Every month, David Dobrik loses 40k YouTube subscribers. He also adds 200k a month. But the number of people who unsubscribe still stings him.1
It’s hard to shake the fear of losing followers.
I started this blog as we were packing up our Chicago apartment two years ago. Elizabeth was taking a year off to backpack around Asia. I had a wedding in Philadelphia and then was flying to meet up with her in Cambodia. A blog seemed like a good way to post pictures and stories.
From the beginning, my parents, siblings, and a few friends subscribed to my blog. 8 people. I loved posting and getting replies back from my family. I never submitted posts to HN or Reddit or anywhere else. Who would care? Lots of people have been to Thailand, I thought. A year later, I still had 8 subscribers.
One day, I woke up to a “New Subscriber” Mailchimp email with a name and email address I didn’t recognize. I had no idea how they found my blog. Surely it was a mistake. Why would they be interested in pics of my laptop?
I hesitated to post for a week. I’d caught a subscriber and I didn’t want to lose them! After days of agony, I published something new. I refreshed Mailchimp a dozen times to see if they unsubscribed. They didn’t. I posted again the next day. They were still there.
The fear of losing followers is an insane thought. What’s the point of having subscribers if you’re scared to email them? Yet each time I get an influx of subs, I get this nagging thought: Oh your next post better be good.
Posting publicly doesn’t come naturally to me. I maintained a blog in college, but deleted it after I ran into a Reddit buzzsaw.2 I also deleted Twitter and Instagram because consuming but never producing content was bumming me out.
I used to think the cure for the fear of losing followers was to never post publicly. But the opposite is true. Being prolific is the best antibody to the fear of online reprisal.
The main upside of posting a lot is that it’s impossible to predict what other people will find interesting. I’ll labor over ideas for days, and then nobody cares. Other times I’ll go from blank screen to published in 30 minutes and get lots of replies.
The secondary upside is the more you post the more you’ll connect with people. We all love hearing stories and new ideas. If somebody’s annoyed, they’ll simply unsubscribe. Ask David Dobrik.
Personality is the force majeure of the internet.
When I used to travel, I’d skim through the USA Today left outside my hotel room each morning. But I’ve actually never done the digital equivalent by typing “nytimes.com” into Safari. Instead, I get news directly from @MKBHD and @benthompson.
Why? Why do I follow people and not brands online? I wondered.
For one, hot takes are more interesting than edited corporate drivel. I like the added context people provide. I like the back and forth, the personality, the arguments, the flaws. This isn’t new. Hitler and Churchill both rode cults of personality into power. So did Caesar.
But until this century, you would have had to buy your own printing press to widely distribute pamphlets, or pay the NYT to run full-page ads to appeal directly to the public.2 Newspapers had distribution monopolies and thus were de facto curators. “All The News That’s Fit To Print,” the NYT reminded us at the start of each and every day.3
Now that I see all the news that isn’t fit to print, I wonder Why’d you leave that out? Why’d you choose that headline? What else is being censored? I don’t trust the masthead. I don’t even trust the journalists. Usually I seek out the subjects directly on Twitter.
The New York Times and NBC and Walmart used to pick what we read, saw, and ate. Two brothers in San Antonio decided that commuters across the country would hear Rush Limbaugh every morning on their way to work. If a ketchup company wanted their product on shelves, they had to convince buyers in Bentonville to stock their bottles.
But then came the 747, the shipping container, the 18-wheeler, and, as a final death blow to distribution monopolists everywhere, the internet. Stories weren’t limited to 22-inch sheets of paper, voices weren’t crammed between 87.5 MHz and 108.0 MHz, and products weren’t stuck on transcontinental rail tracks.
Distribution’s commodification has changed everything. It’s given rise to Warby Parker, Casper, Away, and other somewhat predictable direct-to-consumer businesses. Why pay leases and middlemen when you can pay the Instagram Tax instead? Kidding, kidding, I love DTC brands.
I’m not surprised I now buy products directly from the source. But I am surprised that I no longer trust Macy’s to carry the best shoes. I’m surprised I no longer trust the NYT to decide what’s “fit to print.” It turns out the old distribution monopolists weren’t curators by skill, but by chance.
As the ease of distribution increased, the number of choices we had exploded exponentially. I don’t trust Macy’s buyers or NYT’s editors to help me navigate all those choices. They are nameless and faceless to me. Instead, I trust personalities that I like online.
We’re in a multi-decade shift from trust in institutions to trust in people.
ESPN is being replaced by Dave Portnoy. Sephora is being replaced by Kylie Jenner. The Tonight Show is being replaced by Joe Rogan. HGTV’s shows are being replaced by Demolition Matt.
In the early days of DTC, I thought there would be a need for a “Curation Brand,” a Trader Joe’s of online grocery. Something like Brandless (RIP). I’ve been waiting.4 So far, no brand has emerged that I trust to maximize price and quality for me.
Perhaps that will change. But so far, it’s personalities that dominate online. They curate for me. I trust them because I know them, or at least I have the illusion of knowing them. I’m willing to hear what “the influencers” have to say and I’m willing to buy what they’re selling.
I can’t say the same about the distribution brands of old.
A few predictions:
funny because I write both accounts :)— Sahil Lavingia (@shl) February 7, 2020
Benjamin Franklin in particular was famous for distributing his ideas on pamphlets during the American Revolution. Cornelius Vanderbilt frequently took out full-page ads in New York newspapers to complain about the federal government and corruption.↩
Wirecutter does this. I rely on Wirecutter heavily to make about any purchase, lest I drown in a sea of choices on Amazon. But I’m surprised there isn’t a brand that I trust to just buy everything from directly.↩
Last night, as we waited outside for the table ahead of us to finish dessert and pay, the hostess walked out with two glasses of champagne. “I’m sorry we’re running behind,” she said. Elizabeth and I clinked glasses.
Back in the kitchen, we heard the hostess complaining to the chef about a woman who’d been sitting at a table by herself for three hours. “I don’t know what she’s doing!”
The chef was tempted to walk out and tell her to leave, but he didn’t want to risk another negative review. A month earlier, after reopening for patio dining, somebody had posted to Yelp: “Great pizza, nice staff, odd decor.” 1 star.
Hearing their sighs and shrugs reminded me of a story I once heard from my grandfather.
Grandad had joined an International Harvester dealership in Norfolk after the war. He’d worked there for several years before offering to buy the business from its nearing-retirement owner, Mr. Bell.
Mr. Bell agreed, so long as Grandad partnered with his nephew Lewis Gibson. No problem.
Grandad went to get a loan. “What’s the name of your business?” the loan officer asked. Hmm, he hadn’t thought about it. “G&S Equipment,” he said.
It was a Monday morning when Grandad and Lewis and Mr. Bell met at the dealership to finalize the transfer. Mr. Bell, after signing his final dotted line, stood up, grabbed his coat, and headed toward the door.
Grandad was surprised. “Wait! Aren’t you going to stick around for a couple weeks? Have a transition period?”
Mr. Bell turned around. He paused.
“All you need to know, is the public is a bitch.”
And then he walked out.
On January 22, 1970, a Pan Am Boeing 747 touched down at Heathrow for the first time.1 It was the 747’s first commercial flight. At the time, British Airways had 11 of the jumbo jets on order.
I’ve always wanted to ride on one. I’m too late.
British Airways announced yesterday they’re retiring their entire 747 fleet. Permanently. Its cousins are also in trouble: the double-decker A380 is grounded worldwide.
Landing slots at Heathrow are scarce. In 2016, Oman Air bought a single morning slot from Air France for $75 million. So while the 777, A340, and 787 use less than half the fuel per passenger to fly, airlines need jumbo jets to maximize passenger throughput.
Nowadays double-deckers are merely a waste of fuel. Just like a species facing an extinction event, the 747 got wiped out by an economic chokepoint.
Intelligent-designers often cite gaps in the archaeological record as evidence against natural selection. If evolution inched along slowly, they argue, where are the fossils of almost-humans, and almost-almost-humans, and almost-almost-almost humans? Shouldn’t we find skulls of humans with tiny eyes, slightly-less-tiny eyes, all the way up to regular-sized eyes?
But evolution doesn’t crawl along in a straight line. Adaptation happens slowly, and then all at once. Chokepoints force the “all at once.”
For example, birds in Britain and Denmark have been under attack by asphalt for a century. In Britain, it’s popular to load birdseed into birdfeeders and place them in gardens. Not so in Denmark. Within 40 years, the beaks of British birds have grown 1-2mm longer than their Danish counterparts.2
For millennia the beaks have stayed the same. And then asphalt, in a mere half century, forced British bird beaks to grow up to 10% longer.
Business follows the same pattern. Innovation prods along slowly. And then one day the economy’s equilibrium gets punctured.
We are in one of those economic chokepoints. The 747 and A380 are collateral damage.
What else is facing evolutionary death because of COVID?
It might be better to invert that question. What types of businesses will survive despite COVID? What traits do those businesses have that will spread like memes throughout the economy?
Medium was beautiful when it first launched. The WYSIWYG editor blew my mind. Ads didn’t cover the first three paragraphs. It’s where all the cool kids published.
Reading an article on Medium felt like getting an email from an @gmail.com address in 2004. “This person must know what’s up, they’re on Medium!”
The content was great. There were fantastic Federal Reserve breakdowns and Apple iPhone hot takes.
Substack feels a lot like Medium’s early days. It’s great they’ve made newslettering easy. I love reading blogs. But as the number of Twitter bios with Substack subdomains grows, my eagerness to click through is shrinking.
The problem is twofold.
First, there’s a signal problem.
Medium used to amplify credibility. Now I find the opposite to be true for me. “Oh this person just throws stuff on Medium? Probably not worth my time.” X-out.
Second, there’s a visual memory problem.
I’m a sucker for unique CSS. As pretentious as that sounds, it’s not a conscious judgment. Daring Fireball’s grey background is soothing. The big green Marginal Revolution monster is endearing. It’s easy to find Paul Graham’s article in my tabs: it’s the only Yahooo! favicon.
Substack’s (and Medium’s) locked layouts mean I look past the author, read the post, and then move on. It’s similar to Spotify’s Discover Weekly. Despite listening to the playlist on repeat, I can’t name a single artist from it.
People who already have a huge audience will likely succeed massively with Substack. The experience is easy. It’s thoughtful. It’s simple. Lowering the bar for online publishing is fantastic. I am cheering for them.
But I hope I don’t find myself groaning when I click on Substack links.
Medium became a victim of its own success. Too much noise, not enough signal. I wonder how Substack can avoid the same fate.
I’ve now lived in all four continental US time zones. Where I wake up impacts my routine.
Central Time has been driving this week’s zen. Easy to wake up at 6:30am, easy to take a mid-day break, easy to hit all my daily process goals.
Here’s how each time zone feels, ranked worst to best:
Eastern Time, “The Hangover”
The first morning in NYC is a gift. I get to choose when to start my day. I can read or write or relax until the rest of America brews its coffee. But I don’t get to choose when to end my day. Happy hour slips past 5pm. Everyone’s checking their email during dinner. I end up staying late to get that support ticket from the west coast done before finally getting in bed by 1am.
At 7am, I snooze the alarm. I don’t get moving until 8am or 9am. My first-to-wake-up advantage is gone. And I’m hungover!
Pacific Time, “The Anxiety”
There is no escaping the existential dread of morning email when waking up in San Francisco. There is no quiet moment of solitude between the first sip of coffee and the first swipe-to-refresh-email. NYC is already firing away!
I used to buffer this anxiety by walking to work every morning. It’s even harder when the office is the cafe and the cafe is the living room.
At least by 2pm there’s time for a guilt-free Barry’s. The ability to enjoy dinner without constantly checking my phone is what makes Pacific Time slightly better than Eastern Time, but I can’t seem to shake the nagging feeling of being hopelessly behind.
Central Time: “Wholesome”
I’ve spent the bulk of my life in Birmingham, Nashville, and Chicago. Central Time. It’s the “just-right” porridge of time zones. As long as I’m up by 7am, I feel like I have time to sit down and think before diving into the day. By dinner time, most things are wrapped up.
But while there’s space at the margins, there isn’t quite enough freedom in either the morning or the evening to feel like there’s time to really back away from the desk.
Mountain Time: “Reckless In A Good Way”
Getting out of bed at 6am in Idaho is perfect.
There’s a full hour before NYC starts going Full Send. And since people know you’re “somewhere in the mountains,” nobody will miss you until 8am.
Work, read, write, whatever. The best part comes at 2pm. NYC knows the work day is supposed to be over. And because you woke up before San Francisco, people on the west coast think you might as well by in NYC.
Go ski a few runs. Go for a hike. Go for a run. Nobody is going to miss you from 2pm-dinner, when you can pick up and answer any remaining questions in your inbox.