Lessons from two years of newsletter writing

On community and collective

The idea for this newsletter first came to me, two years ago, in the shower. Gen Yeet. It was a perfect, meaningless name. I wrote the debut edition crouched in bed, bored on a Sunday night. Earlier that week, I had lost my wallet at a nightclub (Brixton’s on U Street, for my DC readers) and was without cash to do anything remotely social. I was also itching to blog. As an intern at a trade publication, my daily work was mostly paywalled and austere in tone. My writing felt bland, and I was desperate to inject style, snark, and a twisted sense of fun into a weekend pet project.

In the spirit of gen yeet turning two, I want to thank you, dear readers, for allowing my words to take up space in your increasingly crowded inbox. Thank you for the thoughtful notes, the generous cash tips, the retweets and likes, and the support, despite my inconsistency over the past year. This newsletter is an ever-changing extension of myself, and its archives a rough outline of my writing career, from March 2019 to today. Since its start, I’ve adamantly kept gen yeet free for all readers, so long as I am institutionally employed. This week, I want to share some thoughts on self-monetization, how paywalling comes with the pressure of creating and moderating an online “community,” and how the future of creative work is rooted in collectivism.

One of my few takeaways from journalism school was that it was crucial to “build a brand.” That phrase now applies to virtually any creative and technical industries; individuals are encouraged to craft public-facing personas that are professionally beneficial, for themselves or the company they represent. I was taught that building a brand as a reporter was a hire-able trait, so long as my social media presence remained respectful, vaguely apolitical, and deferential to the journalistic metrics of truth-telling. As I entered the workforce, brand-building became a necessary means of survival. Dramatic as that sounds, it was — and still is — an employment back-up plan that is masqueraded as a passion project.

I was recently quoted in an article on The Interlude, a Medium publication, titled “The Side Hustle Arms Race,” where I eschewed some of the above sentiments and was quoted as a full-time reporter with two newsletters. I sounded like a complete workaholic, despite being clearly doubtful of the hustle-slash-passion economy that techfolk zealously speak about. I do work too much, and attempt to offset it by frequently declaring how it’s corny to love work. Yet, here I am: Not working remotely, but living at work. And the natural next step, months or years down the line, is to directly monetize my audience, effectively transforming my work into a commodity under my own name.

Most “creator economy” enthusiasts argue that self-monetization is liberation, and that this form of decentralized creative patronage is the future of creative work. This idea of liberation is persuasive, although it comes with an asterisk. Some of my favorite independent writers (Haley Nahman and Alicia Kennedy, for example) have thrived under the Substack model. But while the individual becomes freed from traditional corporate constraints, they are still beholden to many other external factors: audience growth and engagement, consistency in the creation of “content,” community management, and the whims of the platforms they disseminate their work on. As a result, I am often skeptical of new platforms and tools that bill themselves as The Ultimate Solution to the corporate devaluation of creative work, especially when the emerging models largely depend on the cult of the individual and the community formed from it.

Self-monetization is a brave first step for many creatives and writers. It provides confirmation that their work is self-sustaining. It’s also a stepping stone towards developing a paying community — or a fanbase — centered around the creator. There is nothing wrong with building and fostering a cmmunity of one’s own, especially as a freelancer. In fact, consumers crave it. As we navigate through the accelerating vortex of online content, seeking out common ground with others is crucial. Social media platforms have become the default "third space" we gravitate towards to fulfill our social needs. 

In her piece “The Empty Religion of Instagram,” the writer Leigh Stein observed how millennial-aged, non-religious women have unwittingly embraced the teachings of personal growth influencers as moral guidance. These staunchly secular women became devoted to the “alternative scripture" propagated by Instagram influencers, but something about this non-religious spirituality feels empty and insufficient. Stein concluded with a hesitant, almost joking question: "Maybe we actually need to go to something like church?" While Stein's piece zooms into the behaviors of a specific subset of young white women, the desperation for community and purpose is widespread. Our identities — fueled by late-stage capitalism and the pandemic — are increasingly defined by who we follow, what we like, and what content we choose to cram down our throats.

Writer Haley Nahman has written about the challenges of fostering true community, and her decision to turn off the comments on her newsletter, Maybe Baby. That choice sounds counterintuitive to an independent writer; Nahman even admitted that the premise of "community building" seemed to solely rely on her interactions with readers. Her justification, however, begins with a critical examination of community, and how brands have commodified the concept. Nahman argued that certain social bonds we have with brands and companies are flimsily manufactured: "Building community, or hinting at a people-centric purpose, has become the central focus of modern marketing."

As a result, this concept of "community" is enforced hierarchically and prioritizes profit, sometimes through the pay-to-participate model. Nahman sought to invert these expectations as a writer by turning off her comments, encouraging subscriber discussions to occur outside of the newsletter’s confined space. To be clear, this isn’t a critique of writers who choose to self-monetize and build a devoted network of readers; it’s an acknowledgement that manufactured virtual communities — on Reddit or Substack or Twitter — are not always as symbiotic or mutually beneficial as they seem.

As Nahman wrote in her newsletter: "Promises of soul, purpose, and togetherness may sound nice coming from the figures and networks we've come to rely on for a sense of belonging, but without the shared goals or implied mutuality of actual communities, these PR-approved overtures are simply exploiting an urgent need. Brands parading as people and people parading as brands — the LARPing we've come to recognize as discourse — isn't the answer to our collective estrangement from shared meaning."  

They require maintenance, management, and constant communication to retain structure and relevance, so that interactions (like comments) don’t devolve into chaos. An individual’s fanbase can range from a few hundred members to the millions. Still, this para-social relationship between fans and the independent creator can feel extractive in nature. We've seen burnout afflict all types of public-facing content creators, who are continually pressured into feeding the algorithm and their paying audience. There are no formal guardrails, no instituted paid leave (and health insurance, but that's an issue for another day) when you're the captain of your own ship, and crew members are free to disembark at their choosing. 

A potential solution to our current state of estrangement — as content consumers and creators — is to move away from commodified communities towards the collective. In his 2011 paper “From Community to Collective: Institution and Agency in the Age of Social Networks,” researcher Douglas Thomas established the difference between communities and collectives. What separates them is that “investments in communities are structured to flow from the individual to the institution, while investments in collectives are structured to flow from institution to individual.”  I found a significant part of Thomas’s analysis to be quite dated (it was published in 2011), but the term distinctions were fascinating. Collectives celebrate a person's autonomy, since their presence adds value to the institution as a whole. Meanwhile, communities rely on exclusion to attract individuals, whose independent value is extracted for the greater benefit of said institution. 

I recently came across an article on the theory of “squad wealth” that reflected this community versus collectivist mindset. Members of a squad rejected the “empty neoliberal promises of gig economy ‘employment’ and para-social personal brands” by banding together as a collective body. Contrary to the top-down social hierarchy of commodified communities, every squad member is an equal and recognizes the limitations of individuality.

I’ve spent the last two weeks thinking about digital ownership after researching and writing about non-fungible tokens (if you just thought “What the fuck is a non-fungible token,” I have an explainer for you). I really don’t like the phrase “owning your audience,” but I do like the idea of having direct access to people who care about my work (without relying on a social platform) to build a more collective model of readership. I could also Squad Up. I bring up NFTs because of its advocates’ emphasis on digital creative patronage and how shared ownership can theoretically be extended to all digital things (tweets included) through the blockchain. Visual artists and musicians have been the first to benefit from the NFT craze, but I’m intrigued by how some see the technology as the basis for a model of collective internet ownership that could be applicable to new media companies. (The idea seems really fucking abstract, and I still have my doubts about Ethereum-powered NFTs — its environmental impact and reproduction of existing social hierarchies — and the general concept of digital scarcity.)

In common parlance, the word “community” is more often invoked than “collective.” Yet, our social attitudes have increasingly shifted in favor of collectivism. Mutual aid networks and collective care groups have flourished during the pandemic; more people appear comfortable sharing their Venmo and CashApp usernames during times of crisis to receive monetary aid from strangers. The future, it seems, is with the collective.

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Letters of recommendation

  • Shoutout to Joe Cole for sending a Dispo invitation my way! I’ve enjoyed the social-but-not-super-social nature of the app; I frequently snap photos of local scenery or street art I usually relegate to my Instagram Stories or the depths of my camera roll. Follow me @terrynguyen.

  • Adam Curtis’s documentary Can’t Get You Out of My Head: An Emotional History of the Modern World

  • Rebecca Jenning’s profile on Trisha Paytas in Vulture

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