Monday November 7 2022
Some thoughts on scale, moths, and rust.
My friend Mina and I have a radio show called Busytown. Our motto is “LIFE IS SHORT, SCALE IS THE ENEMY OF THE GOOD, AND ALL WE HAVE IS EACH OTHER.” That’s an easy thing to say in all caps, though I would like to add that I believe it. (We’ve only completed one episode, which you can listen to here.) We ask our friends to call in and talk about their lives while we play records and say dumb shit. Busytown is broadcast on a web platform called 8-Ball Radio. 8-Ball is a volunteer organization, something that exists because the people involved want it to exist and believe it is important. 8-Ball started with zines over ten years ago and moved into radio but they are not scaling up.
I have another motto, which I stole from Ruth Langmore on Ozark: “I don’t know shit about fuck.” What I’ve written here is a series of questions disguised as assertions. I have no idea how to fix (or maintain) a publishing house or create a social network. The only thing I feel certain about is scale. Scale is the central lie of capitalism. You, the employee, are told to scale up for your benefit even though the only confirmed beneficiary of that scaling up is your employer. Here is Jack Dorsey, of Twitter, a few days ago: “I own the responsibility for why everyone is in this situation: I grew the company size too quickly. I apologize for that.” No humbler a brag will you read. He’s sorry—he’s just too good. Like Pete “Maverick” Mitchell, the fastest man alive, he can’t help it! Jack simply must scale.
We are told this scaling really will help us. Those followers and clicks and customers? They will make a difference. But they’re not customers, really. Let’s start with this post. You’re likely reading me without having handed over any money, except for 346 of you. The other 8,021 of you are curious about what I have to say but haven’t paid for it. Maybe if I put up the paywall you would, but I don’t want to do that. That’s not how I envision this. There are reasons to do things other than scale. There are reasons to accept money beyond scale.
As part of reporting a piece on music and money, I recently spoke to a musician I’ve known for years. He thinks Spotify is awful and doesn’t allow his music to be used on the platform. Spotify’s way of doing business disgusts him. His band built an audience over the years, largely in the time before streaming. Spotify would be relatively easy for his band to use and it seems unlikely that it would alienate many of their fans, but it isn’t necessary. More to the point, it doesn’t feel right.
I quote Jesus here, from the KJV, Matthew 6: “Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust consume and where thieves break in and steal; but store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust consumes and where thieves do not break in and steal.” A little later, the kicker: “You cannot serve God and wealth.”
Scale serves wealth. “Scale” is a polite way of saying “love of numbers” and the numbers are there only in the hope that the money will follow them. Very few people stay on Twitter for any length of time without thinking about income. “It is the thing I must do,” the hardcore user thinks, “because this will bring me more of more and that will improve my work situation.” I’ve had 50,000 followers on Twitter and 5,000, at different points and with different accounts. My life was better with 5,000—the more recent stretch—but I ultimately have no proof that more people read my work or listened to my music in either instance. The exposure metric indicates only that I am being exposed; it does not prove the quality of any event or even correlation, any more than a song being on the radio proves that someone is listening to it carefully or is likely to buy it. If anything good happened, it was probably me goofing with the friends I already have chats with.
The thing I’ve done longer than write for newspapers and magazines is make records. I started doing this in 1986, and things became professional in 1993. My band, Ui, made records for a label called Southern, started by a man named John Loder. The musician I mentioned was friends with Loder, who died in 2005. Loder’s pledge to the artists he worked with was kept after his death: after our contract with Southern expired, the Ui masters and all associated exploitation rights were returned to us. We recently made a deal with The Numero Group, who are now reissuing the Ui catalog. Had Loder done business in a way that favored scale over people, we would be unable to do any of this. He did what he thought was right and my life is materially different because of it.
When I started blogging in 2003, I used Blogspot. A man named Abe Burmeister saw this, was concerned, and offered me a Movable Type blog on his server, abstractdyamics.org. He made this offer to Mark Fisher and Philip Sherburne and a few other writers because he wanted to. It seemed right. Many of my Tumblr and Twitter accounts are gone, as well as entire publications, but my abstractdynamics blog is still there. Abe eventually moved on to a company called Outlier that makes really great cycling pants, among other things.
I have never made my living from playing music. I pay the bills by writing, which is why I charge for this, although I hedged my bets by eliminating the paywall. There could come a day when I need to do something differently to survive. I own the rights to almost all of the writing I’ve done in the last 25 years, but not all of it. I wrote a web piece a few years ago that a film development company expressed interest in. The publication I wrote it for has different rules for web and print—the print pieces are mine, but the web pieces are not. It would have been entirely within the terms of my contract if that film company had gone straight to the publication and made a movie based on my piece without me seeing a dime. (As far as I know, nothing came of their interest.)
Very few ways of earning a living wage do not have to consider the demands of scale. Scale means that you lose, by definition, or that if you succeed, it is only an instance of not losing. Your prosperity is an accident, not necessary for the system to survive. The system only needs you to fear losing scale. Twitter’s current predicament, though, suggests that you cannot always make people care about scale.
I think Mastodon is an encouraging development, in that a federation of servers resembles other ways of living that I’ve come to depend on. Volunteer fellowships without paid leaders and decentralized networks like BitTorrent and the blockchain are concrete things I depend on. They exist. Doing the right thing, or doing things in the right way, is rare but not unheard of. For example, Substack makes no ownership claims to my content. And my real objections to Twitter have nothing to do with scale, to be clear. My bad memories are rooted in my decisions about what to post and who to engage with, a reflection of my addictive nature, not Twitter’s need to scale up. I joined Mastodon (here) but I’d prefer social media disappeared, if I am being honest. That’s an entirely selfish reaction, though. Activists have used networks like Twitter in ways that make my preferences utterly irrelevant. Filming the police, alone, makes smartphones worth whatever trouble they’ve introduced.
When I decided, in my teens, not to depend on music as a source of income, it turned out to be one of the few early choices that served me in the long term. I have few resentments around music and things are developing now in a way that makes me happy. People will hear Ui again and this is only possible because we did not accept short-terms gains or the demands of scale. My landlords are traditionally less open-minded, so I write.
I don’t know if Elon Musk is buying infrastructure or catering to the right wing or intimidating journalists or getting revenge on the cool kids or just being an impulsive moron trying to buy his way out of trouble like his buddy Donald J. Bananaphone. Twitter’s disgusting nature is not his fault, ultimately. Twitter is the official resentment platform, a dry drunk heaven where people are rewarded for asserting and holding on to their disdains. There is no post more popular than “FUCK THIS” and it is vastly depressing that I cannot blame that on capitalism. But I don’t need to worry because other ways are possible: even better, these ways exist. If Substack fails, we’ll go somewhere else, or stay right here and meet up later.