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Free-Speech Entrepreneurs

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Free-Speech Entrepreneurs

Growing tech censorship continues to spark rapid gains at alternative platforms. Autumn 2021
Technology and Innovation
The Social Order

When video-sharing platform Rumble announced in August that it had struck deals with such prominent figures as Glenn Greenwald and Tulsi Gabbard, it marked a significant milestone in the eight-year-old service’s rise. Founded in 2013 by Canadian tech entrepreneur Chris Pavlovski to help “the little guys” stand out in a crowded market dominated by YouTube, Rumble had a modest online presence until late 2020, when it began attracting conservative voices who had experienced YouTube censorship. In just ten months, Rumble’s online viewership has increased 25-fold. The company has attracted funding from prominent venture capitalists and recently completed a series of deals to bring such outspoken voices as Greenwald, Gabbard, and Joe Rogan to the platform.

But Rumble is only the latest online service to find itself profiting from the online censorship wars. Substack, a newsletter platform conceived as a way for ambitious individuals and small publishers to reach an audience cheaply, has seen its subscriber base double in the last few months as prominent writers—including Greenwald, Andrew Sullivan, and Bari Weiss—have moved to the service following censorship run-ins at their old publications. Many writers who have moved to Substack report earning much more than what they’d made before. So lucrative has the self-publishing model become that Substack now finds itself in a price war with Ghost, another player in the online self-publishing game.

The sudden, rapid rise of these services offers a lesson in the link between free markets and free speech. Conceived before the current round of controversies over censorship by online giants Twitter, YouTube, and Facebook, these alternative platforms were initially designed by small entrepreneurs hoping to gain an audience in a market often dominated by corporate players. In just a few months, however, they’ve also emerged as a way around big-tech censorship. In the process, they’re paying handsome dividends to creators, investors, and users.

Founded in late 2017 as an online newsletter publisher, Substack has attracted attention for its increasingly impressive, politically diverse lineup. (It is also home to prominent writers on hobbyist subjects, from sports to comic books.) Its subscriber base has doubled to about 500,000 in the last few months; in May, it attracted $65 million in venture capital, an investment that values the entire company at about $650 million. Substack has used such financing to offer writers lucrative deals to jump ship to its service. Greenwald, who moved to Substack last October, demonstrates how that strategy can work for a prominent author. The Financial Times estimates that Greenwald is bringing in somewhere between $80,000 and $160,000 a month from subscriptions, of which Substack takes a portion. So successful has this model become, in fact, that some writers who’ve accepted big up-front payments to move to Substack now lament taking the money. Vox cofounder Matt Yglesias, for instance, received $250,000 from Substack in exchange for 85 percent of his first-year subscription revenues when he left Vox. He recently suggested that the deal has actually cost him about $400,000, because he’s attracted nearly 10,000 subscribers and would have earned much more by keeping most of their fees himself.

In competitive markets, success breeds challengers. Ghost, an open-source online publishing platform, is now taking aim at Substack. Ghost markets itself as a “powerful, independent alternative” to its competitor, boasting a simplified fee structure that doesn’t involve taking a percentage of revenues and advertising a “concierge” service to help Substack writers migrate their subscriptions and payment systems to the new platform. Guardian columnist David Sirota, who published his site “The Daily Poster” on Substack, is among those who recently moved to Ghost.

Mainstream media have taken notice and are now fighting back. Earlier this year, the New York Times persuaded one of its prominent columnists, Paul Krugman, to move his Substack blog, “Krugman Wonks Out,” to the Times’s website. Now the Times has launched a series of subscriber-only newsletters tied to its opinion section.

Rumble founder Pavlovski got into the business of online videos more than a decade ago with a site called jokeroo.com, which specializes in endearing animal videos and video jokes. Google’s purchase of YouTube in 2006 for $1.65 billion changed the online world, as the search giant applied its algorithms to the video-sharing service, turning it into the world’s biggest video search engine. As smaller players struggled for attention, in 2013 Pavlovski debuted Rumble. Keeping its costs low, the service grew gradually, achieving about 1 million viewers by the summer of 2020. In August 2020, however, California congressman Devin Nunes, complaining of YouTube censorship, began posting videos on Rumble, followed by radio host Dan Bongino and Fox host Sean Hannity. Other prominent conservatives followed, and traffic has soared to 25 million monthly visitors.

In May, the company received funding from libertarian-leaning investor Peter Thiel, Hillbilly Elegy author and Ohio senate candidate J. D. Vance, and Vance-led investment fund Narya Capital (whose name is derived from a ring in Lord of the Rings that had the power to help its wearer resist tyranny). The Wall Street Journal reported that the investment values the company, which derives revenues from advertising and from licensing its technology, at $500 million. Rumble will use some of that money to expand its capabilities, including livestreaming, and to begin offering cloud-computing services to other firms. It has also begun paying a range of media figures to produce exclusive content on Rumble, including the Habibi Bros., who describe their popular show as “an irreverent political podcast for the independent-minded where speaking truth is essentially 100% the goal.” In October Rumble used some of its new funding to acquire Locals.com, a subscription-based web service founded by conservative commentator Dave Rubin that features content by the likes of cartoonist Scott Adams, former Democratic congresswoman Tulsi Gabbard, and comedian Bridget Phetasy.

The connection between the marketplace and free speech, Milton Friedman once said, was an essential part of the story of “free markets making free men.” In a big-tech world of increasingly widespread censorship, free men are finding new opportunities through free markets.

Photo: teekid/iStock

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