Economist Brad DeLong calls his Substack a “weblog-like newsletter.” On it, he publishes early drafts of forthcoming columns he wants to publish on Project Syndicate. The drafts are a premium for his Substack subscribers — but he’s also soliciting feedback and challenges to improve the draft before he finalizes it.
Isn’t that a lot of extra work, though…?
Zeynep Tufekci just signed to do a regular opinion column for The New York Times, along with fellow academics Tressie McMillan Cottom and John McWhorter. But even though the Times made all three new columnists give up their paid Substack newsletters, Tufekci is going to keep her free one, pivoting it to drafts and discussions for her new book project (on the pandemic, but also other things as well). She wants the community she’s gathered there to give her feedback and challenges (her words) for the book as she thinks it through.
So she’s going to write her Times column AND a Substack AND write a book AND teach. Talk about extra work…
Why would DeLong and Tufekci do this? Aren’t they busy enough?
Of course they are. But they do it for the benefits of what I call working in semi-public.
Working in semi-public means working for and with small public communities that you gather around your expertise-based ideas and opinion.
Here’s some of what I said last year about what working in semi-public gives you:
Semi-public isn’t everybody. It’s well short of “everybody” by design…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.
To that I’ll now add: Like DeLong and Tufekci, you’re inviting and acknowledging your community as co-author. They aren’t just an accelerant; they’re a co-creator.
So much of thought leadership — especially getting a column at the Times — is styled as proprietary: It’s my idea, our insight, my genius, our voice. The Times paywalling of Cottom, McWhorter and Tufekci is a double signifier of this proprietary framing of public expertise. And at the Times, the haves have their have-nots: Look at the comments section of the Times. The vitriol and bitter debate reflect the disempowerment of a readership habituated to exclusion. It isn’t a community; it’s a mob, fenced off from the anointed.
We know better, especially after the last year. Ideas and solutions evolve and thrive only in dialogue with the community they’re intended to benefit. So even when your public expands dramatically, there’s no substitute for you the public expert continuing to work not just for but with your semi-public.