Originally written for Pomona class Intro to Media Studies with Prof. Oscar Moralde
At first glance, Substack seems innocuous: a four-year-old YC-backed startup providing a newsletter tool that makes it easy for anyone to publish writing, either for free access or to charge a subscription for. I use it for my monthly reflection newsletter. My friends use it to publish creative writing and personal essays to small audiences. Writers with paid subscribers turn 5% of their subscription revenue to Substack and keep it afloat.
Is cultural legitimation a solution to the undesirable aspects of the tech “culture war”? Will our existing cultural institutions prevail and wrench the threat of cultural disruption away from the tech industry in time? Perhaps so. But this will only reproduce the faults of the “official” system where the “popular” one used to be. An alternative perspective in the same theoretical framework would be to see the “popular cultural production” of tech as an opportunity to carve out cultural change and opposition to “official” culture in desirable ways. Now we arrive at the techno-optimist ethos of Reboot’s manifesto, a declaration that as technologists, “We cannot shy from the social…We cannot shy from the political…[and w]e cannot shy from the historical,” but rather actively create favorable visions and resist oppressive forces within tech and in broader society alike.
But in the past year, Substack has been the subject of heated commentary from prominent cultural figures and institutions.
Some of the most prominent writers who have joined Substack in the past two years — Andrew Sullivan, a former editor of The New Republic; Glenn Greenwald, the co-founder of The Intercept; and Matt Taibbi, a former editor of Rolling Stone; among others — have upheld Substack as a crucial platform to fight against the ideological repression of “mainstream media” publications. Substack actively pursued these writers by offering cash advances in exchange for a larger share of subscription revenue for the first year through its “Substack Pro” program.
In response, critical stories and commentaries about Substack have appeared in The New York Times, The New Yorker, The Atlantic, and numerous other major publications. Nathan Tankus, the author of a politics and economics newsletter with upwards of 40,000 subscribers, left the platform due to its support of writers which Tankus wrote constituted “encouraging a culture of anti-trans bigotry.” UCLA professor Sarah Roberts went as far as to label Substack “a threat to journalism” and called for its boycott in a widely circulated Twitter thread.
Substack, for its part, says that its Pro program is entirely business-based and without editorial intent. It maintains that it is a platform rather than a publication, and that the publications it hosts are owned and controlled solely by their writers. Supported writers are chosen based on whether Substack believes they’ll financially succeed on the platform and not elsewhere, according to a company blog post.
But opposition to larger media corporations and cultural institutions, which many see as ideologically charged, is inherent in Substack’s market position. Though Substack mostly frames themselves as taking advantage of the business failure of large publications to sufficiently support and retain their writers, a blog post by founder Hamish McKenzie echoes the same sentiments about mainstream media’s ideological failings as the most controversial writers on the platform.
This piece outlines the various ways that Substack is perceived, examining the motivating economic and ideological forces at two levels: that of the platform (Substack and traditional publications as companies) and the individual writer (especially differences between left- and right-leaning writers). At a deeper level, this piece aims to point out the conceptions of “cultural class struggle” that trend in Silicon Valley more broadly, creating a dominant political view that often aligns with right-wing populism and vehemently opposes left-wing “wokeness” in the U.S.
Read a commentary from any publication you might think of as representative of traditional media and you will most likely find narratives along the line of “Substack is a threat to traditional news media and therefore dangerous.”
UCLA professor Sarah Roberts made this argument against Substack clear in a February 2021 Twitter thread. “Substack is a dangerous direct threat to traditional news media. But more importantly? It is a threat to journalism,” the thread opens. Traditional journalists earn their reputation by adhering to codes of norms and ethics enforced in newsrooms, Roberts says. These norms and ethics are what make journalism trustworthy and valuable to the public. Substack threatens to enable writers to rip away newsroom rules while keeping their reputation, causing the public to misinterpret opinion writing as objective journalism and damaging “one of the few failsafes against anti-democratic maneuvers.”
“It is expensive and laborious to hold powerful people and institutions to account,” Anna Weiner echoed in a July 2021 New Yorker piece. “A robust press is essential to a functioning democracy, and a cultural turn toward journalistic individualism” — which is Substack’s vision — “might not be in the collective interest.” A The New York Times article published the same month, titled “Is the Rise of the Substack Economy Bad for Democracy?”, further affirms this framing.
This narrative isn’t entirely an invention by commentators: Substack is transparent that one of the underlying bets of its business model is precisely that traditional publications are failing to properly support their writers, and Substack offers a better financial model for them to make a living off of their work.
Will Oremus argues in a Slate Magazine piece that Substack’s pressure on traditional publications is a continuation of competition that they have long faced on the internet.
Analyzing the economics of newspapers themselves, Oremus writes that news publications have always needed to subsidize their important but relatively dry journalism with content that sells better: “sports scores, sensational crime stories, weepy human-interest features, [and] spicy op-eds” along with smaller bits like “stock quotes, crosswords, weather reports, [and] classified ads.” But on the internet, sites like ESPN, Craigslist, and a host of others fulfill these niches. Consequently, when traditional publications moved online along with their readership, they lost most of their pre-internet selling points. Newsrooms suffered accordingly from reduced revenue: U.S. newspapers employed half the amount of newsroom staff in 2019 as they did in 2008, with local news hit especially hard.
The one selling point that publications relied on in print that carried over to the internet was their hosting of personalities. “You could get the day’s news from lots of places, but you could only read Herb Caen in the Chronicle, Maureen Dowd in the Times, and Leonard Pitts in the Herald,” Oremus writes of columnists who became household names and major draws for their respective publications. Many digitally successful publications continued to rely on these columnists to drive their transition, noting the New York Times’ major expansion of its opinion section and the online success of columnist-driven magazines like The Atlantic and Mother Jones.
It’s not obvious why Substack has been framed as such a strong threat to established news media. In February, Substack shared that it had around 500,000 paying subscribers across all publications on its platform. While significant, this readership doesn’t begin to rival those of traditional media companies: the New York Times has 7.5 million subscribers, for example, with 2.3 million added in 2020 alone. Furthermore, Substack doesn’t and mostly can’t support the kind of day-to-day reporting and in-depth investigatives that large publications do: independent, reader-funded writers primarily offer higher payoff-to-cost ratio opinion writing.
But Oremus’ analysis provides a compelling hypothesis for why the media industry views Substack as a threat of “existential scale”: Substack threatens — and in several high-profile cases has succeeded — to pull from publications the personalities that have been one of their biggest means of economic survival in the internet age, in which these publications’ financial sustainability is increasingly in question. Substack doesn’t try to compete with the vast majority of news medias’ products, but still threatens their survival by undermining the economic foundation on which they lie.
Substack’s founders themselves have sent mixed messages about their relationship with traditional media, initially declaring that “The great journalistic totems of the last century are dying” and “the subscription-based news industry could well be much larger than the newspaper business ever was”, hinting at the company’s ambitions to create a Peter Thiel-esque monopoly over the industry. More recently, though, the company has offered clarifications and effectively backed off. “The truth is that we do not see ourselves in competition with traditional media. We are not here to ‘disrupt’ the city newspaper or the local radio station or even global news organizations like the New York Times,” McKenzie wrote in February 2021.
“But that doesn’t mean there’s no value in some healthy pressure,” the post continues. While most industry voices seemingly remain skeptical, if not fearful, of Substack, some external commentators share the co-founders’ hopes that the platform’s economic competition will change journalism for the better.
Facing the threat of Substack, media companies have two choices, Oremus writes: compete with Substack for the personalities being poached, or “rethink what it is that they offer that Substack can’t or won’t.” While some companies have chosen the former, like the New York Times, which has doubled down on their own newsletter platform, Oremus advocates for the latter. News publications losing the economic foundation of their non-news personalities provides an opportunity to build new economic foundations rooted more directly in the journalistic qualities that make these publications irreplaceable, Oremus argues. He lists among these “the value of their editing, newsroom diversity and camaraderie, institutional backing, and wide audience”. Thus Oremus instead sees Substack as potentially strengthening the very qualities that Roberts argued Substack would weaken in the media ecosystem.
Journalism professor Michael Socolow offers a more nuanced take. He compares Substack’s model to that of subscription-based newspapers run by political parties in early U.S. history, which was only superseded by mass news media by the advent of the penny press and advertiser-based revenue models in the 1850s. While this advertiser-based model has collapsed in the internet age, Socolow emphasizes that Substack’s subscription model, like historical subscription-based political papers, can never support mass media in the way that Substack’s founders hope and critics fear it will. But Socolow ultimately echoes Oremus’ hope that Substack, by questioning journalism’s financing models and “explicitly asserting that good journalism and commentary are worth paying for”, can help drive journalism as an industry to find more solid financial footing and compromise its own standards less.
For all the diversity of perspectives represented in this section, note that they all center around a single perspective: the impact of Substack on established news publications, or the impact of Substack on larger societal concerns compared to the impact that established news publications previously played in the same areas.
On established news publications, this is the framing that has dominated discussion about Substack. The perspectives of the more direct producers and consumers of Substack as a platform, though, reveal completely different narratives.
Why do writers turn to Substack, with several leaving prestigious positions at established institutions to do so?
Substack’s official answer from the beginning has been that it’s economically advantageous — and, in the long run, economically necessary — for writers to do so. The 2017 company launch post makes the same assessment of the existing business model for journalism as Oremus and Socolow made years later: the ad-funded model of news publications, though it propelled the penny press papers of the 19th century and continued to support mass news media into the present day, is on its deathbed thanks to the internet. As an alternative, it points to success stories from writers directly making money from readers. Along with profitable subscription-based publications like Andrew Sullivan’s The Dish, Jessica Lessin’s The Information, and Ben Thompson’s Stratechery, the blog post mentions several writers across niches funded by fans on Patreon. This direct-subscription model is what Chris Best and Hamish McKenzie write will lead to a “new golden age for publishing”. Substack’s mission is to accelerate the adoption of this model, and “Substack’s goal…can be summed up in one sentence”, Best and McKenzie write: “Make it simple to start a publication that makes money from subscriptions.”
And fair enough, there are a huge variety of thriving publications on Substack, offering content ranging from political and cultural commentary, to business and financial insights, to recipe lists. The production teams behind this content range from straightforward one-person newsletters to entire staff teams running full-fledged newsrooms. The only thing that they seem to have in common is reliance on Substack’s subscription-based revenue model, as Substack claims.
Even limiting consideration to political newsletters — which made up eight of the top ten paid Substack newsletters in October 2021 — Substack is host to a variety of high-profile voices: Roxane Gay and Edward Snowden run newsletters right alongside Andrew Sullivan and Glenn Greenwald. But it’s notable that three of these eight top writers (Sullivan, Greenwald, and Matt Taibbi) were high-profile figures in the establishment who came to Substack for the same outspoken reasons: because they felt stifled by their existing publications and the “mainstream media” in general, and viewed Substack not just as an economically preferable alternative, but one that offered an ideological platform that opposed the supposed intellectual repression of the mainstream platforms from which they came.
Greenwald’s announcement of his move was the most aggressively oppositional towards the “mainstream”. After editors from The Intercept, a publication Greenwald co-founded, asked him to rewrite an article he wrote about media coverage of Biden to exclude discussion of the Hunter Biden scandal that assumed the truth of the matter, and furthermore asked him not to publish it in another publication, Greenwald felt that the publication was blatantly censoring his writing, the last straw in a long series of deviations from his original vision for it as a platform for aggressive, mainstream-opposing journalism. In October 2020, he published a Substack post announcing his resignation from The Intercept and his move to Substack. “Rather than offering a venue for airing dissent, marginalized voices and unheard perspectives, [The Intercept] is rapidly becoming just another media outlet with mandated ideological and partisan loyalties,” he wrote.
While Greenwald has a long list of specific grievances against The Intercept, he makes clear that “none of the critiques I have voiced about The Intercept are unique to it.” Rather, his fight is over “free expression” and the “right of dissent” within “every major cultural, political and journalistic institution,” he writes, with the very “values of liberalism” at stake. He speaks of an “increasingly repressive climate” that is “engulfing national mainstream media outlets across the country,” which has “contaminated virtually every mainstream center-left political organization, academic institution, and newsroom.”
In July 2020, Andrew Sullivan announced his departure from New York Magazine and the launching of a new weekly Substack newsletter. Unlike Greenwald, Sullivan did not resign from the magazine, but was fired by them. He outlines his understanding of why he was let go from the magazine, using much of the same language as Greenwald did, but with an explicit statement of the “mandated ideological…loyalties” that Greenwald only mentioned abstractly. Unlike Greenwald, who complained of the mainstream news media’s Democratic party alignment, Sullivan flaunts his endorsement of progressive policies and programs and mentions his support for Obama and Biden. The ideological mandate that Sullivan takes issue with is that of “critical theory”:
> “Increasingly the orthodoxy in mainstream media [is that] that any writer not actively committed to critical theory in questions of race, gender, sexual orientation, and gender identity is actively, physically harming co-workers merely by existing in the same virtual space.”
He ties this ideology to “wokeness” and academic institutions, reflecting that a past statement he made that “we all live on campus now” and are compelled to “[bend] the knee to the woke program” is “an understatement.” To Sullivan, it’s a wrong that mainstream media treats writers as something other than “unique individuals whose [racial and gender] identity is largely irrelevant,” tying this to a lack of “diversity of opinion” or the prioritization of a faulty “moral clarity” before “the goal of objectivity in reporting.”
For Greenwald, Sullivan, Taibbi, and several other prominent Substack writers, Substack offers a place to write free not primarily from traditional media’s economic failings, but rather from the perceived ideological repression of the “woke” left, which they see as embodied in academia and encroaching on the mainstream media, a past, freer form of which they were once a part.
As discussed in the first section of this piece, this ideological motivation for many prominent writers’ adoption of Substack was rarely, if ever, brought up in mainstream-published commentaries about Substack, even as these very writers were mentioned. In large part this is because, on the whole, these ideologies don’t nearly define Substack or its impact on the media ecosystem. Even if anti-woke political commentators dominate the top slots of Substack’s leaderboard, a casual glance farther down the list makes it clear that they don’t dominate Substack as a platform, and anyone with access to hard viewership and revenue data would likely affirm this at an operational, business level.
But the fact remains that Substack was the common platform of choice for these anti-mainstream dissenters instead of any other. A New York Times column by Ben Smith points out that Substack has much more direct competitors than establishment publications, namely other newsletter publishing platforms like Ghost, which offers even more features than Substack while only taking a fixed monthly fee from writers rather than a cut of subscription revenue. Several of Substack’s biggest newsletters, including The Browser, with 11,000 paid subscribers, have moved to Ghost. Sullivan, who first rose to prominence on a blog he set up and ran himself, could easily have set up his newsletter on another platform; it’s hard to imagine that writers as prominent and well-connected as Greenwald and Taibbi couldn’t have done the same.
Asked about alternatives like Ghost in the same New York Times article, Substack co-founder Hamish McKenzie shared that Substack aimed to outcompete other players “on ‘the human stuff’”. That has included programs like Substack Pro, in which Substack gives out six-figure advances to writers in exchange for a larger share of the first year’s subscription revenue to entice them to join (Sullivan is the recipient of such an advance), as well as a legal service with coverage of fees up to $1 million called Substack Defender and stipends for healthcare under Substack Health.
This raises the question, “when does a platform become a publisher?” As mentioned earlier, Substack claims that their choice of what writers to support are strictly business rather than editorial decisions. But when these decisions entail proactively reaching out to ideologically charged writers like Sullivan and offering them large cash advances, are they not equivalent to endorsing a vision of Substack on which ideologies like Sullivan’s thrive, and indeed rise above all other publications?
If not active endorsement of specific ideologies, it’s impossible to ignore Substack’s broader endorsement of the discourses and ideologies that it enables to proliferate. Nathan Tankus, whose publication “Notes on the Crises” had upwards of ten thousand subscribers on Substack, decided to leave the platform due to its inaction over what he claimed was targeted harassment of multiple trans women by Substack writer Graham Lineman. Beyond this specific accusation, Tankus writes that he couldn’t “ignore that Substack is particularly benefiting from and encouraging a culture of anti-trans bigotry.” A New York Times article documents multiple other cases of former Substack writers who left for similar reasons
In this sense, Substack is broadly complicit in all ideologies spread from their platform, but particularly ones that gain prominence on the platform that have struggled elsewhere, such as Sullivan’s and others’ anti-mainstream media rhetoric. Substack’s founders don’t shy away from this implication. A March 2021 company blog post, bylined by all three co-founders, rejects the accusation that any Substack writers “can be reasonably construed as anti-trans” and takes the stance that while Substack is not comfortable with and does not endorse “everything” published on the platform, it endorses “writer independence and autonomy” and “the free press”. “We recognize that this is not a neutral position, but rather a principled one that reflects our beliefs,” they conclude.
In-depth analyses of the ideologies Substack is complicit in supporting aside, there’s a much more obvious link between the rhetoric of Sullivan and Greenwald and Substack as a company: the company’s own anti-mainstream, anti-elite mission statement. In a February 2021 blog post, McKenzie deploys rhetoric that resembles that of Sullivan and Greenwald in his justification for the disruption of traditional media:
“In recent years the US media has become the domain of the elite. Look at the educational backgrounds of journalists at the New York Times and the Washington Post and you’ll find that the Ivy League is massively over-represented.”
McKenzie’s commentary here is not about ideology, but rather economic opportunity. The sentence after the one above criticizes the prevalence of unpaid internships in journalism for building a pipeline that only the wealthy minority of aspiring journalists able to take such internships can get through. But the intent behind the mentioning of the Ivy League here is unclear, and in tech culture the name used in such a way often encodes a sentiment of inauthentic credentialism and opposition to the credentialing systems and institutions.
The broader ideological construct of “class” in Silicon Valley culture provides context for the above analysis of McKenzie’s statement and suggests a deeper connection between Substack and the anti-mainstream writers it hosts.
Scott Alexander’s post “A Modest Proposal For Republicans: Use The Word ‘Class’”, also published on Substack, articulates the “Silicon Valley conception of class” clearly. In the post, Alexander writes that “in the US class isn't a purely economic concept. Class is also about culture.” “Culture” in the post links to his review of Paul Fussell’s 1983 book “Class: A Guide Through The American Status System”, which in turn outlines a framework for how taste is coded by class (super-bowl parties as working-class celebrations disdained by the middle class, for example) very similar to Bourdieu’s idea of the “habitus”.
In Fussell’s framework that Alexander endorses, class is defined by three socially distinct “ladders” that overlap economically. The first is the upper class, members of which inherit their money. All who had to make money themselves, no matter how wealthy they are, are “middle class”; Alexander explicitly puts Jeff Bezos in the “upper-middle” rather than upper class. The proper middle class, Alexander explains, “is marked by status anxiety”: they are in positions to materially advance, and their tastes and habits are defined around the hope to do so. The bottom ladder in Fussell’s framework is that of “proles”, wage laborers like skilled craftsmen at the high end and factory workers at the low end. While a “high prole”, say a skilled contractor, might make significantly more than a schoolteacher, the latter has the social and cultural means to economically advance in ways that the contractor doesn’t, and so belongs in the middle rather than “prole” class.
In “A Modest Proposal For Republicans: Use The Word ‘Class’”, Alexander appropriates this class framework to outline a more “coherent and interesting” potential Republican party rhetoric and platform. He analyzes Trump’s victory in the presidential election as a result of his stand “against the upper class”: an upper class defined not by wealth or even power, since Trump had plenty of wealthy and powerful allies, but as:
> “People who live in nice apartments in Manhattan or SF or DC and laugh under their breath if anybody comes from Akron or Tampa…who usually go to Ivy League colleges, though Amherst or Berkeley is acceptable if absolutely necessary…who conspicuously love Broadway (especially Hamilton), LGBT, education, "expertise", mass transit, and foreign anything.”
In other words, Alexander’s upper class is defined as those who possess a high degree of cultural capital and look down upon those who don’t. He makes sure to disentangle this definition from wealth: “Teachers, social workers, grad students, and starving artists may be poor, but can still be upper-class. Pilots, plumbers, and lumber barons are well-off, but not upper-class…The upper class is a cultural phenomenon,” he writes.
The rhetoric of fighting for working- and middle-class Americans against upper-class ones would allow Republicans to “[de-emphasize] the unfavorable terrain of race/sex/etc.” and appeal to working class voters of color, Asians who feel like they’ve been robbed by the destruction of “meritocracy”, pro-capitalism Republicans, and small-government libertarians alike, Alexander writes. As specific platform positions, Alexander calls for a “War On College”, “War On Experts”, “War On The Upper-Class Media”, and “War On Wokeness”, outlining strategies for framing each as an act of oppression of working and middle class Americans.
Though Alexander’s blog post specifically outlines a hypothetical rhetoric for the Republican party to take up, with it being unlikely that he either believes that the Republican party will take up his proposed platform or believes in the points of the platform himself, it’s clear from the fact that he believes this platform would improve political discourse in the U.S. that he endorses the underlying push to redefine class in cultural rather than economic terms.
This idea of Alexander’s isn’t exclusive to his Substack posts, nor is Alexander’s influence limited to his Substack audience. A longtime blogger, on political and philosophical subjects related to technology and a leader of the “rationalist” movement, Alexander is one of the most celebrated intellectuals within Silicon Valley. A New Yorker profile identified him as “one of the keenest observers of technologists as a full-fledged social cadre, and of their sharpening class antagonism with an older order.” When The New York Times threatened to disclose his real name in a profile, prominent names like former YC President Sam Altman, Ethereum founder Vitalik Buterin, philosopher Peter Singer, and others came to his defense.
As auto-ethnographic evidence, I encountered Alexander’s ideas on class within tech culture before I knew they came from Alexander. In an Interintellect salon, regular meetings on a variety of discussion topics held by members of an online community of self-identified thoughtful technologists, I ran into a hedge fund manager and software engineer who were both adamant that the dominant ideological cleavage line in America fell along cultural and educational rather than economic lines. As Alexander advocated for Republicans to do, the hedge fund manager used this framework to dismiss issues like antiracism and trans rights to conflicts of “wokeness” rather than reflections of legitimate concerns.
John Fiske’s extension of Bourdieu’s theory of economic and cultural capital offers an explanation for why technologists are so eager to assert that class falls along cultural rather than economic lines. Fiske describes fan production as an effort to accumulate popular cultural capital for themselves, simultaneously relying on and competing with “legitimate” production from the original media producers. Fan production and association is often motivated by a lack of access to official cultural capital, Fiske argues, giving the examples of low-achievers in school and younger people in general being more likely to turn to fan production as a way to increase their social standing and self-esteem beyond what their positionality would otherwise allow them.
Like Fiske’s disenfranchised fans, technologists often lack access to “official” cultural capital, finding themselves distanced from and antagonized by cultural authorities like academics, journalists, and politicians. Thus, like Fiske’s fan production, the alternative intellectual canon espoused by Alexander constitutes a form of “popular” cultural capital in opposition to “official” cultural capital. In his discussion of class, this motivation becomes transparent, as Alexander all but identifies technologists’ distance from the culturally rich “upper class” and easily develops a hypothetical oppositional platform to such an upper class.
The context of Alexander’s idea of cultural class struggle one layer beneath tech intellectualism, and Fiske and Bourdieu’s theoretical framework of cultural capital accumulation through popular cultural a layer beneath that, cast Substack’s anti-establishment mission in a new light. Rather than being an isolated case of capitalizing on an economic failing of existing media, Substack exists at the frontline of tech’s cultural class struggle, fighting to topple traditional institutions’ dominance over cultural legitimacy at an economic level. In this light, mainstream attempts to discredit Substack furthermore take on the form of efforts not just to preserve objectively valuable qualities of journalism, but to rather maintain the dominant cultural hierarchy on top of which they sit. Finally, In this struggle, right-leaning political commentators who have a bone to pick with “wokeness” for whatever reason become unlikely allies of otherwise socially progressive technologists, as in the case of Sullivan and Greenwald’s welcome to Substack.
The above theoretical outline lives, most of the time, layers and layers beneath visible reality. As Substack Community and Product employee and Reboot founder Jasmine Sun reminded me in conversation, “Substack (like any venture backed startup) is mostly in the business of business; i.e. it’s less about destroying the NYT and more about filling a market failure/gap.” At times, as in Scott Alexander’s commentaries on class or Andrew Sullivan’s move to Substack, the tech “culture war” manifests in a form a bit more tangible than offhand discussion, but most of Substack is “local news or finance newsletters or whatever.”
Yet it’s important to recognize such a pervasive and deeply antagonistic ideology attached to associates of such an economically and increasingly culturally powerful tech industry. Through Substack, a16z’s Future, and a variety of new “alternative media” projects, Silicon Valley is hoping to — and in countless ways already does — play a major role in shaping public opinion. Rejecting this cultural influence outright by antagonizing tech as a whole only serves to fuel the perceived culture war.
In considering the outcomes of a culture war, could further extensions of Fiske’s scholarship offer potential insights? Michael Newman and Elana Levine describe the phenomena of “cultural legitimation”, the act in which cultural authorities neutralize popular culture threats to their legitimacy by selectively elevating forms of it to higher classes of culture. In Legitimating Television, they trace the history of what is considered “quality” TV, through different kinds of programming and technology alike (HDTV, DVDs, mobile TV…). In her review of the book, Melanie Kohnen points out that this kind of legitimation also has the effect of delegitimizing what it excludes: this is notable in the construction of not just “quality TV” but also a “quality fan” based on what kind of fan is profitable for media companies.
Perhaps then we can consider “cultural legitimations” of “popular” tech culture by “official” cultural institutions as a force in the tech “culture war”. The increasing amounts of undergrads from traditionally prestigious institutions recruited to software engineering, venture capital, or other tech and tech-adjacent positions strikes me as a form of cultural legitimation, in which the most material roles in tech are “legitimated” through the bestowing of “official” prestige on them, while more ideological and anti-establishment paths to tech are culturally quashed in comparison.
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Sun, Jasmine. “⚡️ Take Back the Future!” Reboot. Substack. September 28, 2021. https://reboothq.substack.com/p/manifesto
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Thoughts on news media, new media, and institutional journalism's relationship with society