- archived recording
(SINGING) Darling, do you have sway?
Hey, “Sway” listeners. Welcome to a bonus episode with New York Times tech columnist, Kevin Roose. We’ll chat about my latest interview with Substack CEO, Chris Best. If you haven’t heard that episode, what have you been doing? Go back and listen. It’s right behind this one on your podcast app. Hello, Kevin. Thank you for joining me. How’s it going?
Hello. It’s so fun to see you.
By the way, Kevin and I go way back, don’t we?
So far back.
So far back.
At least two jobs ago.
Exactly. So you’ve been writing a ton about issues around content moderation, everything else. I want to start out with that. And it’s a new world out there on Twitter and Facebook. In addition to de-platforming Trump, Twitter shutdown 70,000 plus QAnon accounts that you’ve been writing about a lot. Facebook is clamping down on right-wing groups until the oversight board decides differently. And of course, Inauguration Day didn’t pay off for cues, prophecies of martial law in a continued Trump era. Talk a little bit about QAnon and what’s been happening here, because you’ve really been covering this heavily, more than anyone, I think.
I think I’ve replaced, like, 30% of my childhood memories with QAnon facts now, which is never a good place to be.
So I started covering this a couple of years ago when it was kind of a fringe internet thing for 4chan weirdos.
4chan, for those who don’t know, is a platform where anything goes, essentially.
Exactly. So it started off in this kind of fringy internet world, and then it became mainstream. I mean, now, QAnon is probably millions strong, although it’s hard to quantify. There are probably millions of people who believe in some version of it. The shortest way I’ve found to explain it is it’s a conspiracy theory that says that the world is controlled by a cabal of elite pedophile cannibals, who include Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama and Tom Hanks and all these people, and that President Trump was secretly recruited by the military to bring them to justice and that this is all going to culminate someday in this thing called the Storm, when all the traitors are going to be rounded up and arrested, and President Trump will reign forever in glory.
That did not happen. So what are they going to do next?
So now, some of the QAnon believers have come up with this new theory that the inauguration we saw on the 20th was actually a fake inauguration filmed in a movie studio.
Oh, like the moon landing.
So where’s it going now that they’ve been de-platformed? And then I want to get to Chris Best because this is yet another platform for people.
Yes, so now they’ve been de-platformed from Twitter or Facebook, all the big ones. A lot of them are going to Telegram, which is an encrypted messaging app. They also have started setting up their own kind of sites. They have various ways of getting videos out there now, using sites like Rumble and BitChute and various smaller platforms.
But harder. Harder for the average bear to do this, correct?
Definitely harder for the average bear, so you’re getting maybe a more committed crowd and a crowd that is willing to , you know, put up with all these subpar, pretty janky apps to sort of talk with their fellow QAnon believers. But there are plenty of them still doing it.
So now, but one of the platforms that’s been biggest, why wouldn’t they go on the next platform like a Substack? Why don’t they go there? Because he’s quite open to whatever. It’s a publishing platform.
I think people from the QAnon universe probably will end up on Substack or something like it. I always say there are no open platforms without content moderation problems that are just open platforms that haven’t addressed their content moderation problems yet.
Yeah, fair point. Yeah, so Reddit, all of these, TikTok, they’ve pushed them down, correct? Pinterest.
Totally, and you can ignore it until it becomes too big to ignore.
Who hasn’t ignored them? So far, Substack has not. They hadn’t made a statement on it. But Reddit has. Pinterest has.
Reddit was actually the first to ban QAnon of the major platforms. They did it back in 2018.
They’ve been very aggressive in general in content moderation.
One of the weirdest and most interesting stories of the past several years in my universe has been that Reddit, which used to be this total cesspool, has actually become pretty proactive in locking down things like QAnon.
So what does Trump’s de-platforming say about the powers over our public discourse?
I’ve sort of landed on a place where I believe two things that are, I don’t think, contradictory. One is that these companies should not have the power that they have over our speech and that, number two, while they do have that power, they have a responsibility to use it to stop violent insurrections, to preserve American democratic institutions, to keep people from being killed.
So they can make a right decision with the wrong power. They can make a correct decision with power they shouldn’t have.
Exactly, and I think I’m all for the conversation about what to do about the fact that they have all this power. But I think while they have it, it seems crazy to not use it to stop real violence and to stop people from being hurt.
So what do we do now, though, that this is — this is the thing that’s raised. You can believe two things at once, which I agree with you on. But what do you do, then? Because they aren’t public squares or whatever. They are not in charge of public discourse. Everybody is. They just happen to have one of the main ways of doing so.
I don’t think regulation is going to fix this, although some regulation certainly would be nice, of these companies. I don’t think the government can effectively implement a speech regime on private platforms that doesn’t seem totally creepy and weird.
Well, First Amendment, too. They’re hindered as opposed to Europe.
Totally, totally. But I think the market may help with this in the sense that I think the platforms that have — the newer platforms, the platforms that are coming up now, things like Substack, TikTok, various other platforms — like, they’ve watched all the big platforms make all the mistakes. And so, my hope is that they will learn from that and have, from the outset, better policies and not play catch-up.
But Best in the interview was not down with what he called the ridiculous Parler ban hammer. That’s what he called it, that. That is Apple Store, Google Play, Amazon Web Services booting Parler, along with Okta, everybody else. He framed this as removing a Twitter or a Facebook alternative, which you’re saying maybe there’ll be others, calling it unnerving. Do you agree?
I think there may be others. I think that Trump is sort of a singular person in all of this. I mean, he’s sort of a class of one.
So he’s unusual.
Because people are like, slippery slope, slippery slope. You have Josh Hawley yammering away on the front page of the New York Post about how he’s muzzled —
— which is a pleasure.
I think there are legitimate fears about where does this stop, but I think a lot of people are just using this to beat their hobby horse.
Or do you beat a hobby horse or ride a hobby horse? I think you ride a hobby horse.
I don’t know. I wish you wouldn’t. I have a hobby horse, but you better not come over my house and do that.
[LAUGHS] People are riding their hobby horses, let’s say, about online speech and censorship. And I think those are largely boring and played out arguments. But I think the interesting thing for me is this question of where in the stack moderation happens. So some of the moderation now is happening at a sort of higher layer than the platform layer, at the payment processor layer, at the infrastructure layer, at the domain layer. So you can see how companies are sort of reacting to that. And I think if I were Substack, one of my worries would be that if I don’t have robust content moderation, you know, maybe my payment processor comes along and yanks my access.
It was interesting. Everyone was focused on them, and I went, oh, no, Okta. Okta’s out. Okta is an authentication platform. So one of the things that’s interesting about that is there are lots of levels. And people did not act in concert, although they tend to roll as the others start to roll.
Right, I think that points to the kind of pressure that actually does work on these companies. It’s not so much like shareholder pressure or regulatory pressure. It’s social pressure. I mean, they don’t want to be the bad guys in the history books.
And you don’t want to be the only platform that didn’t do something about Alex Jones. And so, I think they’re very vulnerable to social pressure. And I think part of that is good, and part of that is maybe not so good. But at least, it’s something.
Yeah, so what does Trump do next? Where does he go? I thought he might go to Parler, but now there’s no Parler. Where is he headed next from your perspective? What’s the greatest home? Because Chris Best didn’t close the door on him. Any chance he starts a Substack?
He could start a Substack. But the thing about Substacks is they’re actually kind of a lot of work.
Yeah, just a lot of work.
It’s not the easiest thing.
Stephen Miller could sit there and type away for him.
Oh, sure. Sure.
What would be the best place? If he called you and said, Kevin, I want some advice on what platform I can go dirty up.
I don’t know. I mean, I’m sure Gab would have him. But I’m not sure. There was some reporting that people wanted to put him on Gab, but Jared Kushner or someone —
Yeah, Stephen Miller did.
— nixed it.
I don’t know. I mean, I think —
What does he do?
I don’t know. I mean, I think he can —
He’s calling you right now. He wants to know. He says —
He can start his own thing. But that’s not easy either.
I think he might be relegated to sending group texts to people or something. I mean, maybe that’s what I would do.
He has a big text message list, and he could sort of use that as the basis for a new —
Oh, that would be unwelcome to a lot of people, I suspect. Correct or not?
Maybe. I mean, I’m on some of his text lists just for work, and they seem to be using it pretty aggressively. So, Trump is in no danger of being sort of silenced.
I mean, he can call into Fox News any time he wants. He can —
It’s just not as effective. It was so calm after he got off Twitter, right? Didn’t you feel better?
It’s amazing how quiet Twitter has been. Do you notice that?
Well, no, it’s all Bernie Sanders memes. It’s wonderful. I’m like, yay. This is fun Twitter.
It’s like the overall temperature seems to have gone down —
— a few degrees.
Yeah, because we’re not reacting constantly. I think his newsletter should be called Covfefe. What do you think? No? OK, all right.
I’ll throw the flag on that joke, Kara. That’s —
I don’t care. It’s brilliant. Anyway, what would you call it? All right, fine, you name it.
I’ll think about that when I get back to you.
All right, all right, Chris Best made a pretty good case for why Substack’s business model is different from social media platforms like Twitter and Facebook. He said because those companies incentivized ads and engagement, they are incentivizing tribalism and tribal warfare outrage.
Yeah, I think that platforms can be designed in ways that are, more or less, echoey. I would put Substack in a category like podcasts where I think there’s sort of a model where it’s a little harder to sort of read something uncharitably. I mean, I think the Substack guys have said people will hate click, but they won’t hate pay.
They won’t hate subscribe —
— to a newsletter.
And that’s their business.
And so — yeah, well, and I think that means that if you’re a creator on Substack, you’re probably less likely to get random people trolling you because they would have to pay $5 a month or whatever.
To be angry at you.
To be angry at you, and that’s something that people generally won’t do. I think it does mean that you are talking to people who have chosen to hear from you, which is something that I think can be good and can also be not so good.
Echoey chambery. So, this incentivizing tribalism, you’ve written a lot about sort of what’s popular on Facebook. You have a little back and forth with Facebook over this of what’s engagement. How can they change that?
I mean, it’s not that hard. They just have to change what their algorithm is optimizing for. So if the goal is — well, you tell the algorithm is, go generate a lot of engagement. It’s going to do that. And their algorithm is very good at that. They have lots of engineers. They could optimize for other things. They already have tried this thing they call NEQ, which is News Ecosystem Quality. So this was basically explained to me as, this is the button that they can push to make good news popular on Facebook. And it ranks publications by sort of their trustworthiness and their track records. And so, it assigns scores to them based on that. And then, the higher scoring outlets get more distribution. So they’ve experimented with that. They actually put it in place after the election. They put it in place again I think last week or the week before. And I think that you can probably dial up the authoritative news a certain amount without making people stop spending time on Facebook. But I think there’s a quality of all media, where the more nutritious your stuff you’re giving — people don’t want nutrition. They want junk food, right?
Yeah. That’s, of course, the cable sites do it. Everyone does that kind of thing. Do you imagine they’ll ever change that, that idea of enragement engagement? Or do they really make money from it? Or is that a good business model in the end?
I think it’s less about money. I think they would do fine if they optimized for something other than engagement. I don’t think they would — you know, they might lose a little bit of money, but it wouldn’t destroy their business. I think it’s baked into their sort of DNA. I think it’s like their assumption is that people are data points and that you follow the data. And if people tell you that they want junk food, you give them junk food. And it’s heavy-handed. And it’s paternalistic to tell people you want stories about QAnon, but we’re going to feed you stories about — I don’t know — like, foreign policy or something. I mean, it’s that kind of paternalism that I think they’re very uncomfortable with.
They’re so exhausting, and yet, they run everything. But enough about Donald Trump and stupid Facebook. Would you subscribe to any Substacks?
I do. I subscribe to several.
I subscribe to, I would say, five or six. But I subscribe to Casey Newton’s, our friend Casey. I subscribe to some —
Yeah, I pay for many of them. I mean, I’m sort of surprised that you don’t, or that you have reservations about it.
My wife just went on it. I don’t have reservations. I won’t go on it. That’s very different. Would you start a Sub —
You’d be great at Substack.
No, here’s why. I don’t need them. What do I need them for? My wife did it. I get why people would, and I’m not a particularly disgruntled journalist that wants to flounce off and be angry. That’s not my thing. Would you do it? Would you do it? You could make bank. Why not you?
I’ve thought about doing it. I think we are exceedingly lucky, the two of us. We have two of the last great secure jobs in media. It’s really brutal out there.
And I have tons of friends who have been laid off, who have been —
Good writers. Smart people.
Oh, amazing writers and people who, for whatever reason, haven’t been able to find their next thing and have gone on Substack. And most of them are not making tons and tons of money, but some of them are.
Yeah, some of them are doing OK, yeah.
I’m glad that it exists to fill that hole. It doesn’t solve the problem with the news business, but it definitely helps around the edges. And so, I think it’s cool. I think, you know, it’s a grind.
Yeah, I didn’t say I didn’t like it. I said I wouldn’t do it. What do I need to share? I don’t want to share.
Right, right. I think it’s also been informed by years of reporting on YouTubers and watching independent creators go through. It’s hard and —
It’s a grind. I’ve got to keep posting.
Exactly, and it’s not — people assume it’s, oh, you just send out emails all day? That seems pretty easy. But doing it consistently with quality is not easy.
Oh, I think we would both make a lot of money. But now listen. Interestingly, Glenn Greenwald, who’s perpetually indignant, said look how much New York Times reporters hate and resent Substack because it provides the ability of writers and journalists to be heard and to reach an audience without having to submit to their monopolistic structures and discourse controls. I just — whatever, Glenn.
I like your Glenn Greenwald voice.
Whatever, Glenn. It’s a different voice. Anyway, what do you think about that?
Well, I think something interesting that I’ve seen happen on Substack, it kind of mirrors early YouTube in the sense that the people who are succeeding on it are people who have been sort of cast — some of them are people who have been sort of cast out of mainstream media for having —
Or cast themselves, come on.
Some of it’s like, ahh.
Right, they self-deported out of mainstream media.
How dare they edited my piece!
[CHUCKLES] Right, and so, but this happened on early YouTube, too.
How dare they think something offensive I said was offensive. Anyway.
Some of the earliest popular political YouTube creators were people like Steven Crowder, who’d gotten sort of fired from Fox News, and people who couldn’t really make it in that industry.
I guess. It’s interesting. I mean, I worked at the Washington Post, and I remember lots of flouncing in and out of that place. But how should all these different news organizations handle it? And how is it different than Twitter? Do they need to grapple with the likes of Substack as staff reporters set up independent newsletters?
Well, it’s different than Twitter in that you can get paid for it. I mean, if there’s a paying subscription feature on Twitter —
Some don’t. They just do it for pleasure, yeah.
And I think it allows people to sort of go directly into other people’s inboxes. I think newspapers do have to grapple with it. I think that part of what people are realizing, writers are realizing, is that , you know, they have to become — I hate this word — their own brands.
And they have to own —
You know, I’m a brand. Did you know that?
Oh, you are —
You’re a brand, too.
You’re the OG brand in journalism. But I think that people understand that they are likely — because our industry is so turbulent, they might get bounced around between jobs. And owning something, having an email list or a following that you can transport from job to job, is actually a pretty valuable thing.
And I think that it’s smart of people like Casey and other friends that I have to sort of —
It’s very entrepreneurial, too. It does scratch an entrepreneurial itch, which is interesting, for a lot of people.
But how should the publications handle it? And Twitter, too. Have they done a good job of doing that? A lot of journalists have gotten into trouble if they’re not opinion or column journalists. How do they grapple with this, going forward? Because now there’s not just Twitter. There’s Substack.
Right, I mean, I think that’s part of the rub, right, is that I think the standards, the sort of legacy media standards, they have their own brands to protect. And so, they don’t necessarily want all their writers to have bigger brands. And they don’t want everyone to be sort of out there, playing on their own scoreboard and squawking. And some of the things that you’re rewarded for on some place like Twitter, which is having really strong opinions and being out there and being a little bit contrarian or whatever, like, that’s not necessarily good for The Times’s brand or The Washington Post’s brand. So I think there is going to be sort of a divergence. I think Substack is probably less likely to replace the news pages, but I think it could take a dent out of opinion pages. I think a lot of what’s working on Substack pretty well is commentary.
Mm-hmm, with reporting. Yeah, it’s interesting. Although some of the more popular ones are just people who just write about history or other things, like this historian, Heather Cox Richardson.
I think it’s good for obsessives. I think it’s good for people who are, you know — they want to spend every day, all day, talking about one thing. And they can become the authority on — I don’t know — aeronautics engineering.
I think you’re right. These very particular things. Instead of a lot of journalists peacocking, essentially, is what I see, it’s this interesting stuff like Heather Cox Richardson and others, where I see the real money to be made for this company. I don’t know. To me, in my opinion.
Yeah, it’s interesting. I mean, you’ve run news organizations before. And you’ve started entrepreneurial ventures. And there are some things that just don’t make sense financially in the news business. If you were just going by sheer profit and loss, you would never open a foreign bureau. You wouldn’t have war correspondents. You wouldn’t — there’s always this joke at The New York Times that the crossword puzzle subsidizes the Baghdad Bureau. And I don’t know whether that’s true or not. But that’s certainly how our industry used to work, is that you would have these very low cost, high profit margin parts of your business that would subsidize the parts of your business that were very expensive and maybe didn’t pay for themselves. So that’s what I kind of worry about as something like Substack grows, is like, if you’re a one-person Substack business, you can’t afford to spend six months doing the investigation of, you know, Trump’s taxes or whatever. You’ll lose subscribers, and you won’t be able to pay your rent. So I think there’s still a space in the news industry for both. But I think it’s definitely going to be interesting to watch who goes over.
Yeah, that’s an excellent point that you’re making. What would your Substack be about? I’ll tell you what mine is. I would do one either on my obsession with death or my obsession with the Terminator movies and time travel. That’s what mine would be about, my time travel obsession.
That’s — I did not know this about you.
I’ve watched the Jean-Claude Van Damme movies. I know all of Time and Again. I’m a time travel aficionado.
Are you a time traveler?
I could be.
Can you just tell me what stocks to buy? Is that ethical?
No, I can’t.
If you are from the future.
So I have four Substacks.
OK. OK, all right.
I reserved them, and I already have them, but I have to start actually writing on them.
You own them?
Yeah, I’ve reserved —
What are they called?
— some names. I forget.
All right. OK, all right.
But they’re reserved somewhere. My personal obsession right now is how we can kind of become human again, like sort of wrangle our brains back from these platforms and algorithms.
Yeah, you did that. You did that exercise one. You went out there on that one.
Yeah, or I don’t know. Maybe it would be like —
Did you get a good reaction to that?
What, the VR workouts thing?
If by good reaction, you mean people mercilessly mocking me in our Slack —
I just laughed all morning. It just gave me pleasure.
This was a piece I wrote about how I work out in VR now. And it had a very unfortunate-looking photo of me doing my VR workouts.
So essentially, Gwyneth Paltrow for dudes. Go ahead. Next.
[LAUGHS] No, Alex Jones is Gwyneth Paltrow for dudes.
They sell the same supplements. No, I’m interested in helping people recover their brains and psyches from what the internet is doing to it. And I think that would be where I would go.
I don’t know. Maybe my VR workouts could be —
Maybe I could become the workout guru of VR. I’ll be a fitness influencer, but exclusively for VR nerds.
Yeah, that’s perfect. Oh my god, you’d be such an icon for them. Anyway, I have one last question. Best tried to say Substack isn’t a media company, nor a gatekeeper. What do you think it is? You give it a moniker.
It’s a company that built some very simple, but important technology to, like, let people monetize their emails. They’re a media — everything is a media company. They’re a media company. They’re a technology company. I think they have a lot of interesting times ahead of them. And I hope that they’re ready for their own version of the Storm.
Agreed, agreed. And I’m so excited for Kevin Roose as Jack LaLanne of the modern era. The digital Jack LaLanne, remember him?
Why don’t you look him up? OK, I’m super old, and I didn’t — Jack LaLanne. Look him up. And that’s the name of your Substack.
OK, you are a time traveler from the past. [LAUGHS] I will look up that reference, too.
I have to go now. All right, OK. Kevin Roose, as usual. Listen to Rabbit Hole. Listen to — on The New York Times, read his amazing column. And watch him work out. These are all the many things you can do with Kevin Roose, should you have the free time, when you’re not reading Substack newsletters. Anyway, thank you so much.
Thanks for having me. [MUSIC PLAYING]