Zeynep Tufekci offers an antidote to the attention economy

Bring back blogging

Do you remember the glories of the old internet? 

Zeynep Tufecki, the sociologist and one of the leading voices in the pandemic, does. That’s where she spawned her intellectual life, starting in the 1990s commenting on intra-company message boards while working in her native Turkey as a programmer for IBM, weighing in on issues and winning the respect of her colleagues from around the world, despite her lack of experience, despite her being a teenager, despite them having no clue who she was. Turkey wasn’t online at that time, but IBM’s intranet was close enough. She decided then to study the social science of the internet and immersed herself in the golden era of blogging, when writers hashed out ideas through discussion that played out over days and weeks and months, when scale mattered less and engagement wasn’t yet a metric that had given rise to internet businesses worth hundreds of billions of dollars. 

Zeynep has since gone on to a career marked by her critiques of media systems and digital platforms, including her widely praised 2017 book Twitter and Tear Gas, in which she examined the way social media influences social movements. More recently, she has distinguished herself writing about the COVID-19 pandemic, publishing work in The Atlantic, the New York Times, and in her Substack newsletter, Insight, that has affected policy and advanced the public’s understanding of how to combat the virus, including her early advocacy for widespread mask-wearing. The New York Times’s Ben Smith recently highlighted her achievements in a profile headlined: “How Zeynep Tufekci Keeps Getting the Big Things Right.”

“The early internet was great!” Zeynep exclaimed when I interviewed her for Substack’s recent conference. Our discussion was primarily about how the incentives that underpin today’s dominant internet media businesses have led to tribalism and groupthink – and how to overcome that. With an ad-based business model, she said, you have to play for scale, which isn’t always conducive to good discourse. To make any meaningful money in such a model, media producers have to generate millions of ad impressions. “One key way to go for scale at that level is to be really kind of outrageous,” she said. “It’s hard to go for that scale with kind of complicated, nuanced stuff.”

It’s that dynamic that she is attempting to counteract with Insight, which she bills as “Smarter thinking for puzzles worth pondering.” In the newsletter and through discussion with her readers, she tries to navigate uncertainty, finding ways to make decisions and take positive action when the data don’t provide clear answers. 

If there were ever a mission that captures the spirit of what we’re trying to do with Substack, that might be it. 

One of the reasons we started Substack is that we were frustrated by how the quality of discussion has been degraded on social media. We are dumber on social media than we are in real life. We are less forgiving, less willing to listen and understand, and more prone to dismiss and then torch our ideological opponents. That, after all, is how we earn internet points. Chris and I recognized these tendencies in ourselves, and we saw how, writ large, they were eroding society’s ability to come together to solve difficult problems. So we conscripted Jairaj and set out to design a different game, where writers are rewarded not for doing the things that capture attention but instead for doing the things that respect readers’ trust. 

With Insight, Zeynep is consciously cultivating a space for intelligent debate, diving deep into issues in direct contrast to the fast-twitch, fire-and-brimstone approach that prevails on social media. She figures that when people have signed up to receive a newsletter, they are more open to inquiry and the building of understanding over time, resulting in less pressure on the writer to be right about everything with every post. In fact, she actively invites dissent through a recurring feature called The Counter, where she presents the strongest cases she can find against her arguments – and pays writers for the privilege. A recent example can be found in an epidemiologist’s perspective on why we need to take more than just age into account for vaccine prioritization.

In running counter-arguments, Zeynep feels she is reducing the risk that her newsletter becomes a “lovefest” of fans who just uncritically agree with everything she says. “I want people, the smart informed people, to have an incentive to say, ‘I can really take you down and I can really do it well’.” 

The practice is similar to what Andrew Sullivan, veteran of the blogosphere and traditional media, practices in The Weekly Dish. Each week, he publishes and responds to a selection of the best critiques of the previous week’s column. “What I found frustrating about Twitter is that over 90 percent of the response to my writing was very personal abuse,” Sullivan says over email. “At Substack, we can invite the smartest critiques, air them, and force me to respond or concede a point.”

Perhaps I am an overly nostalgic sucker, but such veneration of good-faith debate reminds me a lot more of the golden days of blogging than it does the status quo on social media. It is almost certainly not a coincidence that both Zeynep and Andrew were students of the early internet, when blogs and message boards served as the dominant online spaces where people explored ideas and mounted arguments for how to progress as a society. I remember those days well, too. For various reasons, the internet felt like a less hostile place then, and there were fewer heat-seeking algorithms that sought to transmute attention into gold. In building Substack, we frequently reference that era and seek to recapture some of what made it special. That’s why, on Substack, writers own their mailing lists and all their content; it’s why we don’t build news feeds that seek to addict; and it’s why we built an RSS reader

Occasionally, I see people joke that Substack is like the reinvention of LiveJournal. I take it as a compliment. LiveJournal was great. Perhaps the only thing that would have made it better is if writers had the ability to make money directly from what they wrote there, affording them the time to further explore the ideas that they and their readers found interesting and meaningful. 

Had that happened, I bet, the world would have many more Zeynep Tufekcis – and a much stronger counter force to social media than has existed in the last decade. 

It’s not too late to go back

Thanks for reading. This is the first post in what will be an occasional column that I publish on the Substack blog. Stay tuned for more.