If you want the big picture in the wake of yesterday’s Pfizer vaccine announcement, read Alex Tabarrok’s blog post “Where We Stand.”

Tabbarok’s post summarizes a) what the early Pfizer results mean for this and other vaccines that target the virus’s spike protein, and b) the issues still facing us despite Pfizer’s apparent vaccine breakthrough and how we might solve them.

Tabbarok’s post is also a paradigmatic example of a researcher working in semi-public — for a small public community that has gathered around the researcher’s frequently articulated ideas and expertise-based opinion, usually through a single platform.

Semi-public isn’t everybody. It’s well short of “everybody” by design. Tabbarok has been writing for his community since the pandemic began about how to strengthen vaccine supply chains, accelerate vaccine testing and development and protect communities and the economy through quick, inexpensive testing. They know where he’s coming from. This — and their sophistication — allows him to take shortcuts. He writes: “There is a Laffer curve for testing.” He doesn’t have to explain what a Laffer curve is to his semi-public audience — they understand economics. If he were writing an op-ed, he would have to spend precious time on the explanation.

In exchange for not reaching “everybody,” you the researcher gain a community a) with which you can test your ideas and the application of your expertise, b) that is most likely to advance your ideas, and c) with whom you feel a sense of responsibility to share your insights.

Those three qualities — feedback, dissemination and responsibility — create an ecosystem that accelerates your expertise into authority faster than any other thought leadership investment.

It’s not an either/or choice. Tabbarok just wrote a big takeout for Bloomberg on his idea that the COVID-19 vaccine should be distributed by lottery, at least initially. He works in public as well.

But researchers who “work in public” in order to reach their target audiences seldom reach more than a sliver of the public or their target audiences. That’s because gatekeepers keep the public and you apart.

That op-ed? Probably gated, or soon to be.

That YouTube explainer or tweetstorm? Yes, there are huge potential network effects on these platforms. But the platform’s algorithm is always the house: Odds are only a handful of your followers will see it — especially if you’re not a white male.

That new Medium post? If you don’t paywall it, Medium won’t curate it — so you lose Medium’s network effects.

Your new Substack? You’re trying to charge for that already?

When you try to reach “the public,” you must go through gatekeepers. Editors, paywalls, AI — they’re all gatekeepers. They all exact a price for approval, and that price limits your audience. Ask Glenn Greenwald.

The competition to work in public is increasing. It’s still worth the pitch — Tabbarok’s piece for Bloomberg has the potential to impact the debate over vaccine distribution at a scale his semi-public work couldn’t reach.

But he never would have landed the Bloomberg piece without his years of working in semi-public.

There are exceptions to this rule: the scientist Trevor Bedford, for instance, became in demand with media almost instantly through his tweeting about the pandemic.

But the exception proves the rule. If you want to move from expert to public authority as quickly as possible, conduct the bulk of your “public” work in semi-public.