Rock, Creator, Hard Place
The future of independent work can and should be a practice that asks: What is the more sustainable, ethical, and life-affirming option today?
This isn’t the first essay I wanted to publish in 2024. In truth, I’ve felt quite a bit of despair writing and editing it. But I needed to write it and share it with you—not only because it addresses “current events” but because I hope that it creates that feeling I’m always trying for when I publish: relief.
It isn’t beach vacation kind of relief. But it might be the kind of relief that comes from cleaning up a messy room or making the phone call you’ve been dreading.
You may have heard that "Substack has a Nazi problem."
I'll give you the TL;DR to set the stage for the rest of this piece. But this piece isn't about Nazis, content moderation, or even the mealy-mouthed way corporations espouse ethical principles. It's about work. It’s about independent work.
It’s about how independent work is never as independent as we’d like it to be—and therefore, we live with the ever-present risk of moral injury, precarity, and downward mobility.
Before Substack had a Nazi problem (or, really, concurrently), it had a transphobia problem. It's also had quite the misinformation problem. Substack's co-founders, , and , have never offered adequate responses to those who pushed back on these problems. They've offered tired cliches about free speech and the mythical marketplace of ideas to justify their lack of content moderation for everything except sex work.
In fact, the same week I decided to move my work to Substack, co-founder Chris Best choked when asked about harmful content in an interview with The Verge's Nilay Patel. The less Substack played in the distribution, connection, and amplification sandbox, Patel observed at the time, the less it needed to moderate content. But with the release of Notes (Substack's social feed), the platform crossed a line beyond which clear guidelines about tolerated speech were essential.
That brings us to the current inflection point.
On November 28, The Atlantic published an article by, himself a Substacker, simply titled "Substack has a Nazi Problem." This led to almost 250 Substackers (at the time of writing) signing and reposting an open letter to Substack's co-founders demanding to know why the platform tolerates (and profits from) this content. Again, the response from Substack was lacking.
Could this be what works?
When I moved to Substack in April, I did so for the promise of an "economic engine" that would allow me to focus on writing and podcasting. It seemed to be working. I hoped that in 2024, I would be back on my feet after a long stretch of emotional and financial struggle. Yet, here I am again, trying to figure out what to do next.
I feel frustrated, confused, and oh-so-very tired. This is not how I wanted to end 2023 and start 2024. This isn't the first essay I wanted to publish this year.
I find myself between a rock and a hard place. The Rock is continuing a commercial relationship with a company knowingly looking the other way to avoid dealing with users and content it admits hold vile views. The Hard Place is severing that relationship and losing the hope I'd cautiously accumulated over its duration.
Figuring out how to live between a rock and a hard place is a huge part of the intellectual and emotional labor required of independent workers. Independent work is still dependent on a slew of companies operating within a "borked" system of incentives.1
Within this system, independent workers regularly incur moral injury, experience the precarity of platform-mediated labor, and teeter on the edge of downward mobility.
To be clear, I am not equating these harms with the violence and harm done by Nazis, white supremacists, anti-vaxxers, transphobes, misogynists, anti-woke crusaders, or any other brand of hate. There are more immediate and urgent problems out there than the ones I'll detail here. Those problems, however, are not my beat.
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Work, especially independent work, is my beat. And so I've been thinking about the "Substack has a Nazi Problem" problem through that lens.
Moral Injury in the Creator Economy
All labor under capitalism involves moral compromise. A worker can try to find a job that passes some equity and justice purity test—but they'll be unemployed indefinitely. Even those working for the most "woke" companies or cooperatives have to hold their noses at some point. We move through work (and life) prioritizing some moral principles and deprioritizing others. That's just what it takes to exist with others.
The creator economy requires another aspect of moral compromise—one that goes so far as to inflict moral injury.
What is moral injury?
Consider a soldier following orders during a time of war. Or a healthcare worker rationing care during a crisis. Or an agency director distributing resources after a natural disaster. These contexts create a sort of morality bubble—wherein people are required to act in ways they would otherwise deem immoral. Even if they believe they are doing the right thing given the circumstances, moral injury occurs because of "the betrayal, violation or suppression of deeply held or shared moral values."
While not at the same scale or degree as wartime or disaster survival, of course, the creator economy also poses a very real risk of moral injury. Platforms cause moral injury, according to sociologist David Hill, by obscuring the various exploitative commercial relations involved in their operations. The nature of platform capitalism—whether at a company like Amazon, Meta, or even Airbnb—makes it incredibly difficult to see who does the work and how that work gets done. Our lack of awareness and absence of responsibility is by design. We can keep creating, using, and buying as long as we don't stop to think about the lithium mines, digital sweatshops, or Nazis that are also part of the supply chain.
And make no mistake: creators are part of the supply chain for platforms. Without professional creators, YouTube, TikTok, Facebook, and Instagram would have significantly less ad inventory to profit from. Without professional creators, Substack, Patreon, and other revenue share platforms wouldn't have nearly the pool of funds they can currently siphon off into their P&Ls.
To post on any of those platforms is to accept that your content might show up next to something you find morally repugnant. To scroll any of those platforms is to accept that you might see morally repugnant content. To invite comment on any of those platforms is to accept that you might get into a digital shouting match with someone who believes "people like you" are morally repugnant.
To make money by leveraging any one of those platforms is to accept that you're also making money for platforms that enable others to do and say things you find morally repugnant.
To avoid this maddening moral compromise, you can go it on your own—stringing together software to create your own media ecosystem. But in doing so, you cut yourself off from the benefits of recommendations and shares that enable audience-building. Some have done this successfully. Not many, though. As Anne Helen Petersen pointed out last week, it's not enough to make a DIY publishing platform work (that's easy). The hard part is making a DIY publishing platform that makes it easy for people to find what you publish.
The Profound Precarity of Platform-Mediated Labor
At least in the United States, no job is a sure thing. In most places, you can be fired at will, and the terms of your employment can change without notice. Your pension fund can go belly up, or your 401k can lose half its value in a stock market crash. Healthcare that was covered by insurance one year can go uncovered the next.
But work in the creator economy is profoundly precarious in ways that traditional employment still isn't. Creators have all the same risks as any freelancer does, including unpredictable pay cycles, no paid time off, no health insurance, and no safety net. But creators also inherit the risks the platforms themselves take on. An algorithm change, an FTC investigation, a new feature rollout, a cyberattack, etc., can dramatically alter the terms of engagement overnight.
And by "terms of engagement," I mean one's livelihood.
The economist Guy Standing has described precarity as the condition of never knowing how you should spend your time. Should I work on the work I'm getting paid for? Or should I work on the work that will get me more paid work? Or should I work on the work I have to do because I did work I got paid for? Or should I work on all the logistical complications and administrative headaches that result from never quite knowing what work is going to require of me?
It's a mess.
And this mess is especially relevant to the question of moral compromise and unpredictability in the creator economy.
Every time a platform offers an inane excuse for why there are Nazis on their platform, or why women are being relentlessly harassed, or why disinformation keeps getting amplified, it creates more work for creators. (See also: this article.) Added to the existing questions about how one should spend their time are (at least) two new questions: should I keep working on this platform? Or should I do the work required to work on a different platform?
Changing platforms takes time, and generally, lots of it.
There's the work that goes directly into making a move—researching the options, exporting and importing old content, learning how to use the platform, designing your profile or site, moving your audience, etc. There's also the work that goes into establishing yourself within the network of a new platform, answering questions from your audience about the new platform, and figuring out what kind of content is going to work best on this new platform.
Should I post more or less? Should I learn a new medium or stick with what I know? Should I spend more time interacting with others or less? Should I spend more time on this platform or continue to spend time on other platforms? And once you get to a sort of equilibrium with the answers to those questions, the platform can make a decision you didn't see coming and you have to find all new answers.
Are others worse off than creators? Of course! But that doesn't make the material reality of working this way easier, more sustainable, or less fatiguing.
Existential Exhaustion of Digital Downward Mobility
In August 2022, Rick Cohen wrote "The Ballad of Downward Mobility" for The Atlantic. And while the essay contains its share of the now-cliche (in no small part thanks to The Atlantic) statistics about the financial realities of Gen Xers and Millennials, it also includes some important economic history context for why so many feel like they're falling.
"The story of America," he writes, "is the story of a bull market. The wealth and its increase—an increase that made my parents’ economic life look like a ramp that went straight up—were at least partly built on plunder." That plunder, of course, is the theft of land from native peoples, the theft of labor from enslaved peoples, and the theft of natural resources from the earth. It's also the result of the advantage the US had after WWII, being the only global power not decimated after the war, poised to act as the world's everything merchant.
Now, Cohen observes, we've plundered all there is to plunder. "We have run out of new land to settle, new people to exploit, new markets to service." We've done what we can to pioneer new territory—"Extend the boom. Preserve the dream." But now, even the digital world is starting to feel used up. Drained dry.
The hope of upward mobility in this digital land of plenty inevitably gave way to the predictable cycle leading to downward mobility. Whether we feel the downward mobility in our wallets or in the constant reconfiguring of our labor and strategic effort, we're exhausted.
While there are certainly stories of upwardly mobile creators (I've been one) and those who maintain a consistently sufficient income (I've been one of those, too), there are plenty of stories of those who have taken to the creator economy to maintain a middle-class status they attained through more traditional means. They're journalists, designers, educators, therapists, and others whose traditional employment became unsustainable thanks to the demands of shareholders or private equity firms. The creator economy promises to help them hold on to their middle-class lifestyle and status.
Then there are those of us who wound up in the creator economy precisely because we couldn't find middle-class jobs despite our middle-class credentials. We'd dotted the i's and crossed the t's but ended up behind a cash register. Now, for many, the creator economy provides diminishing returns. What was once "what works" is now only "kinda working."
This digital downward mobility inflicts its own harm—harm that happens to benefit the people wearing $250 sneakers in sunlit Silicon Valley office buildings. We end up working harder and harder to maintain our positions. We're constantly trying out new platforms to capture some of the oomph of the early days of social media. We're always looking for the hack that beats the algorithm. And we're regularly on the lookout for the kind of crises that might make or break our audience.
This is the future of work.
Unless we make it otherwise.
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Rock, Creator Economy, Hard Place
When it comes to the current situation with Substack, there are two options: (1) leave in protest or (2) stay and resist from within.
One jeopardizes the incomes of hard-working, justice-minded creators. The other jeopardizes the trust of our audiences. One might well result in choosing the devil you don't know. The other results in choosing the devil you do.
The problem, which is felt well beyond Substack's ecosystem, is
that both staying and leaving present real risks to people's livelihoods. Neither staying nor leaving is a good option for many people.
We must look beyond the binary to determine how we will function in such flawed systems.
Philosopher Chris Cuomo (not that Chris Cuomo) argues that we have the option to "decide how to negotiate the world without hopes of reaching a predetermined, necessary state of harmony or static equilibrium, or any ultimate state." We can abandon the expectation that "our decisions and actions will result in perfect harmony or order." Artist Jenny Odell, considering Cuomo's position, suggests that we can operate with "a view toward the future that doesn’t resolve in a point but rather circles back toward itself in a constant renegotiation."
That, in essence, is my vision for the future of independent work. There is no predetermined objective, no project of perfection or purity. There is no right answer when the problem of the day is built on problematic infrastructure that has existed for centuries now. The options are not only ethical integrity or shallow self-interest.
"Constant renegotiation" doesn't have to be always trying to do a little more or set the bar a little higher. We can recognize that each one of us will make the decision we need to make given our present circumstances. The future of independent work can be and should be a practice that asks: What is the more sustainable, ethical, and life-affirming option today?
As of now, I’m not leaving Substack.
Truthfully, I’ve talked myself into and out of leaving multiple times over the course of writing this piece. I completely support anyone (reader or writer) who chooses to leave or divest. But I do want to provide other ways to support my work financially without supporting Substack financially.
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“Borked” is a technical term I’m borrowing from media scholar Emily Hund.