Resident Contrarian and Parrhesia have each built impressive followings writing anonymously on Substack. Given our similar pursuits, we thought it would be fun to share notes.
Info: Tyler Cowen has said that successful people are usually too modest to fully express the actions and qualities that make them successful. With that in mind, I’ll address this question to RC—what impresses you most about Parrhesia and the way he approaches building a following?
RC: Parr and I end up talking about self-promotion a lot, and a term that comes up is raffle tickets.
I think the general thought there is that of all the people who click on an article, maybe about 1% of them like you enough to subscribe (at least once you start to scale past friends and family. Out of those, only a few are “sharers” who will ever show one of your articles to someone else. And from those, only a few have an audience or access to an audience who can give you large amounts of hits.
Where I’ve had any success at all, it’s because I’ve had exceptional luck with these long-shot chances. I have a very limited amount of tickets in the drawing, but I’ve won a couple of times in a modest but significant way. The problem with this is it tops out pretty quickly – you can only get lucky so often, and good writing only drives audience growth if “new” audience members see it. I’m grateful to be doing as well as I am, but it’s luck-limited, and you can only be so lucky.
Journalists don’t have this problem as much when they try to break into independent spaces because they have a network of people with established readerships who can (and often do) promote them. There’s several so-so writers on Substack who are absolutely gigantic because they have that kind of network depth, and so long as they don’t actively suck they can count on people to help them grow.
I think what Parrhesia is doing is the only way around that lucky-or-journalist traffic hurdle. Don’t get me wrong; writing is the biggest part and he’s writing a lot and improving all the time. But he’s also taking the time to join writer’s networks and make friends and start conversations. Multiple times now I’ve gotten into some kind of writer’s chat environment and Parr is already in there.
I don’t think Parr has actually had a big “raffle win” yet, but he’s actually growing really well despite that because he’s building those kinds of fundamentals. I think when you look at us in about ten years, I’ll probably be bigger than I am, but I fully expect that if Parr keeps at it he will dwarf me because he’s grinding away at making the kind of network effects you need to get next-tier big.
Info: If I were to attempt a similar thing for you, one thing I might emphasize is how you’ve managed to find a distinctive style and voice.
With your poverty post for example, I can maybe imagine seeing the same basic information presented in Vox or by another blogger, but I can’t imagine them doing it in the same way. To the extent it’s possible to do such a thing, what helped you to develop a voice that is uniquely your own?
RC: Honestly? It’s probably my near-complete lack of any kind of education. I was homeschooled in a weird way where I didn’t really have any formal education past my freshman year in high school, and the college-level education I’ve had since then has been at bottom-tier online schools. If you asked me to tell you what a predicate or a preposition were, I’d have to look it up.
The big disadvantage to that is that I’m doing everything by feel. If you watch closely, you can catch me making really rudimentary mistakes from time to time, because I’m essentially working off muscle memory when I write. Muscle memory is not a good editor – if I didn’t catch the mistake when I wrote it, I’m not going to catch it on subsequent edit passes.
The flip side of that disadvantage is I’m also flexible in a way that knowing the rules tends to discourage. I think most people who have read a lot of other people’s writing have run into a guy who is just absolute caged by the rules – like, he’s a good writer in the sense that he could churn out a college-level paper that would get an A+, but that’s the only tone he knows and it’s the only style he’s ever been allowed to practice. And since he’s been in school of some kind or another for about sixteen years, it’s so fully ingrained he can’t break free.
This is a long answer. It sort of has to be because the answer to “how did you develop your voice” in my case is that I didn’t develop it – it’s just the natural way I’ve always written. I think most people would probably have a unique voice they developed in a similar way, but we take 5-year-olds, tell them there’s a correct way to write, and then don’t let them write any other way until they are 24. At that point, they go to write in “their own way” and it’s so undeveloped compared to the academic-paper-writing-style it feels impossible to them.
Info: We already touched on this to some extent, but the way Parr uses Twitter is really impressive to me. You’re generating a lot of impressions and have made connections with some influential people through that medium that have lent credibility to your thoughts. As someone with weak Twitter engagement relative to my subscriber list, can you let me in on some of your secrets?
Parr: I make an effort to follow people who share my interests and would potentially follow me back. If people explicitly say that they will follow back, that’s a good opportunity. I think the key to getting more influential Twitter users to follow you is to consistently tweet very thoughtful replies to their tweets. If you can tweet a research paper, article, or screenshots from a book, then you can potentially impress them. It also signals to fans of that person that they should want to follow you too. I enjoy talking to and encouraging other substack writers also. I’ve found a lot of people who share my interests and when I do, I like to reach out to talk to them. I’ve made some internet friends that way.
Info: At what point does it make sense to introduce a paid subscription option? Is the best approach just to focus on generating as much good content as you can till you feel like you’ve almost “made it”?
RC: I tell people to enable completely optional paid subscriptions without pay-gating content, and to do this almost from the beginning – say, from the point where they’ve proved to themselves that they can crank out material on a relatively regular basis. Most people don’t do this, and in a weird way I think the reason most people choose not to do this is (unintentionally) a mild insult to their readers.
I think some people are looking at giving people the option to pay them and going “I’m not good enough to deserve that yet”. But that’s not your decision to make – it’s the reader’s decision. And believe me when I say that nobody is going to pay to access content they can already get for free unless they really genuinely want to reward you for what they consider to be exceptional work.
When you tell them “no, I’m not going to give you a way to do this, because I don’t deserve it yet” you are more or less insulting their taste and judgment. And because it’s so hard to judge your own work, because people are so bad at accurately gauging how good or bad a particular piece of their own work is, they are actually much more likely to be correct when they say you are “pay-worthy” than you are when you deny it.
The only thing you give up on the dry, ultra-practical side of things by making payment available as an option is that it makes having a big “grand opening” ribbon cutting event a little bit harder, since it’s always been true that they could pay you. But this is such a small advantage compared to picking up paying readers as you go and respecting them enough to leave that decision up to them that I hardly even considered it when I made payments an option.
Parr: I waited too long on this. I don’t see a good reason not to do it. Immediately after I allowed payments, I got my first paid subscriber. That felt great.
Info: Let’s do some rapid fire questions to close. Whoever has thoughts feel free to jump in.
George Bernard Shaw once said, “The secret to success is to offend the greatest number of people.” Is this approach overrated or underrated?
Parr: It’s probably overrated. The most successful people aren’t maximally offensive. If you want to be successful by being offensive, you would want to do it in one direction mostly. You also have to avoid going too far. There are legitimate reasons to be offended by things. If you want to be persuasive to people who disagree with you, you should avoid being offensive because it will turn people off from your ideas. They will associate your nastiness with being bad faith or a bad person. Unfortunately, the dominant ideology of our culture is hypersensitive and regards carefully written arguments against orthodoxy as hateful and offensive.
RC: I’m with Parr on this, if only because Shaw phrased this so poorly. There’s millions of completely unpaid shit-posters on the internet who show this is untrue; if all it took was offending mass amounts of people, they’d be making 4chan points from jet-skis in the Bahamas.
I think if you ignore Shaw’s desire to be maximally quotable here, he’d probably say something like “Anything that’s unique enough to be worth writing about – that is really treading any sort of new ground or expressing a truly unusual opinion on a subject that matters – is going to be very controversial. If you mostly arrive at controversy by attempting to write important, worthwhile things, then the controversy itself is a good metric for how well you succeeded at those goals.”.
Or maybe he really did mean that you should maximize controversy, full stop. If so I strongly disagree, but an observer would be well advised to consider that Shaw has at least slightly more verifiable successes than I do in the world of writing.
Have you noticed any unexpected trade-offs to writing under an alt-identity? In other words, apart from affecting cancellation probability.
Parr: Avoiding being cancelled is the main benefit. It also means that people who know me personally don’t get to see what I am writing unless I let them. I don’t like that my name is fake when I am interacting with people because it feels weird and less professional. I would like to deanonymize when I am financially capable of supporting myself with my writing. Unfortunately, I picked a username that is difficult for people to pronounce. Even worse was that before Parrhesia, it was Parrhesiastes which I realized was way too difficult to pronounce.
RC: Cancellation is the main thing – it’s just necessary to be anonymous if you don’t want semi-professional life-ruiners coming after you for having the wrong politics.
Besides that, the biggest trade off for me is that I probably chose the wrong pseudonym. There’s a certain percentage of people who see “Resident Contrarian” and say something like “Oh, look at this jackass, disagreeing just to be a jerk. He must think he’s soooo edgy”. After they’ve reached that point, there’s no coming back from it – it doesn’t matter what you write, they’ve already decided they hate your name and that’s it.
I’ve been writing about Slime Mold Time Mold a lot lately, and despite disagreeing with them on some things I think the name itself is genius; it’s eye-catching, but it’s not substantial enough for anyone to build an opinion from – they can control that with the writing itself.
What mistakes have you learned to avoid as a blogger?
Parr: I am still early in my blogging career. I can’t recognize any huge mistakes. I think that trying to write articles that are too comprehensive is too exhausting. Sometimes I try to be extremely thorough and it becomes a time sink. It makes it difficult to finish and it is much less fun. The flip side is that thorough articles are sometimes appreciated.
RC: A couple things pop to mind that are fairly closely related to each other. The first thing I learned to avoid is writing about things that I don’t really care about. If you go back to my early posts, there’s a couple where I think honestly I was assuming that there were a few subjects I just couldn’t skip, that were omni-present enough that I was obligated to write about them even though I didn’t have anything real to say about them. Frankly, those articles blow – people mostly ignored them, and they were right to do so.
The second mistake I learned to avoid has proved to be a much, much bigger deal for me: Not writing something that IS important to you because you assume other people won’t care about it. My five biggest articles right now are about, in no particular order, Q-tips/earwax, eating unrefrigerated food, feeling bad for Incels, being poor, and a weird novel I liked. In every single case I assumed they were going to do very poorly and tank, and in every case it turned out I was trying to make decisions for my readers that I had no right to try to make.
Sometime soon I’m going to write an article about the appeal of simple, high-quality objects because my wife gave me a 3” steel ball bearing for my birthday. It’s possible it will tank, and it’s possible it will be my greatest hit of all time. But I had to accept that those things aren’t my decision – I have to leave that up to the readers.
Optimizing a particular niche or type of content, overrated or underrated?
Parr: Justin Murphy has a good newsletter discussing this. If you write very narrowly, you are limiting yourself because your audience is expecting something very specific. You have less freedom. If you write broadly, you will have slower growth but more freedom. For me, I am going to continue to write broadly. If you just want fast growth, it’s probably underrated.
RC: I think it’s underrated – writers who fill a real niche and need do very well. This is incredibly frustrating to me, because I don’t have access to a niche like that.
What do you do to train that is comparable to how a pianist practices scales (or Mr. Beast practices Youtube)?
Parr: I wouldn’t say that I train in any way other than continuing to write articles consistently. I think that I am getting better at it. I’d be interested to hear what RC has to say.
RC: For the record: Parr is getting much better at writing, having started out being pretty decent. He’s still very young by my standards, so that bodes very well.
I’m very boring on this when we are talking about getting better at writing itself, for reasons I kind of explained above. But I do train a lot in terms of finding things to write about. I spend a lot of time thinking about article subjects.
In practice, this looks like me running from my work-at-home desk to the living room, and explaining to my wife (who is busy, and who does not care but for some reason loves me enough to listen anyway) that I’m pretty sure that deontology doesn’t exist, or that 99% of accusations that I’ve written a click-bait headline are in error. I’m constantly trying to figure out what I’m interested in, and then trying to figure out how to explain it in a way that isn’t just me screaming “Frosting is bad and nobody really likes it!” into the night.
RC has written that he believes our culture is veering hard towards unhappiness. What are the most underrated causes of that unhappiness in your view(s)?
Parr: I think that people undervalue things that are meaningful and overvalue convenience, comfort, and passive stimulation. I think that excessive internet use is probably making many people unhappy. Websites like Reddit and Twitter expose people to an unhealthy amount of upsetting content. Rejecting traditional lifestyles like getting married and having kids is probably contributing to overall unhappiness. Media is so entertaining that people choose to be less social, often to their own detriment. Financial and career opportunities entice people enough to move away from friends and family, something unusual until recently. We would probably be happier if we spent less time online and more time together with friends and loved ones.
RC: Building off what Parr is saying, I think people end up rejecting a lot of things they suspect might make them happy for “cool points”. There’s a bunch of rationalists right now who want nothing more than to settle into a nice, sincere religious environment as nice, sincere religious adherents who can’t do it, because they’ve spent a ton of time being reliant on the internet points that come from being smart enough to know it’s all bullshit.
I’ve seen posts from people who can’t get ONE relationship who are very careful to explain they know they are poly, anyhow. They have no idea how satisfying monogamy can be, but they are pretty sure it’s the wrong choice because people have told them so. There’s tons of people who would be happier (and more moral, in terms of what they actually end up doing) as deontologists, but they know that deontology is uncool (and wrong!) because 4 years’ worth of visibly miserable college professors hinted very strongly in that direction.
What’s sad about this is that a lot of this comes from a desire to be perceived as open-minded/counterculture in a society that often strictly defines a societally acceptable list of counter-culture things. So you have these guys who are trying to differentiate themselves by being utilitarian atheists, and some of them are picking the exact wrong philosophy mix for themselves in addition to not actually getting any counter-culture differentiation points, because they’ve picked up the same set of viewpoints as everyone else with a college degree.
It’s pretty much the same as the late 90’s/early aughts when every fake rebel (myself included) was listening to punk music, which seemed transgressive but was actually the most conventional thing you could be doing. The real rebels were listening to emo or something like that. You want to feel like a rebel? Go admit to someone you love McDonalds. That’s true for 90% of the people reading this, and basically none of them can let themselves enjoy it because they know the culturally accepted counter-culture is pretending they don’t love delicious salty fat-meat. Of course you like it! It’s salty fat-meat with cheese!
RC: Sneaky Counter-Interview! Also, I’m maximizing it for awkwardness: If you could change one thing about my writing, what would it be? I’m aiming this more at Parr (because I’m more confident he’s read more of my stuff), but I’m also eager to make Info uncomfortable here too if I can.
Parr: This is going to be a bit of a non-answer. This is a tricky question because we have very different writing styles. I think that your writing is more entertaining than mine, so I should probably write a bit more like you do. I should at least try to sound less formal. I would give some topic recommendations, but you seem to write about different things in a way that draws people’s attention, whether it be lithium, incels, being poor, David French, blogging, bad jobs, etc. In this way, people are drawn to your mind and writing style rather than specific content. That’s cool. I also like that we both write articles that are critical of other writers in the rationalist sphere. I think we should continue doing that, and I think it’s healthy for a community to have contrarian opinions.
Info: Love the inversion! My answer touches on something I’ve been introspecting a lot about with respect to my own writing so hopefully it’s overly personal and awkward enough to fit here.
Writing under a pseudonym has been great for me in a lot of ways. It makes me less self-conscious about what I write so hitting publish is a little less daunting and it also makes it easier for me to hold aspects of my identity more loosely so that I can explore different angles to things than I might be inclined to do otherwise. I think I’m more open-minded as Infovores than I am as [redacted].
But I also see how writing under a pseudonym might overly obscure my personality or smooth over it in ways that leave less for a new reader to latch onto. If I were writing as [redacted], that human name and visage would, with all its flaws, ground who I am in something organic and “real” that I’m not sure can be fully approximated with an alt.
For me this trade-off sort of echoes the famous “experience machine” thought experiment about whether a human hypothetically would or should choose to plug into an idealized world disconnected from physical reality… which I realize I shouldn’t get into too deep rn. But to the extent we face this choice in blogging, there’s probably some optimal midway point between 100% reality and 100% alt-reality that’s optimal for what we’re trying to do.
So with that long wind-up, I think that both of us could maybe stand to move a little more in the direction of embodied, well-defined personae than we are now. We both have logos without a human-like image or face in them and blogger names that are more like titles than approachable terms of address. I think that does make it harder for prospective readers to connect with us to some degree.
Katherine Dee comes to mind as someone who has struck a really nice balance here by employing multiple different images and pseudonyms to give readers a sense for who she is without revealing her full identity or limiting the space for exploration. Parrhesia has started going this way as well with his new logo and it seems easier now for me to picture him as a real entity and assign greater weight to his ideas.
But anyway, I’m rambling and the Infovores mask is slipping a bit. . . maybe that’s the move?
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For more on this check out this interview (also linked above) with Tyler Cowen on Econtalk. The book being discussed, “Create Your Own Economy”, was later retitled “The Age of the Infovore”. Footnote added because after reflecting further, I should have made some explicit textual reference to Cowen’s interpretation here.
Great move making this a written out interview! I had opened the tab originially thinking it was a podcast type thing, and it sat for quite a few hours before I got done with work and could actually pay attention, yet lo and behold! I could have started reading it right away!
(Lately I read things I care about, and listening is for movie reviews or blacksmithing videos. I don't know why.)
Anyway, thanks for writing this up about two great authors!
Wow, this is great! Love reading this collaborative effort. Thanks for posting!