Welcome to The Present Age

Some personal news...

Friends, enemies, frenemies, welcome to The Present Age. I’m your host, Parker Molloy. You may know me from Twitter, or perhaps you’ve followed my work over the past few years at Media Matters for America, where I was, until recently, editor-at-large.

The tl;dr here is that I’m leaving my job for an exciting (i.e. scary) life of writing this newsletter and probably picking up the occasional freelance gig here and there. Paid subscribers will have priority access to new features as I release them, will be able to participate in group discussions, and just generally show their support for the work I’m doing.

What is The Present Age?

The Present Age is a newsletter about communication in a hyperconnected world. It’s named after an 1846 pamphlet by philosopher Søren Kierkegaard titled The Present Age: On the Death of Rebellion. Notwithstanding the 175 years that have passed since its release, Kierkegaard’s work is a remarkably prescient piece of writing about “the age of advertisement and publicity,” where “nothing ever happens but there is immediate publicity everywhere.” (I don’t think he would have liked Twitter very much.)

I’m starting this newsletter to explore topics related to communication that stretch beyond the world of political media. The Covid era has forced people to reassess how they interact with the world. Charismatic office workers and masters of in-person communication had to adjust to a world of Zoom chats and emails. Touring musicians had to find new ways to connect with fans. It’s all very scary, but also very interesting.

I’ve been asking myself a lot of questions lately. Why can’t we seem to agree on even the most basic facts anymore? Have we really lost our shared sense of reality? What on earth is the internet doing to my brain? Why do I feel so angry all the time? And for that matter, why does it seem like everybody is so angry all the time?

A big part of what I want to do here is to better understand my own personal flaws. I don’t consider myself a particularly great communicator, which is why I want to spend more time talking to people who (I think) are great at articulating their thoughts and feelings.

I have a few really great interviews I conducted in the past few weeks that I’m really excited to share with everyone in the near future. The goal (which may change) will be to send out 2-3 posts per week. You can expect a healthy mix of blog posts about current events, features, and question and answer columns.

Why am I leaving Media Matters?

The short answer is that I’m burned out. The longer answer is that the laser-focus that right-wing politicians and media outlets have put on transgender-specific issues has chipped away at my mental health. At the beginning of May, Fox News had already aired more segments about the “threat” posed by trans athletes than it had in 2020 and 2019 combined. Night after night after night after night after night, right-wing media outlets have devoted an obscene amount of time to lying about trans people.

Fox News host Tucker Carlson recently said that the existence of trans people was “a challenge to the perpetuation of the species.” Sen. Rand Paul recently berated Dr. Rachel Levine during her confirmation hearing to be the assistant secretary of health at the Department of Health and Human Services, accusing her of supporting the “surgical destruction of a minor’s genitalia,” seemingly because she happens to be trans. It was nonsense.

As a trans person—no, I am not an activist, and no, I do not particularly enjoy writing about trans issues— it’s demoralizing to have to keep tabs on this kind of stuff. While I may not have had to watch all of these segments, I certainly had to be aware of them. It wears on you over time, and there’s not much to celebrate. Laws are being implemented to attack trans people’s rights, and while Media Matters has done a great job of shining a light on everything that’s happening (here’s a breakdown of exactly how right-wing media planned to attack the Equality Act), lots of mainstream news organizations simply don’t care and often ignore trans voices on these issues altogether.

In 2019, I wrote about a need for a media reckoning for journalists and outlets that pushed the false narrative that Donald Trump was pro-LGBTQ. That reckoning never came, and I instead had to ask myself how long I was willing to shout into the void in hopes of better mainstream media coverage, before admitting to myself that I wasn’t making the progress that I had hoped for.

I’m just drained, and I don’t feel as productive as I should. After more than two and a half years at the organization, I wanted to do something new that didn’t involve swimming around in right-wing media fever swamps. I love the people who work at Media Matters and value their work so much. I also plan to occasionally contribute freelance pieces for them from time to time.

Monitoring right-wing media hasn’t exactly been great for my mental health, if I’m being honest. Illustration by Malte Mueller / Getty Images.

Why am I letting Substack host this content? 

I’d been looking into different options for hosting my writing for a while. I set up a Patreon, but man, I just absolutely hate how posts look on there (plus, the payment processing is… spotty). I looked into using something like Ghost, but it just didn’t seem to make sense for me. Revue seemed like an interesting option, but once Twitter bought it I immediately began to worry what happens if a year down the line they decided to give it the same treatment it gave Vine and Periscope after acquiring those companies. Medium seems to always be in the middle of some massive upheaval. Finally, I looked into just setting up a paid blog on my own personal website, connecting it with a payment processor on my own, and just hoping for the best. Unfortunately, it turns out that the digital infrastructure requirements are more than I care to deal with.

I had been looking at Substack. It would make the most sense because I already had nearly 1,000 people subscribed to my mailing list on there. Additionally, the digital infrastructure was exactly what I was looking for. It was a natural fit, but then… all hell broke loose. People were allegedly getting massive up-front payments from the company, and some of those receiving said payments were, for lack of a better term ... not great, especially when it came to trans issues. This was frustrating given that a lot of the platform’s early users were LGBTQ. Jude Doyle (whose work you should support) has a pretty thorough breakdown of the whole ordeal here.

I spoke to a number of writers who’ve made the decision to stay on this platform to understand why they decided to do so. There was a range of opinions, but one thing that came up as a positive was the ability to break free from algorithms. They didn’t have to worry that the bottom of one of their articles would contain suggestions for other writers’ work. (One of my concerns was, as I’ve seen happen at places like Medium, for instance, was that an article about trans people might then include a handful of recommendations to read awful anti-trans stuff). One of those writers introduced me to someone who works at Substack, and we chatted a bit about my concerns.

What ultimately sold me is the idea that I could create anything I wanted; that I didn’t have to worry about trying to optimize it for algorithms or search engines, and that I could write specifically for an audience that wants to actually read me. I don’t care about growing my “brand,” whatever that means. I don’t want to have to tie my entire worth to the gods of social media. If someone hears from me, it will be because they actually want to, not because an algorithm threw my post on the front page. It’s simple, but it’s also important to me.

In any case, if you want to hear more from me, subscribe!