2020: A very partial review
A brief overview of some things we wrote and some things we didn't this year.
Hello and welcome to Late, a newsletter about things I’m still thinking about.
Quite a few of you are new here this week and we’re excited to see the community continue to grow. This is not, however, a newsletter that often covers crypto.
Late is free to read and plans to remain that way indefinitely. We publish each Sunday.
And now, a very partial look back at Late’s 2020.
When 2020 began, this newsletter had 340 subscribers.
This morning’s newsletter was sent to 2,104 recipients.
For a few weeks I’ve kicked around ideas about how to accelerate growth for this thing in the year ahead.
But the “how?” question is really a “should I?” followed by “what would that even do?”
You could do a referral program, maybe. Morning Brew has made a whole business out of referrals. Then again, this isn’t a business. This is a hobby.
Of course, the simplest way to grow any audience is to get someone with a bigger and more engaged audience to cite your work. Ben Thompson has talked about how John Gruber citing Stratechery in like 2013 or 2014 basically set the whole thing on a course towards what we all know Ben’s newsletter to be today.
To get someone to write about your work you can, as far as I can tell, do one of two things — keep writing and hope good stuff floats to the top; or send some thirsty emails asking for a plug and hope they land.
So we’ll keep going with the former and see where it takes us.
And, yes, you see the work and audience growth happening over at Not Boring by Packy McCormick or at Net Interest by Marc Rubenstein and think, “Wow, what an embarrassment to be lingering near 2,000 subscribers!” But jealousy isn’t of much interest to me and shouldn’t be to anybody else. Admiration and a pang of want for the success of partial competitors that have left you in the dust is the right cocktail to keep competitive flames aglow without consuming the entire project.
And if the last week of subscriber growth is anything to go by, I could just write about crypto every week and the audience would probably grow faster.
But I’ve said all I want to say about Bitcoin for right now.
So but as I look back at the first full year of Late, my main feeling is relief. Relief that we made it a full year keeping at it (even with a few unplanned weeks off). Relief that 2020 is over. Relief that nothing bad, really, happened because of this newsletter.
Our most popular post was published right at the buzzer: “Bitcoin is a thing that exists” is now the most viewed post in Late history.
It’s not entirely clear to me how Substack is ranking the “Top” posts, but it’s some combination of pageviews, “likes,” shares, and new subscribers gained per post. I think.
Rounding out the rest of what Substack thinks were the top 5 Late posts of 2020:
A June piece on Robinhood traders and the investment advice everyone has learned
A September screed on inequality and the not-solution that solopreneurship offers
A pre-COVID piece from January about premium credit cards
And a November letter about how the experiences economy hype cycle came to a screeching halt with the pandemic
Again, some of these have a lot of pageviews, some of these have very high open rates, others were shared more than usual. And the credit card post has a lot of “likes” because I started that week’s newsletter asking everyone to hit the heart button because Substack’s algo seemed to like the posts with lots of “likes.”
But then Substack got rid of the old home page so I don’t really know how much that matters anymore. If it ever really did.
If there are themes to pull out of the 2020 Late archives, I’d suggest the house view says stocks go up, that the digitization of the economy creates more homogeneity, that inequality remains under-discussed, and that stocks go up. There was also plenty of pandemic content that I probably won’t feel the need to re-visit for a few years. We are, after all, still in the middle of this thing. And let’s all hope there isn’t another surge (or wave, as it were) in public health-adjacent writing in this space in 2021 or, really, ever again.
Our October piece on Martijn Konings’ book, “Capital and Time: For a New Critique of Neoliberal Reason,” is the kind of piece I started this newsletter to write. I don’t love book reviews because I think there’s always a kind of “look at me” quality to writing about what you’ve been reading. But sometimes you read something that just perfectly fills in part of a worldview you’d always struggled to fully flesh out.
Konings’ book answers, for me, the “why” question about my interest in finance and markets. His argument says that what modern capitalism really leverages is time, not capital. Valuations aren’t interesting, really, and I can’t do a DCF from scratch. But I do know that time is the only abstraction we all confront the same way. And that markets seem to control an ever-expanding part of how we try to make real this void.
As we’ve all seen during the pandemic, the veneer of capital’s ontological solidity is falling apart fast. What capital makes its own is not a claim on the value of any asset or business, but a claim on the future. A claim on time. Specifically, yours and mine.
When Wells Fargo approved my mortgage application, they didn’t really enable me to buy a home but I instead empowered them to acquire the next 30 years of my life. And yet millions of Americans make this trade — nay, it is a privilege to make this trade — because those next 30 years otherwise have no shape or direction. The future never exists until it does, and the true innovation of modern finance is pulling forward reality to satisfy our anxiety about what happens next.
As Konings writes:
The rise of modern capitalism was accompanied by the emergence of a secular experience of time, one in which humanity saw itself as making its own temporality, increasingly understanding present practices as having emerged out of a past and as shaping a contingent future.
And as Konings elsewhere explains the inherent conservatism of modern culture — “An intense concern with the future thus comes to be marked by a strangely reactionary quality.”
All we ever know about the future is that it will one day be the present; capital steps in and says, “Not so: your future can be this.” The abstract is made real.
And as with everything else associated with Late, I reserve the right to write more posts like this or never again circle back to something I’ve been reading. Sometimes I read a lot and sometimes I don’t. And there’s always a fine balance between posts that really interest me and posts that interest me alone.
An earlier draft of this not-quite-a-year-in-review post was just a bunch of newsletters I didn’t write in 2020. Or at least didn’t fully write this year. The drafting process for Late is — keep a running Google Doc of things you think might make good newsletters and write as much as possible when the initial idea bubbles up then go back and see what sticks. Right now our doc runs 179 pages, a slim majority of which have turned into our archives.
But after drafting couple thousand words on things that weren’t written, the exercise got just a bit too meta. Writing about what hasn’t been written, obviously, means you’re now writing about those things. It’s all too clever by half, at least.
Some of the discarded highlights include:
A post about why the NFL is to blame for the fall COVID surge in the U.S.
A piece on why “The Last Dance” is the perfect capstone to a decade in which athletes managed to completely overtake the media and acquire full control of their narratives.
Why the coolest thing you can do now is sell out.
Stocks should always go up after a stock split.
Of course, we reserve the right to re-visit any one of these ideas in the weeks ahead.
Late is always subject to last minute revisions and, as readers may have noticed in November, being completely scrapped if the finished product just doesn’t really excite me. Because if I’m not interested, why would anyone else be?
And so as we look out to 2021, our ambitions for this letter remain the same as they ever were — keep writing and what’s supposed to happen will happen.
Have a safe and healthy New Year and we’ll see you next Sunday.