Tremendous Follows, Shut Associates, and Invite-Solely Newsletters: Welcome to the Gated Web

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At the start of September, Twitter officially introduced Super Follows, the highly anticipated subscription tier that allows users to create and charge for exclusive content. Basically: OnlyFans—or Substack, or Patreon, or Cameo—for tweets (as well as the death knell for that evergreen joke about how the crazy bird website stayed free). At this point the only thing remotely surprising about Twitter joining the subscriber-based bandwagon in 2021 is that the platform took just as long as Salman Rushdie to get with the program.

The specifics of Super Follows vary slightly from a now familiar template: There are three price points at which you can set your monthly subscription rate, plus a special badge to demarcate who’s a Super Follower and what content is exclusive. Initial use cases that Twitter put forth for Super Follow content ranged from college-admissions tips to tarot-related Q&As. Above all, the big blue bird emphasized the feature’s potential for unleashing “extra special access,” early previews, and subscriber-only conversations galore. It’s an important sleight of positioning: If all goes according to plan, Super Follows won’t simply be about getting more of the same from any given account, but about accessing a more exclusive Twittering experience, starting at $2.99 a month.

Amongst all the ways we’ve dissected the subscription-based internet—how it’s simultaneously both empowering and capable of replicating existing power dynamics—one curious consequence is how the everyman creator’s ability to monetize exclusivity has also normalized the ability to segment one’s following between paying and nonpaying members. Celebrities have always done this: They rely on the real superfans, not the casual listeners, to join their mailing lists and buy their VIP concert packages. Now anyone on Patreon (or Substack, or OnlyFans, etc.) can demarcate and sell to their own personal fan club too. You couldn’t do that before, even if you had some spectacularly large Twitter audience, because that following was still a flat, monolithic group that more or less placed your high school English teacher and work colleagues on the same footing to see your 2 a.m. drunk tweets (speaking theoretically here) for free.

Audience segmentation is arguably the whole point of Substack, of course. You, the writer, can create “free” content available to anyone who signs up for your newsletter (or who encounters the link out in the wild), and you can create “subscriber-only” content that goes out to your paying readers. The art of successful Substacking lies in the balance of tailoring content for both audiences: The free posts should be buzzy and accessible and optimized for maximum exposure, because you want the post to get shared and be seen by potential new readers. Meanwhile, the paid posts are supposed to deliver enough value to keep the monthly subscribers satisfied and potentially convince the freeloaders to feel like they’re missing out (and to thereby pony up). Where once a typical writer had one general audience (usually that of their employer) in mind, a successful Substacker caters to at least two.

What’s also interesting is how the professionalized ability to divide one’s online following into paid and nonpaid tiers also coincides with increasingly formalized avenues for separating your internet presence between what’s public vs. what’s private. For anyone maintaining a public persona online, the allure of keeping parts of one’s internet self at least semiprivate in the era of instant cancellations, cyberbullying, and truly toxic troll culture is obvious.

I’d argue that the Close Friends feature on Instagram Stories, launched in 2018, was a pivotal formal innovation here: While Myspace and Facebook have long allowed for the designation of private or friends-only content, that measure was positioned as a matter of security and saving face, lest employers encounter your study-abroad pics. On Instagram, where a typical individual must tend to a brand-like following and their actual social circle simultaneously, Close Friends allowed one to curate a private inner circle—connected by a special little green star, not a killjoy padlock—quite seamlessly. The result: Regulars got your day-to-day stuff, and Close Friends got the bonus thirst traps, nudes, and even party invitations, all with one tap (a content mix that could make Tina Brown proud).

Where the line between privacy and exclusivity begins to blur is where the most interesting parts of the internet have always been, from niche blogs to Lorde’s secret onion ring account to the new wave of invite-only newsletters (of course we were always going to come back to newsletters).

The poster child for this particular genre of exclusive missives: GQ fashion critic Rachel Tashjian’s “Opulent Tips,” billed recently as “the newsletter fashion insiders can’t get enough of.” What’s funny is that “Opulent Tips” isn’t even so much of a newsletter as we know it in 2021 as it is a private email list. As Tashjian (who is also a former Vanity Fair staffer and contributor) told me over the phone, the style newsletter exists not on Substack or Mailchimp but as a literal Gmail missive sent to 500-ish addresses (450 from her personal email, the rest from a burner account because of Gmail’s daily email limit).

For Tashjian the newsletter’s invite-only status started partly as a joke and partly as a tongue-in-cheek dig at the fashion industry’s cliquishness and the idea of exclusivity itself. “The fashion world has cultivated this horrifyingly exclusive attitude that makes you not realize you could just go into the Balenciaga store and ask for the sneaker,” she explained. “It was funny to say that it was invitation-only, which is just to say I bcc a bunch of people every Sunday. There’s no secret code. You can just DM me and I’ll probably add you.”

Maintaining a members-only-ish status for the newsletter also keeps “Opulent Tips” as the “bubbly, babbling outlet” Tashjian intended, separate from her work covering menswear for GQ and the general pressure for any form of digital media to be reaching the widest possible audience. That an intentionally gated newsletter can serve as “a reaction to the monoculture of content,” as she put it, was echoed in a conversation I also had with Terry Nguyen, the writer behind another invite-only newsletter called “Over Lychee Martinis.”

Nguyen, who creates plenty of content for several audiences as both a staff writer at Vox and the writer of her “Gen Yeet” newsletter, told me she created “Over Lychee Martinis” earlier this spring as an outlet for writing about “Asian girl culture” away from the pressure of the mainstream news cycle. “There’s a lot of pressure to write about Asian American culture from a specific lens—it usually has to be political or newsworthy or about representation or about certain topics I was tired of,” Nguyen told me over the phone. Unlike her other writing work, writing for the 240 subscribers of “Over Lychee Martinis” allows her to speak to a specific audience about a specific cultural knowledge; a recent missive and example of the “if you know, you know” nature of “Over Lychee Martinis” chronicled a trip to the K-Town mainstay Mission Nightclub (which, interestingly, has a private Instagram itself).



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