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Audience structure on the Left and Right of new indy media

It looks to me like the audience structure of public intellectuals and/or "content creators" differs across the Right and Left. Right-leaning writers/creators in contemporary culture seem to enjoy a larger variety of wide pyramids (anti-establishment populism), whereas left-leaning writers/creators produce for a smaller number of taller pyramids (prestige hierarchies). As Oliver Traldi recently discussed — I think his article was the proximal trigger for this post — Jordan Peterson and Chapo Trap House may even have an oddly overlapping target market. But whereas right-leaning figures — e.g., Mike Cernovich, Scott Adams and many, many others one or two notches down — enjoy huge audiences of lower-status people, there seem to be way fewer left-leaning content creators who eek out decent little livings from obscure Youtube channels or whatever.

On the left, most intellectual/entertainment attention is channeled into a smaller number of institutions considered legitimate, namely academic institutions, a small number of presses such as Verso, a small number of big podcasts such as Chapo Trap House, and a few small outlets such as Jacobin and the like. These left-leaning attention pyramids seem more premised on institutionalized forms of cachet. Whether that cachet is found in academic credentials or socialist hipster capital, it seems that individual lefties seem to distribute their attention in a way that is more conditional on what the other comrades consider good. People who are as far right as DSA members are far left watch whatever batshit Youtuber most satisfies their individual, idiosyncratic palates, but seemingly all the lefties on the hunt for something a little naughty converge on Chapo, rather than a whole bunch of different Chapos for their various consumer predilections.

Assuming my observation is at least partially consistent with the data, which I haven't checked, the question is why?

Leftists will say "capitalist ideology" and Koch-brothers funding and so on, and there is often some truth in some of these common takes.

I think the main explanatory factor is that social status conditions intellectual attention and deference very differently on the Left and Right. Roughly, it's a crucial and ineluctable principle of selection and attention on the Left, but less so on the Right. (Each one obviously has internal status hierarchies, I'm just talking about the degree to which social status = attention). Because the Left is supposed to be morally enlightened relative to the status quo, then within the Left, that which is the most morally enlightened deserves the most attention and deference. "Enlightened" or "moral" is interchangeable with "cool" or cultural capital, these are really just different labels for social standing. There is a particularly interesting and perverse layer here, which I might comment on briefly without getting too sidetracked, which is that one of the factors shaping what's cool on the Left is how likely something is to gain power (it's not really enlightened morally unless it's a real threat to capitalism, or appears to be closer to threatening than all the rest of the stuff that has no teeth). For this reason, simple coolness/fashion dynamics get loaded with intellectual and moral gravitas: if some radical Left thing gains cachet, well of course you see through mere fashion appeal but if the kids are excited about it then it's your duty to support it, because to win we need something that catches on...

In other words, I am kind of curious how many of the Chapo patrons are young men who would quite prefer something a little edgier, but this is as edgy as they can get away with while keeping their feminist-careerist wife or that philosophy grad student they're sleeping with. The people who watch the cacophony of figures from Alex Jones all the way to mild-mannered liberal Dave Rubin are not any less concerned with their social identity, as if they are above such concerns, it's just that they're generally more detached from competition for high status. They're more or less adapted to whatever status they have, whereas very many activated leftists are status insecure, trying really hard to be upwardly mobile (e.g., their parents were poor and they'll say and do anything not to be), or negotiating inescapable downward mobility (e.g., their parents were comfortable profs and they tried but will not be). The activated left is just filled with these types of people, who fight tooth and nail for the lowest rungs of high status. If you've never been there, you cannot understand the amount of constraint and discipline it imposes on your personal lifestyle choices, especially around intellectual and entertainment consumption choices, because these are one of the coins you can trade up for admiration, sex, jobs, etc.

This might be why the left contains a smaller number of intellectuals/creators and each will enjoy proportionally larger audiences (proportional to the population with that degree of ideology) in part because those audiences are somewhat "captured" by the risk-aversion enforced by intense competition for high status. This is why there can only be a few big-money podcasts such as Chapo, whereas there seem to be way more right-leaners making that kind of money or more: There is only so much DSA / socialist Brooklyn cultural capital to go around before creative forking efforts would dilute that capital to structurally unsustainable levels — for the dilution of one's Left status to structurally unsustainable manifests concretely as a vague defection to right-wing populism, no matter what the actual beliefs of the person involved.

You can syphon off a subset of the Chapo patron base with a "Chapo but for IQ realists" or "Chapo but with a taste for Moldbug" — trust me, I'm trying. 🙂 But then you can't stay in good standing on the Left (meaning even if some leftists like you, most can't tell their friends about you, which for people in cut-throat competition for the low rungs of high status, means they just can't listen to you). You can syphon off a subset of the Chapo patron base while staying in good standing on the Left, but your room for differentiation is so constrained that you'll have a hard time constituting a fundamentally unique product different than what Chapo is providing. This is why you do see a few Chapo-like podcasts out there but they are tiny or they fade out. Anyway, this is my best shot at a possible explanation for why the Right can somehow fund a huge number of idiosyncratic intellectuals/creators with big populist audiences but the Left appears to have only a few. I'm not even too sure about the data, to be honest, so caveat emptor — I just wanted to lay out some of these hypotheses I've had for a little while now.

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3 comments on “Audience structure on the Left and Right of new indy media”

  1. As someone firmly of "the Left," this article is utterly bizarre. I'm not at all sure how you could come to such conclusions (that Chapo's audiences really want more "edginess", that they have a obsession with social standing). Could your incredibly limiting categories and ideological assumptions (v. similar to Peterson's, funnily enough) be letting you down? Outside of, perhaps, university campuses these arguments make no sense.

    You're right to question the data. If the overwhelmingly left-wing audiences of Counterpunch, The Intercept, The Real News, Truthdig, Alternet, Zero Books, Contrapoints and WSWS weren't even considered, it's flawed, to say the least. (Note I'm not even including the more established left wing sources.)

    Strange.

    1. So Contrapoints and Zero are examples of successful indy ventures in the new media spaces, sure. I'd remove The Intercept as a fairly centrist/bipartisan investigative journalism venture. I don't know WSWS but the other ones are pretty old and they're kind of big groups. Not to mention, after they pay for their overhead and all the people on staff, do they really make decent money? My sense is those places barely scrape by, because they're not super lean individual intellectuals/creators but group organizations on an older journalism kind of model.

      I can't at all be sure, but my point is only that if you add up all the Contrapoints and Chapos and yes there are certainly a good handful of others, my sense is just that it's way fewer cases than the JBPs and the Weinsteins and the bewildering number of obscure rightwing Youtubers with surprisingly decent incomes. That's all I'm sayin on that point. My intuitions could be wrong, just saying what it looks like to me and maybe one day we can test it.

      Also I would admit my arguments may indeed be limited somewhat to university or university-adjacent subcultures. Not sure, but yea could be.

  2. "The people who watch the cacophony of figures from Alex Jones all the way to mild-mannered liberal Dave Rubin are not any less concerned with their social identity, as if they are above such concerns, it's just that they're generally more detached from competition for high status. They're more or less adapted to whatever status they have, whereas very many activated leftists are status insecure, trying really hard to be upwardly mobile (e.g., they're parents were poor and they'll say and do anything not to be), or negotiating inescapable downward mobility (e.g., they're parents were comfortable profs and they tried but will not be). The activated left is just filled with these types of people, who fight tooth and nail for the lowest rungs of high status."

    This is extremely accurate in my experience.

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