The Lipstick Economy of Ideas is Robust
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There’s an idea called the Lipstick Effect: during an economic crisis, especially a more moderate one, people will buy relatively cheap luxury goods—like lipstick. What you’re reading right now is the Lipstick Economy of Ideas. There is very real uncertainty: imagine trying to predict what kind of situation you’re going to be in a year from now: Who will you be talking to? What will international relations be like? Will you be in the same job? Will you have to cut any friends off? Will they cut you off first? Will you make new friends? Will you talk to them out in the open on Twitter or in an extensive series of group chats on Signal?
These are the essays being passed around in the underground, and they can be passed around in public, because you have the comfort of being able to read them in your private inbox. These are the essays by which we coordinate around, because our friends will have read them, and those who have read them are people we’ll consider as potential friends.
I think that’s the secret sauce about the Lipstick Effect: when times are hard, we put more stake in ourselves. We want to invest in showing our potential and in creating a community of mutually committed people, because in some sense that’s the only way to make anything matter and the only way to feel safe. In good times, we want this, but we’re a little more lax about making sure it happens now, about seeking out opportunities for it at every corner.
Why are you here? I’d bet that a decade ago the level of confidence you had that the way you express yourself today would still be as generally acceptable a year later was at least three times higher than today. The strategy to deal with this cultural uncertainty is to build a new base of mutually legitimizing cultural institutions. As an isolated individual you might not know how to do that, but you want to be part of the solution, so you lend your patronage to people who are becoming beacons of legitimization to cultural regimes you can believe in. You do this for three reasons:
You want to help out the people who you think are in a unique position to do something you can’t, even if you’re helping in a different way.
You serve as the grounding for legitimization, because ultimately legitimacy comes from someone’s ability to associate and speak how they want and still feed themselves.
You want to be in on the fun part of this legitimization enterprise, and ultimately shared media is how we have fun together: we need the mutual experiences to talk to each other about.
You are also likely at home, bored, and lonely, while a helluva a lot seems to be happening to the world, to policy, and to the ideas in the public discourse. Maybe you want to talk about it or maybe you don’t, but you want to talk. You feel depressed and scared and you’re not even trying to feel less depressed or scared but trying to do something to make a system go. It’s not even clear what the exact problem is or what the system you’re helping run, but it’s a people problem, and the solution to people problems is generally getting a bunch of people together, talking in a goodnatured and fun way, and then facing the world together.
What are you doing on Substack in particular though? You’re reading your favorite writers!
But why are they here?
Substack isn’t anything you can’t more-or-less setup on Patreon or by yourself. The point is that it’s:
Easy to setup.
Is streamlined to disseminate information directly to people, but make it publicly linkable.
Is an ecosystem that is attempting to become a bastion against the fall of liberalism on the internet.
(4) is why a lot of the big shot writers are here, and those are why other big shots came here even if they weren’t worried about being thrown out of where they already were.
(1), (2), and (3) are quite important too—they’re why a certain kind of person is here. We don’t see too many people commissioning hentai through Substack, because why bother forcing that into a platform like this? Anyway, Substack probably wouldn’t be super interested in defending your right to do that if you ended up stepping on a mine.
Ultimately, these writers have to make money. Paid Substack is essentially a freemium model: pay more, get more from this thing you already do for free…except in the case of Substack more means “more writing” which is quite a tricky proposition, for at least two reasons:
As reader, if a piece is really that good, everyone is going to be forwarding it to everyone and you’ll end up bumping into it (perhaps guiltily) before you even hit “subscribe”.
As a writer, it would be crazy to hide your best work behind a paywall. It used to be that you could be coaxed into doing so for an important enough publication, because the exposure and credentials mattered That Much. There’s a bit of prestige to being good enough that people will pay for more, but that’s peanuts compared to being better known.
When faced with the paradox of why people pay money for Substack I start making arguments about convenience, loyalty, etc. But then I start thinking about what Substack actually is.
Substack is really just a way for you to subsidize the new information ecosystem, and that’s why a lot of us here—but the freemium metaphor is still dissonant. The conclusion is simple: premium content shouldn’t have anything to do with disseminating information, premium content should be about being part of the club that legitimizes a certain direction, a lens, a set of ideas, a way of doing something, a person who you believe can do great things. Premium is about being part of the club, because the old narratives have collapsed and it’s time to cast your vote for what the narrative is—and this time we’re using real money.
When I think about the Patreon creators I’ve supported over the years, the main things that I received for my patronage were little trinkets that I could use for some added style or to brag to my friends about how cool the people I supported were. There was some custom content, though I wasn’t too interested in it and it was often not as good as the base-level or publicly available stuff. I think a lot of people like getting to hear or see or read a given creator’s take on X, so why not? It seems like it was pretty low-friction for most artists. And then, of course, there were sometimes calls or zooms with the creators themselves, because that’s the ultimate club: association through interaction.
My prediction is that all paid content on Substack will asymptotically approach exactly this space of things. This is good, because the purpose of Substack is to create the essays that will be passed around in a million different undergrounds, a public ledger for private coordination. A marketplace for the lipstick economy of ideas. Substack’s main sell is that people can figure out how to coordinate around content, instead of by haphazardly put together social. Coordinating in public is becoming harder, and people are becoming more hesitant to reveal their true beliefs, so the beautiful mating dance of like-minds can’t result in good pairings. Substack is a kind of get together of ways of thinking that let’s people use public documents to form cliques through semi-private means.
This is also why it makes more sense to start a Substack than a blog today. Substack is a bit easier to use than WordPress, which is nice, but the main point is that Substack is a thing. It’s a thing that’s happening. And it’s happening now because the demand is being built up through scarcity on other platforms. The writers you like are being fired, aren’t writing anymore, or you can’t find them because the internet is now a cesspool of Search Engine Optimized junk that google can’t properly sift through, and anyway the real stuff is going on in an encrypted Telegram chat.
Substack is the notice board in the tavern, you can read while you’re there anyway. With a little bit of conversational suggestion, you can figure out who else was looking at the same corner as you were.
Substack: don’t screw this up. You’re getting extra community capital for free because you made the right initial investments and the right writers are coming here. People want to discuss writing after they read it, which is a big, big advantage. Threads are a good start, and there’s no reason to make things too complicated; people will find a way to coordinate on their own. The important thing is that the public ledger remain intact. As long as there’s enough of a commons to scrawl a poem own, people will find a way.