Editor’s Corner: Model View Culture As A Body of Workon June 11th, 2015
A new column with a look at Model View Culture from the inside: Q&A with our editor Shanley.
Model View Culture is about a year and a half old now. What’s been most surprising over time as the publication has grown and gotten older and more established?
I think what has been most surprising to me over time is the emergent properties of the publication itself. Once MVC started to represent a significant body of work – maybe at around the nine month or one year point – I noticed how that body was exhibiting trends, patterns, interests that weren’t architected editorially. A great example is that it was never “decided” that surveillance would be such a major focal point for us, but somehow some of the best and most important work we’ve published has been about surveillance: how it impacts our conception and experiences of paranoia and mental illness, the semiotics and typography of surveillance in the urban environment, how sex workers are disproportionately impacted by surveillance, surveillance of black culture, the interface and interplays of cyber sexual assault and surveillance.
MVC as a publication — almost organically — has been pushing against the simplistic, flat, ahistorical notions of surveillance as defined in the post-Snowden era, which has overwhelmingly located surveillance as something that is specifically and narrowly happening in the context of NSA/government surveillance, and is relevant only insomuch as that intrusion discomforts white men. MVC is actively positing alternative definitions, mappings of, even defense mechanisms against surveillance, that draws very much on other work living in the collection. And that’s been surprising to me, that as a body of work we see these themes emerging, creating direction. Even though I lead the editorial direction for the publication, there is an entity in my mind which is bigger, more complete than any of my personal intentions and politics, and any individual issue or piece. I think of MVC as it grows as this entity which is often more than the sum of its parts, with its own patterns and interests and maybe even desires, that continuously surprise me, that I almost have to watch for and study, that I learn from constantly.
What does Model View Culture want to be when it grows up?
I ask myself this a lot lately actually. At 18 months in you have a certain level of maturity. Most of the first year was lots of “holy shit can this thing even survive and be viable?” You are struggling just meeting deadlines, paying bills, delivering on the commitments of the organization to our readers, authors, subscribers. It’s kindof a binary thinking where the main question on your mind is can it live. Independent publishing is a pretty shitty industry to be in, and we are trying to do independent publishing that is purposefully alienating the vast majority of our potential market — in the sense that MVC is inherently anti-tech culture as it exists, against the power and financial structures within it, against its leaders and its most deeply cherished beliefs. That’s a scary thing, a punishing thing.
Right now the question of can we survive feels like a yes, for at least this year and next year, and you can start to ponder other questions like what else can it do? I’m still thinking through the future of Model View Culture. I don’t think it knows yet entirely what it wants to be. There’s a desire to grow and bring on staff that is natural at this point, but on the other hand, a certain comfort level that the publication has, a rhythm in the sense that we are publishing consistently and on this schedule, we are sustainable at this level, we are doing okay where we are. And that’s the dream right there. In growing and changing, you’re looking at taking risks that might disrupt that, especially as doing okay has been hard-won. Things like the trust of readers and authors, the reputation of the publication is so fragile in some ways, you have to earn that every day, and you want to be slow and deliberate in how you grow.
Lately it’s been exciting to partner up with AlterConf and work on Fund Club. It’s sortof a MVC side project that does something important to me which is trying to get money to people doing great work in tech and culture, so they can keep doing it. I think it’s an interesting evolution in MVC to possibly do more side projects and disruptions along these lines.
You’ve stated several times that you don’t look at typical media metrics like page views, newsletter open rates, etc. So how do you measure Model View Culture’s success?
This is actually a fairly difficult thing. I don’t think that these metrics are necessarily bad, they just don’t align particularly well with the goals of MVC. For one, because of what we do and how we do it and how we’re funded, we don’t have access to lots of the strategies and venues that contribute to getting lots of page views. We do “go viral” sometimes, but “going viral” and a publication or article’s ability to go viral is pretty tied up in power structures as well. Overall, articles by more privileged authors generally are much more likely to go viral because they have access to the distribution system, because they are more likely to be seen as intelligent, insightful, valuable, “level-headed”. We don’t have access to most of the distribution systems in our industry – we get almost instantly voted off Hacker News and Reddit, for example. Many people in the tech industry categorically disregard our work as “too politic.” We can’t do events and promote our work there for safety reasons – I’ve been retired from public life for some time now. We can’t realistically afford lots of advertising. It goes on like that.
At the end of the day the goal – which is of changing tech culture – is not measurable in page views. Maybe you can say “well we reached all these people with our message” but that’s not a direct correlation. Lots of time we are writing specifically on themes and topics that no one in tech wants to talk about or address, or about the needs and experiences of people who are very under-represented in these spaces. It’s critical that we do that, but page views don’t “reward” that work.
It’s an emotional thing for me as the one responsible for the publication because it’s like, how the fuck do we know if we’re doing a good job? If things seem like they are changing, is it just because we’re surrounding ourselves with people who are more aware and tuned in and active? Is it my own bias, because I have to believe things are changing in order to keep going?
It’s sortof antithetical to the main conceptions of business success and growth, but in the end there is a lot of value in us just showing up, and I measure MVC on that too. No other media company is doing what we do in the tech space. In some ways just keeping on publishing and being that source in the community is the metric. Over time though, you develop more qualitative measurements and indicators that you look for. For example, there is value in providing payment and editorial support and space, being part of the community that is developing new leaders in our industry. I look at how often people report back that they’re using MVC in their classroom or hacker space or coding school, or to drive policy changes or hiring changes or cultural changes in their workplaces.
I’ve been blogging in this space for years now and the other thing is sometimes it just takes time. You don’t see the result of the work for a really, really long time. But then sometimes you do.
Something that you talk about a lot is ethical publishing, publishing against oppressive power structures. How can publications more consistently produce ethical political work?
So I think that another emergent property of the work is the political principles it demonstrates. In the early days I wrote a mission statement on the goals of MVC. It was incredibly lofty and sortof erudite and ambitious as to what the political goals were. Not the type of thing you publish. The test is if someone can read the work and tell you what the manifesto is.
I think that producing a body of work that is consistently anti-oppression, is the result more than anything else of the design patterns of the publication. MVC follows a set of design patterns. One is about prioritizing and centering underrepresented and marginalized groups – through the authors we pick, but also as the subjects, references, inspirations, citations, readers of the publication, suffusing everything we do. Another is asking that authors write primarily about identities, cultures, groups, communities that they have or are part of, and about issues and systems that they are directly impacted by. Another design pattern is profoundly limiting our ties to corporate money and venture capital, to locate our financial base in reader support. These are architectural decisions, in the sense that they are foundational to how you make editorial choices, pick topics and authors, direct energy. Even your business model at the very core becomes held to this. Having those basic tenets in place gives the publication a rubric for making choices, but still gives it space to breathe and grow and discover new things. And it drives specific decisions and choices on a regular basis, more than any sortof aspirational statement.