I Beg to Differ

The rise of online contrarians on Substack exposes a dysfunctional media ecosystem

If you (like me) spend too much time on social-media platforms, especially Twitter, you will have noted the outsized presence of a particular type: the contrarian. By this, I mean someone who nominally belongs to an ideological faction, but consistently dissents. You probably also have strongly positive or negative feelings about contrarians. But such loyalties tend to obscure the pivotal role this figure plays in the current media landscape.

The rise of the self-publishing platform Substack over the past year has highlighted the contrarian’s role, since many newsletters in its top earning tier (including this one) might be understood as contrarian efforts. For example, Glenn Greenwald and Matt Taibbi are leftists who have attacked Democrats’ allegations against Donald Trump; Matt Yglesias is a liberal who has advocated causes like deregulation and population growth; Andrew Sullivan is a conservative who long advocated for gay marriage and was a vocal opponent of Trump. Other recent additions include castaways from previous perches like Bari Weiss (formerly of The New York Times), Freddie deBoer (formerly of Brooklyn College) and Scott Alexander (formerly behind the influential blog Slate Star Codex).

In investing, contrarianism can be an overt tactic. But you will rarely find an online political contrarian who openly embraces the label. Instead, it tends to be applied by others, often as an insult. The implied criticism is that contrarians only define themselves against the prevailing views of the group, without articulating an independent stance. 

Contrarians’ detractors often designate them “grifters”—a term once reserved for raffish old-time swindlers but now one of the most overused slights online. The implication is that contrarians feign unorthodox belief to gain a following. In other words, they’re hoodwinking their followers for money. But accusations of insincerity are largely a tactic for discrediting contrarians without engaging with their arguments. To understand the contrarian’s role, we should look to their positioning within the larger attention economy.

Contrarians push back against the dominant worldview within media outlets that reward ideological conformity of both readers and staff. With plummeting ad revenues, publications rely on the tribal loyalty of subscribers, so challenges to group dogma carry a cost. Moreover, some younger staffers at legacy publications have militated for a progressive-activist model of journalism, and ideologically varied views have triggered internal revolts.   

But major publications, building revenue through partisan silos, alienate readers who fall outside the range of opinion they offer, creating a market for dissenting outlets. These conflicting incentives within the attention economy—to conform and to dissent—have driven talent toward the new platform. 

Ironically, those most outraged by contrarians are also their closest followers, parsing every statement for heresy, and engaging in ritualized excommunications. On any given day, the Twitter replies of Greenwald or Taibbi or Weiss include a parade of denunciations from people who can’t look away. Since replies and retweets raise the profile of any post, social-media users who police contrarianism end up expanding their nemeses’ audience.

What explains the contrarian’s hypnotic hold over hordes of detractors? 

The crucial element is the imitative nature of much social-media behavior. On a platform like Twitter, it’s easiest (and safest) to observe what others do—what they’re discussing, what they’re sharing—and copy them. Retweeting, reusing hashtags, “liking,” and other affirmative responses are the most obvious instances of imitation, or mimesis. Critical replies—quote-tweet dunks and pile-ons—are instances of negative mimesis.

The vast majority of accounts exists in an imitative relationship to a smaller number of accounts. So, in contrast to the notion that these platforms are democratic spaces where all can contribute, social media actually functions more like a content hierarchy, with the aristocracy declaiming and the commoners watching with a mixture of envy, curiosity, admiration and hatred.

Ideological in-groups form from the “vertical” imitation of prominent accounts and the “horizontal” imitation of like-minded peer accounts. When a post, meme, or hashtag trends within an in-group, the result is a version of what the sociologist Émile Durkheim called “collective effervescence.” Such experiences generate affirmation of the collective, and reinforce group belonging. In Elementary Forms of Religious Life (1912), Durkheim argued that such moments of ecstatic cohesion formed the basis of religions and shared identities.

The contrarian’s prominence online is the obverse of conformity through imitation. Since in-group feelings of belonging rely on the periodic flares of coalescence, a contrarian becomes an obstacle to this process. That is why they elicit such obsessive attention. Low-follower contrarians may be ignored and midlevel contrarians risk cancellation, but a small number of high-level contrarians with significant support are difficult to overlook or banish. Indeed, in-groups may dedicate more energy to attacking their contrarians than to their more obvious political enemies.

A tacit symbiosis develops. The contrarian appears to block in-group coalescence—yet is a great source of “collective effervescence” when all unite to denounce the traitor. Conversely, the contrarian’s prominence depends on an in-group orthodoxy to oppose.

Social-media platforms prime us for herd behavior. But success in the attention economy requires differentiation. Once a contrarian’s support reaches critical mass, it constitutes a new in-group, likely to display the same tendency of herding that will give rise to a new crop of contrarians. 

This returns us to the “grifter” charge. It’s surely true that some contrarians exploit the pattern described—that deviation from herding is a way to carve out a market niche. It’s equally true that orthodox ideologues reap dividends from affirming views on major-media outlets that reward tribal loyalty.

This dynamic, intensified by social media, extends beyond those platforms. During the Trump years, many on the left defined themselves negatively against the president far more than by any consistent set of principles. Equally, Trump and his followers defined themselves against the left-leaning establishment (“owning the libs”). If contrarian means being flung into an enemy camp, most of us deserve the label these days.

The contrarians now concentrated at Substack play a paradoxical role in the marketplace of ideas. They offer viewpoints that are scarce at larger outlets, so they diversify the landscape. On the other hand, their disaggregation into individual newsletters contributes to the fragmentation of the media—and the polarization of the public into vehemently opposed in-groups.

While contrarians create spaces for dissent from orthodoxy, their presence becomes a means to affirm in-group orthodoxy. In this sense, the rise of the contrarian is more symptomatic of problems afflicting the media than a solution to them. 

Geoff Shullenberger is a writer and a senior lecturer in the Expository Writing Program at NYU. His blog and podcast is Outsider Theory.