On Being an Artist, Author, and Activist in a World Where All the Major Online Media Platforms Suck
a.k.a., “Why I’m on Substack Now,” Part 2
In my first post here, Why I’m on Substack Now, I discussed my growing dissatisfaction with Medium (where I’ve long written) and my decision to begin cross-posting my essays to Substack. Recently, someone took strong issue with me having a presence on Substack (and just Substack) due to the fact that Glinner, Libs of TikTok, and all sorts of other right-wing and white-nationalist bad actors are hosted here. Notably, my critic raised these complaints on Twitter/“X”, where Elon Musk not only hosts most of these same bad actors, but he even amplifies and espouses support for some of their views.
I also have a presence on Facebook and YouTube, both of which host all sorts of transphobic, racist, sexist, etc., posts and videos. Similarly rabid right-wing content can be found in countless books carried by Amazon, where I also sell my wares. You can also listen to my music on Spotify, a company that has paid Joe Rogan $200 million so that he can interview infamous far-right pundits (e.g., Alex Jones, Steven Crowder, Ben Shapiro, Jordan Peterson) and spread anti-vaxx/Covid disinformation.
Most major online media platforms host at least some content that is anathema to me. Each of us regularly makes ethical decisions about which of these platforms we’re willing to use and subscribe to and which ones are beyond the pale to us. Everyone is free to draw that line wherever they see fit. And of course, each of us has the right to critique, protest, or boycott any of these platforms and/or their users.
Here, I will share my thoughts on all this, partially in response to my critic, but also as a form of transparency as an artist, author, and activist who uses all of the aforementioned platforms. To be clear, I am not trying to assert that I am right and my critic is wrong, or that I am right and you are wrong. It’s just that I’ve spent a ton of time thinking about how to navigate this hellscape, and perhaps readers and other artists/authors/activists may find some of what I have to say useful. (Admittedly, your mileage may vary.)
Boycotts as Consumers Versus as Artists/Authors/Activists
There are at least two different ways to view a potential protest or boycott campaign against Substack or any other media platform. First, we can view it from the standpoint of a consumer. If I learn that Chick-fil-A donates money to anti-LGBTQ+ causes, then I might decide not to give them my money, and instead choose to patronize other fast-food restaurants. (This is relatively easy to do provided that all the other fast-food restaurants aren’t also donating to anti-LGBTQ+ causes.) From this perspective, I completely understand why any given individual might choose not to buy my books on Amazon, or listen to my music on Spotify, or read my essays on Substack. Indeed, this is precisely why I’ve made sure that my books and music are also available at other outlets, and that my essays are cross-posted to Medium (although, for the record, they do host some bad actors too).
A second way to view these campaigns is from the standpoint of an artist, author, or activist. If your passion is writing books, then the decision not to use Amazon (because far-right authors sell a shitload of books there) is basically a death knell. Same goes for musicians and podcasters who refuse use Spotify, or video creators who refuse to use YouTube. Granted, you can still publish your books, music, podcasts, and videos elsewhere, but you risk no one ever seeing them, because the audiences are on those other platforms, sometimes exclusively. Same goes with social media: If you want new people to discover your book, song, podcast, or video, you need to promote it on places like Twitter or Instagram or elsewhere, otherwise no one will even know that it exists.
This is the dilemma that many artists, authors, and activists find ourselves in these days: In order to get our work out into the public, we need to use at least *some* of these online media outlets, especially those that have become quasi-monopolies.
For much of the 2010s, Medium was where most readers of independent online articles and essays were. I long had a traditional blog, but few people were visiting it anymore, because they had all migrated to Medium instead. Which is why I started writing there, and for a while, lots of people were discovering my work and sharing my posts there. But this has tapered off a bit recently, in part, because Medium has been shifting toward a member-only model, but also because many readers of independent online articles and essays have since migrated to Substack. Despite my initial hesitancy (which I’ll get to shortly), Substack is simply where lots of readers are these days and where a lot of new discovery is happening.
When I first started posting here, several readers told me they were glad I had done so because they missed my work. That is to say, nowadays, they spend most of their time on Substack, so they would have had to go out of their way to look up my latest writings on Medium (or my old blog, for that matter). This is the rub: I could seek out the most righteous writing and social media platforms and commit to only using them, but then the only people who would ever see my posts would be the few die-hard followers willing to migrate over to those new platforms.
While I don’t believe that Substack has reached Amazon or YouTube quasi-monopoly levels (at least not yet), it is akin to Spotify: As a podcaster or musician, you can choose to boycott Spotify because of Joe Rogan or their horrendous business model. But if you do so, there are some people who will never hear your work, because they primarily or solely use that platform for their podcast and music needs.
When I pointed out to my critic the irony of us having our exchange on Elon Musk’s Twitter (which hosts both Glinner and Libs of TikTok, the two anti-trans activists they explicitly mentioned), they argued that this was different because both those transphobes “make an income” off Substack. Of course, Twitter has recently started paying certain “creators,” most of whom are right-wing social influencers (including the notorious Andrew Tate). I am not sure whether Libs of TikTok or Glinner are among those paid “creators.” But I have seen Libs of TikTok promote her merch store to her huge Twitter following—so isn’t she indirectly making money from Twitter? And Glinner’s new book just came out on Amazon, so shouldn’t we extend this boycott to that platform too?
As a writer who is piecing together a living by having my work available on numerous online media platforms while promoting it on various social media accounts, all of these platforms seem inexorably linked to me. Singling out Substack because of “income” seems like a distinction without a difference.
My critic has also accused me of prioritizing “profits over people,” implying that I am selling out the trans community in order to cash in a big Substack check. As I pointed out in my original Why I’m on Substack Now post, 1) my Substack posts and subscriptions are free to everyone, 2) for those who wish to support my work, I highly recommend doing so via Patreon, 3) for those who decide to support me on Substack instead (typically because they’re already on Substack and don’t wish to migrate to Patreon), I set the paid subscription tier as low as possible. At the time of writing this, I have 300 Substack subscribers, only a handful (less than ten) of which are paid subscriptions. So I’m not making much money here. Although that probably doesn’t matter if you believe that Substack is pure evil, and thus my having any association with them whatsoever permanently taints me.
As I tried to make clear in my original Why I’m on Substack Now post, the reason why I came to Substack is because you can make your posts free and readily accessible here (whereas Medium is increasingly becoming a closed ecosystem where everything is behind a paywall) and because lots of readers are already spending time on this platform and I would really like to reach them. And a big part of why I want to reach them is because much of my writing is activist in nature. I want readers on Substack to know why KOSA is an anti-LGBTQ+ bill in all but name, and why “what is a woman?” and “male socialization” are anti-trans memes disguised as valid concerns. As an activist, shouldn’t I want to reach as many people as possible?
Of course, there are limits to that last question. I certainly wouldn’t go on a dedicated white-nationalist or far-right outlet to spread the word. And there’s always a debate whenever someone on the left goes on Fox News in an attempt to reach their viewers. But then again, Fox News is a 100 percent conservative outlet. Whereas Substack (like Amazon, Facebook, Spotify, Twitter, and YouTube) hosts all sorts of voices, many of whom are on the left and some even happen to be trans (I’ll revisit that last point in a moment).
One last point about income: At one point, while arguing that my presence here is giving credibility to Substack, my critic described me as a “household name.” Which is laughable. While I have some notoriety within LGBTQ+ and feminist circles, most people have absolutely no clue who I am. Along similar lines, I’ve had people mistakenly presume that my books (particularly Whipping Girl) are best sellers and that I must be rolling in dough. The reality is that I make roughly $6,000-ish in book royalties per year between all my books. I piece together a living between that, doing a handful of college speaking engagements each year, my Patreon, and to a lesser extent, outlets like Medium, Substack, and the occasional freelance job. Like a lot of independent writers and other folks making ends meet these days, I am basically doing the “gig economy” thing. I make significantly less than the average U.S. income, as is typical for artists, authors, and activists alike. I am not complaining, as I feel extremely fortunate that I get to write about what I want for a living. But I just wanted to dispel the notion that I’ve suddenly become some sort of Substack “fat cat,” since that misconception seems to be driving some of this criticism.
I remember a few years back, when I made the decision (as a consumer) to boycott Uber for myriad reasons. Instead, if I needed a ride, I’d use Lyft (which I recognize is akin to shopping at Target because you’re boycotting Walmart). But then it struck me: More often than not, when my Lyft driver picked me up, they also had an Uber sign on their car. Likely because they couldn’t make a sufficient living if they only drove for one company but not the other. That’s how the “gig economy” works: You always need more than just one “gig.”
In my dreams, I wish one of my books would become a best seller, but that’s extremely unlikely given that my main interests are LGBTQ+ issues and social justice. And I’m still waiting for some university or think tank to offer me a handsome salary with benefits to write the kinds of essays that I want to write, but that’s also improbable. Unless one of these things happen, I will likely have to keep spreading myself across multiple online media platforms, despite the fact that most of them also host assorted bad actors. Which brings us to . . .
Regarding the Original Substack Protest
A few years back, some trans people were protesting Substack due to the company’s decision to host anti-trans pundits such as Andrew Sullivan (who got a big signing-bonus check) and Jesse Singal (who did not, but he quickly garnered a following here). As I recall, much of the focus was rightfully on Glinner, whose Substack account allowed him to circumvent social media bans he faced on other platforms such as Twitter (although, like I said, Musk has subsequently unsuspended his account). I vocally spoke out against the company’s policies back then (especially with regards to Glinner) and I did one of those consumer boycotts I mentioned earlier: I personally refused to visit the site for a while, although I did not condemn writers who used the platform (akin to my boycotting Uber but not condemning my Lyft drivers who also drove for them).
Some of the protests were aimed at putting pressure on Substack writers to leave the platform. The idea was that if a critical mass of writers began leaving, then Substack might reconsider and ultimately change their policies. I’m all for this idea in theory. But in practice, however, it disproportionately (read: almost entirely) fell on trans authors. I’m not going to name names here. Suffice it to say, the average cisgender Substack writer wasn’t even aware that these protests were happening and, even if they were, they weren’t worried about losing a substantial chunk of their readership (because their cis readers were also largely unaware of said protests). In contrast, trans writers (whose readerships were disproportionately trans) felt immense pressure to leave the platform or otherwise face condemnation.
Now, several years later, these protests have largely died down, presumably out of recognition that they were largely ineffective. I (like many people) currently view Substack as but one of many online platforms that have atrocious content moderation policies. I really wish that Substack would ban Glinner, Twitter would ban Libs of TikTok, Spotify would drop Joe Rogan, and Amazon would stop selling anti-trans disinformation books, and so on. But I don’t see any of these things happening any time soon. Given this, I don’t think pressuring trans people off these same platforms achieves anything constructive. But obviously, some people may feel differently.
I totally support anyone who wants to engage in a consumer boycott of Substack (or Twitter, or Spotify, and so on), which is why I maintain a presence on Medium and Bluesky and Bandcamp and elsewhere. And if there was an organized movement to get writers en masse to threaten to leave Substack unless the company stops hosting transphobic and far-right content, then I would certainly be open to joining that protest and a potential mass migration to a new platform.
But so long as it’s a campaign focused primarily or solely on pressuring trans artists, authors, and activists to abandon Substack (or insert-online-media-platform-here), that strikes me as being more about purity politics than about changing any of these companies’ policies or behaviors. Sure, we could purge all the trans artists/authors/activists from these platforms, but it would barely make a dent in these companies’ bottom lines. The only thing that would change is that it would become even more difficult for readers and audiences to discover and share trans voices.
Anyway, that’s my two cents. I don’t expect everyone to agree with every point I’ve made here. But I do ask that, if you feel differently or disagree with me, that you at least represent my perspective on these matters accurately.
This essay was made possible by my Patreon supporters — if you appreciate it, please consider supporting me there. And if you want to find or follow me on other online platforms, you can do so via my social media webpage.