How researchers get heard

Substack: Four Lessons for Knowledge Authority

I wrote on Tuesday that you probably shouldn’t start a Substack. But not for the reasons that everyone else is busy dumping on Substack, as the new blogging or the new Medium or the new paywalled magazine — i.e., another new thing that won’t last. Even though I don’t think Substack is probably for you, and even as I wonder if it will last, I think what it exemplifies is crucial for you as a research authority to understand — specifically, four trends for knowledge authority that have been building since Twitter became a platform of force in the early 2010s. (I’m calling it “knowledge authority” because it has more players than researchers —​ like journalists —​ and is bigger than just “public engagement.”)

  1. Knowledge authority is now personal and pointed, not about organizational or disciplinary affiliation. You have an institutional affiliation—but that’s just table stakes. The only question now: Can you frequently bring high-quality insights backed by research and then defend them on social? It’s why Zeynep Tufekci is writing this morning with an epidemiologist in The New York Times about why the US should give just one dose of the Pfizer vaccine, in order to double its effective coverage. It’s why journalists are usurping the authority that research thought it owned. It’s why Tomas Pueyo was able to convince so many in late February and early March about the dangers of COVID-19 and what optimal mitigation might look like. And it’s how the successful Substack business model is shaping up.
  2. Knowledge authority is about interest communities. Ben Thompson wrote about this recently — online, we are not one person but many, each defined by a separate interest graph and attracted to a discussion community that is dedicated to that interest. “Science Twitter” is a community in many ways that a town is a community, and in several important ways (e.g., speed of conversation) a town is not. Authorities immerse themselves in pre-existing knowledge communities (conferences, Clubhouse, podcast guesting) and then use mechanisms like Substack to gather those communities to them. (Read Thompson, btw, for a compelling argument on why the future of interest communities is private, not public platforms such as Twitter. Weirdly, most discussion of Substack entries takes place on Twitter or Reddit or sites like Hacker News, not in the Substack newsletter’s comments section.)
  3. Knowledge authority is expensive & only the subsidized can afford to play. I’m not just talking about reader subscription costs, although those add up quickly. (I will have to bring myself to look at my Substack outlay at some point.) Producing knowledge today — for Twitter, Substack or traditional opinion outlets — costs the producers time and opportunity. Those costs have to be subsidized.
  4. Despite Twitter’s apparent openness, the knowledge authority landscape is relentlessly winner-take-all. Here’s how T. Greer at Scholar’s Stage puts it: “Substack favors those who already have large megaphones. A Substack-based intellectual sphere will be intensely, if unintentionally, hostile towards new blood.” Increasingly, online publications like The Information and Bloomberg Opinion are opting to hire stables of steady opinion contributors instead of relying on external pitches. The rich get richer — and as journalists continue to dominate these platforms, research’s role in knowledge authority will be to contribute the odd paper or quote that confirms an argument. Yes, Twitter has opened this up to a certain extent — but, as Charles Lee points out, it’s terrible for scientific discussion and prone to its own network effects.

No, you probably shouldn’t start a Substack. But you should understand these four dynamics define what many nonspecialists consider to be the knowledge landscape today. Increasingly, as traditional media erodes and established knowledge authorities migrate to closed platforms such as Substack, the only route left to the ambitious will be some desperate and costly combination of furious content production on open platforms and relentless promotion to interest communities, open or closed. Your alternative is to build a fungal network that grows even as you sleep.

Credit: Markus Spiske/Unsplash