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Quillette New Orleans Social - After Action Report
And thoughts on emergent media business models
On January 7th 2023, the online publication Quillette hosted a social event in New Orleans, for the readers to meet the writers. They charged a pretty penny to attend. As a former writer, I got a discount, and figured I’d check it out and do some people watching.
“I’d invite you to be a guest on my podcast but you have to be aware in advance you might get cancelled from it.”
In retrospect I had the perfect date for this thing. Cute, smart, and completely uninitiated in culture war topics. Preparing her for the event and explaining what was going on at it sharpened my pencil. In most ways it was precisely what I predicted, but several aspects of the event surprised me, and a conversational theme unfolded leading me to believe that a path out of the modern media clickbait outrage porn hellscape may be forming.
That path began to materialize early in the evening when I met Quillette’s senior editor.
I didn’t spend any time talking to Quillette’s CEO Claire Lehmann, other than to thank her for hosting the event, but early in the evening I had the opportunity to corner Quillette senior editor Jamie Palmer, by tactically blowing out a really awkward statement in a courtyard and watching the interlocutors cringe. One of the readers asked Jamie what impact the rise of Substack has had on Quillette’s traffic and whether they were seeing a dip because of the diversification of heterodox (read: “antiwoke”) publications. I said loudly into space from the corner of the conversation circle “well that’s what I did because I can make more money that way,” which prompted an awkward silence followed by an intriguing discussion. Jamie and I talked about the history of Quillette, specifically how it rose as the only true locus available in 2018 for what would later be understood as “antiwoke thought” in the emerging culture war axis spoken of extensively here on HWFO. We talked about how Quillette effectively acted as the tip of the spear, taking the brunt of the culture war heat and creating the space for Greenwald, Bari Weiss, and similar authors to breathe and launch their own publications. We spoke about the future of Quillette. His current vision seems to be to morph the thing into a heterodox version of the New Yorker. More long form material, more high brow events. This social seemed to be part of that overall plan - a way to create the air of a new “aristocracy of free thought,” and the people who attended seemed to have a deep desire to be part of that aristocracy.
But I don’t think he sees the entire picture. I think he and Claire may have accidentally stumbled into what I’ve been calling “the new model,” and when they check their bank account today after assuredly netting five figures selling $150 tickets to a three hour cocktail party they’re going to start to get it. Jamie still thinks he’s the editor of a magazine. What he actually is, is a social nexus. Quillette made a shitpile of money this past weekend doing basically what I’m doing with HWFO. To understand how, we need to talk about the attendees.
“You remember that rationalist sex worker I told you about that does the really interesting Twitter sex polls? I’m pretty sure that’s her over there.”
They Came From Afar
My date and I drove the eight hours from Atlanta and stayed the night at the Ace Hotel, a fabulous stay spot when the hot water isn’t broken. (it was) I didn’t expect the event itself to be as well attended as it was - certainly over a hundred attendees. The venue was outstanding, the “Historic Swoop-Duggins House,” a restored home that probably sees a lot of action hosting weddings and corporate events. I spent exactly zero time trying to talk to writers, and spent as much time as possible trying to figure out who comes to these things.
My date: “Are you a writer?”
Susan and Matt: “No, but we’re avid readers.”
An elderly couple drove down from Michigan and stopped for the party on their way to Florida. We met people from Indiana, Wales, New Zealand, Australia, Texas, and the east and west coast of the USA. Mostly intellectuals. A theoretical physicist who’s also an ordained minister apparently married two of the attendees on the street at the after party. In one of the slickest bar tricks I’ve ever seen, one attendee went straight for my date and said, “You’re Cantonese aren’t you?” “Why yes, how did you know?” “I’m a geneticist.” What a fantastic pickup line. I bet he gets a lot of tail with it. Only a day later did I come to realize I literally already follow him on Twitter. Bravo sir.
More than once I heard someone self-describe as an “avid reader.” Some flew but many drove. They all seemed to have similar stories that brought them there. Everyone I met had been burned in some way by the rise of Woke ideology, and was desperate to share. One of the most vicious burns was shared to me by Shannon Thrace, who went by “Shay” at the party.
She’d been a guest on the Quillette podcast talking about how her husband fell into transgender ideology and it eroded and destroyed their marriage, and subsequently wrote a book about it, curiously ending with her finding love again, but with a woman.
I spoke with my date about this curious connection all the readers seemed to have. Each of them seemed to need a shared social space where they could breathe freely and discuss “heterodox” topics, but it was clear the topics were almost entirely about wokeness related grievances. They drove a long way and paid a significant amount of money to participate in this social space. Meet the writers. Meet each other. Share their stories. Get married by physicists on sidewalks. These are people ostracized by their tribe, even perhaps their own spouse, seeking a new one.
And that’s when I realized that Quillette’s doing the same thing I’ve been doing since January 2021, just doing it differently.
The Substack business model says to write a bunch of free articles, get everyone hooked, and then roll out a paid subscription granting access to the rare super-duper-totally-better article that only the fanboi-est of the the fanbois get to read. I’m making about ten grand a year on this publication with a 4% free:paid conversion rate without ever releasing a single paid article. I give my stuff away for free and still get paid for it, because I give the paid subscribers something unique and different: a virtual social space equivalent to Quillette’s physical one from this past weekend.
My subscribers aren’t paying for the content at all, because I give that away for free. They might not even have paid me if I was only selling content. They’re paying for the social group. The new tribe.
Me: “I wrote a Quillette article about stoicism in 2019 about my wife passing away from cancer, and the trials of it.”
Them: “Oh I’m sorry.”
My date, pulling a fast one: “AND HERE I AM!” (this joke never got old all night)
I got pretty salty last year when Quillette moved my only article for them, a treatise on how my wife’s and my own stoicism differed during her cancer and eventual death, behind a subscriber only pay wall without my permission. So I reposted it here.
In my imagination, I suspect they probably did it because they started to lose money from the Great Substack Migration Palmer and I discussed in the early evening. In my imagination, I envision that these Quillette Socials are Quillette exploring new revenue models, to not only build their brand in a different direction but perhaps also build something entirely new, a cultural revenue model that breaks the chains of clickbait.
In my imagination, I see myself doing the same thing. In fact, I plan on hosting the first of many similar events at my own home this spring or summer, a weekend pool party of readers so the paid subscribers who engage with each other on HWFO Slack can finally put faces to names.
In my imagination, I foresee other outlets pursuing similar models, encouraging subscription or donation by fostering community instead of peddling freakoutery, and I see the consumers of media devoting their time and attention to outlets who follow this new model.
In my imagination, I fancy that these new micro societies will become ways to build community in online spaces the way churches build micro societies in physical spaces, knitting the societal fabric together for money, instead of pulling it apart for money.
In my imagination, I see the world pulling ourselves out of the morass of outrage porn by throwing parties.
But I’ve been known to be overly fanciful at times, so maybe I’m just full of shit.