Hello, my friends!
I’ve been thinking a lot lately about SyFy’s short-lived Battlestar Galactica prequel, Caprica, an eerie show when it debuted eleven years ago that’s even creepier when you think about it in 2021. The premise was: Where did cylons — the sentient robots that destroyed the entire earth in BSG — even come from? And the answer, actually, was pretty simple. In fact, it’s the same answer as always with these apocalyptic stories. Some greedy white guy with no ethics, who worked in tech, decided to get even richer by doing something stupid. In this case, Daniel Graystone uploaded his dead daughter’s entire internet history into a robot, and the robot basically became her. The whole process was easy peasy because every friend she interacted with (and every friend they interacted with), everything she bought, everything she posted about on social media, every website she visited, everything she hearted / thumb-upped / LOL’ed, every email, every message, every single click of her whole life fit onto a thumb drive that became her robot brain.
When I talk about fictional Daniel Graystone, I might as well be describing real life Mark Zuckerberg, of course, or Jack Dorsey (@jack to most of us), or Elon Musk, or Jeff Bezos, or any of the other dozen dudes with nothing but money and time and cartoonish dreams of global domination on their hands.
I’ve been noodling on Caprica because I’ve been mentally replaying something Zuckerberg recently admitted, something Daniel Graystone didn’t figure out until he had an army of terrorist murderbots on his hands: Data is never the whole story. No machine, no matter how sophisticated; no algorithm, no matter how refined can understand value. I don’t mean profitability, or marketability, or even quality. I mean the actual worth of something, the merit, the meaning, the power, the subtle and exponential significance of a thing beyond the way an audience engages with it.
This is why Autostraddle fundraises, why we work so hard to grow and maintain our A+ membership program, why we’re not shy about asking our readers to help us survive: because we have always understood what social media platforms and major publications — even gay ones — have not. A machine can mimic a person’s behavior, but it lacks the spirit or soul or very human-ness that makes us — me and you and Autostraddle and everyone who reads it — who we are.
Algorithms, Wired wrote after reading Fecabook’s most recent statement, “encourage the viral proliferation of material that’s false or harmful, because the system is selecting first for what will trigger engagement, rather than what ought to be seen.”
This whole conundrum is at the very heart of what I have been doing and thinking about and reading about and considering and worrying over and talking, talking, talking about with our entire senior staff since I joined Autostraddle seven years ago. When I joined Autostraddle, using social media as a traffic driver was kind of a new idea. Autostraddle was sending tweets and Facebook posts out automatically from WordPress. I wanted to give our social media a more personal touch, so it would mirror the warmth, community, and humor of our website. Up until very recently, when Valerie Anne took over from being my social media co-pilot to being our social media captain, figuring out how to feed our content onto platforms in a way that kept its integrity intact while also reaching its intended audience was a major part of my job. Most publications our size have full-time social media directors, but there’s no way we can afford that, so it’s just another hat our editors and writers wear. And it gets increasingly more complicated as the internet continues to remake itself in the image of social media and search engine algorithms, and as publications’ sole motivation becomes chasing those social clicks and consolidating the revenue they provide.
Because here’s the thing about Autostraddle: It runs — and has always run, and will always run — on heart. Our content might be served up to you in a tweet or a Google Discover post, but there are human hands all over those posts before you see them. Yes, we ask ourselves how much traffic certain content will generate because we need a baseline of solid traffic to stay in business. But that’s only one thing we ask about what we publish, and we only ask it about certain things we know are going to be successful — for example, Vapid Fluff, which you thirsty kittens read like it’s your job no matter how many times you say you’d rather read deep dives on current issues! — so that we can plan for those things to compensate for the posts we know will be less trafficked.
Carmen and I spent months at the beginning of her tenure as Deputy Editor talking about the anatomy of a successful post, and asking every writer and editor to consider: How much reach does a post generate on social media? And how much of that reach extends to audiences we’ve historically under-served, in a community where everyone is under-served because we are the gays your parents warned you about? What’s the community engagement like on a post? Not just how many people are hearting it or commenting on it, but what, exactly, are people saying about it across all platforms? What kind of personal satisfaction did the writer or editor get from working on this piece? Does the writer feel like it helped them become better at what they want to be doing, and did it land with the audience they intended to reach? Where does this piece fit into the legacy of Autostraddle? Does it add to our extensive sex and TV/film archives? Is it the genesis of a new type of content we need to care for the same way we’ve tended to those historically successful chronicles? Who was this post written for, and did they read it, and what did they think of it?
We pull all of that information together and then ask ourselves what the value is of what we published. Was something read by 100,000 people? Heck yes that’s valuable! Was something read by 500 people, three of whom said they’d never seen themselves represented that way before? That is exponentially valuable beyond any measurement! That is why we do what we do!
A robot could never assign value the way we do because a robot is analyzing numbers and we’re listening to what you say and feeling it with you. Algorithms don’t know what it’s like the first time another queer human interlaces their fingers with yours and your whole entire body just goes oh. They don’t know what it’s like to lose (and find!) yourself in a story. They’ve never had their heart shredded and healed, their gender dismissed and affirmed, their action and dreams and fears and hopes perceived and held and attested to, they’ve never shared an inside joke about straight people that had them laughing out loud every time they remembered it, they’ve never felt the bubble-bath comfort of community.
We find ourselves constantly at odds with the algorithms, and the Bezoses and Zuckerbergs and at-Jacks and Daniel Greystones that create them. Which means the only way we can continue to exist is with your A+ memberships and fundraiser contributions. When you give to Autostraddle, you’re asserting that there is value outside of the machine. You’re interrupting the ceaseless algorithm that fuels that capitalist nightmare we live in. And you’re putting your money into hands — gay hands! — of glorious, messy, bright and breathing human beings with beating — sometimes bleeding — hearts.
The first essay I wrote after I joined the Autostraddle team, I told Riese she could put it behind the A+ paywall if she wanted. I was new to this community, and bringing new readers with me, which meant fresh faces for our membership program. Riese agreed with me people would sign up to read it, and she also reiterated that we needed as many A+ members as possible. But: “I think a lot of people need this, and I will never keep something beneficial from queer people who can’t afford to read it.”
Riese hasn’t wavered on that commitment for a second, and it’s an ethos Nicole has folded into the endless work they do to make sure we’re providing for A+ members. There is not a day that goes by where Nicole isn’t reading every single comment that comes into our A+ inbox; where they’re not pouring over the stats, comment requests, and newsletter replies that are made by A+ members; where they’re not brainstorming content ideas with writers and editors, soliciting advice for our A+ members who’ve asked for it; or trying to figure out even more ways to facilitate community engagement (like our Discord server!).
Less than 1% of our readers are actually A+ members, did you know that? 99% of our readers want to join but can’t afford it, or haven’t yet discovered the benefits of membership to themselves and our entire community, or don’t feel like we’re offering enough perks for them to justify the cost of membership, or have drifted away because of other life things pulling at their attention and wallets but have been meaning to rejoin. Nicole works tirelessly to meet the needs of that 1% while also trying to show our other 99% — and maybe this is you! — how much of an impact their membership will have on our future. A+ members have been a huge reason that Autostraddle’s made it through the pandemic, and they remain a huge reason we can hope to continue our work in 2022. And, during this fundraiser that is happening right now, every new A+ membership counts toward our goal.
On an internet run by robots developed by rich dudes who use their spare time to literally plot ways to colonize space, our entire team spends our days and nights and weekends and holidays trying our hardest to see you. To really see you. To hear your heart’s desires. The rest of the internet is chasing clicks and likes and thumbs-up, and we’re trying to fight our way through the smoke to meet you where you are. You will always matter to us beyond any number.
If you’ve had it up to here with the algorithms, with the the lies and toxicity they spread, and with the rich white tech guys who benefit from the ways those algorithms literally destroy society, will you take some gay money from your human pocket and put it into our human hands to help us keep our publication’s beating?
Every gift makes a difference. Thank you for anything you can do.