For some, cancellation is an ever-looming personal and professional hazard, with one’s entire reputation, really one’s entire life, hanging on unforeseeable shifts in public morals. Others are bored with the whole thing. The online broadcaster Dave Rubin—a Tablet profile subject in June 2016, not long after he’d left his job at the left-wing news network The Young Turks to launch his own Intellectual Dark Web-adjacent YouTube series—was accused of being a gateway drug to the alt-right by The New York Times in 2019. Years of criticism over the direction of Rubin’s talk show or his own handling of hot-button issues have at most taken a mild toll: When we spoke over Zoom in late April, Rubin sat beneath a wall-length wine rack in an airy house in Los Angeles, too relaxed and too upbeat to even vaguely resemble a ruined man. In 2019, Rubin launched Locals, a nearly moderation-free alternative to Patreon that allows audio and video producers to publish content and maintain online fan communities using pay subscription tiers. “I think part of the reason I know Locals is going to work is that I’ve been through this nonsense,” Rubin said. “The mob has come for me a million times and never won.” Whatever one might think of Rubin, he at least has a novel attitude toward the technologies of social sanction. He sees them as an opportunity.
There are no real centralized content controls and no advertising on Locals, which has no algorithmic determinant of what a user sees. These differences from the major tech platforms have turned Locals into a gathering place for figures on the political right, who increasingly believe that big tech, and even medium tech like Patreon, is out to marginalize and censor them. Fox News personality Greg Gutfeld, sports media critic Clay Travis, and Donald Trump Jr. are all on Locals, as are dissenters who fit less easily on any political spectrum, like Tulsi Gabbard, Dr. Drew, and various professional gamers. Rubin thinks it’s unavoidable that the site would be perceived as a conservative outlet regardless of who used it: “I would argue that any new technology that is interesting, that is trying to defend free speech and let people live freely and with a sense of autonomy and liberty is going to be pegged as right wing,” Rubin acknowledges.
But proximity to anything vaguely Trumpian, or even the mere appearance of profiting off of the alleged forces of reaction and injustice, is treated as reputational poison in the American business world these days. Locals offers proof it’s not treated that way by everyone: The site just raised $3.8 million in a funding round led by former PayPal and Zenefits executive David Sacks, a longtime friend, associate, and ideological ally of Peter Thiel’s. Former Andreessen Horowitz partner and cryptocurrency investor Balaji Srinivasan, AngelList founder Naval Ravikant, and Palantir co-founder Joe Lonsdale invested as well.
Perhaps it was inevitable that something like Locals would find both an audience and sources of funding. Whether big tech’s control of online speech is a tyrannical and partisan imposition on the marketplace of ideas, or the only thing preventing American democracy from drowning in lies, a critical mass of people was bound to decide that they didn’t want their information intake—and in some cases their livelihoods—to be at the mercy of a few fickle web giants.
“If you think about Facebook, Twitter, and Google, the main stakeholder in the company is the advertiser,” noted Assaf Lev, Locals’ Israel-born CEO (and Rubin’s brother-in-law). Whether left, right, or bewildered, users feel constrained by a content economy that offers them little real power. Locals’ bet is that, once enough of them want out, those fed up with the major tech brands will become a consumer market unto themselves. “We are in the time when consumer and creator want to leave big tech platforms,” said Lev. “We see a time of unbundling.”
Locals’ success short-circuits much of the usual debate about cancel culture, which tends to revolve around tired questions like whether it’s meaningfully different from other forms of norms enforcement, or whether the canceled are deserving subjects of societal “accountability.” Side-stepping such fault lines, the creators and users on Locals are people who feel poorly served by the available web platforms, whatever the nature of their complaints. Maybe the risk of “cancellation” is a comparatively minor concern. As the gleefully controversial Dilbert creator and Locals user and investor Scott Adams explained to me, YouTube had demonetized a number of his videos, some of which discussed the topic of alleged fraud in the 2020 presidential election, without telling him the exact reason why. This is above all a practical challenge, long before it becomes any kind of free-speech issue. “YouTube can decide I don’t get paid that day, and they don’t have to tell me why with the specificity that would allow me to avoid it next time,” Adams claims. “That’s the worst boss situation you can have, where the boss can create the problem and then punish you for it. That’s pretty much the core of the Dilbert comic, that the boss creates the problem and then assigns the blame to you. And the platforms have that power right now.” Another relevant theme from Dilbert, Adams added: “Anybody who has the power to do anything is going to do it.”
Those who yearn for alternatives to the existing online attention economy might welcome Locals’ growth: For one thing, it furnishes evidence that major tech investors aren’t afraid to throw money behind a project that’s become a haven for political undesirables. Maybe platforms that define themselves in opposition to big tech’s allegedly arbitrary policing of content—and thus against the political, cultural, and economic pressures that steer their content-moderation decisions—aren’t too weak or toxic to succeed. But if that’s the case, it might also mean that Locals is another sign of the ever-greater fragmentation of American life.
For decades, media was a source of social cohesion: There was a time when just about everyone read their city’s daily newspaper, which helped shape the sensibilities and even the identity of discrete social and geographical groups. A few universally trusted outlets worked to establish a societywide baseline of truth. But the media now resembles a grid of walled-off gardens, disconnected redoubts that consumers retreat to for comfort and moral reinforcement, built to seal them off from whatever might be going on next door.
Rubin doesn’t necessarily see this self-sorting as a problem. “At some level I don’t think that the walled garden in and of itself is bad,” he said. The gardens can become thriving communities unto themselves, and it’s not like the world outside is always so attractive to begin with. Rubin believes people need personality-driven web communities to cope with what he sees as an increasingly stifling social and political environment. “People are outsourcing bravery in a lot of ways,” he said. “People who pay for me [on Locals], it’s not only to communicate with me at a more intimate level and to see food pictures and my dog and what I’m doing on the weekend. It’s also because they believe that I’m saying some of the things that they want to say in their real life.”
What this fragmentation means for American society at large remains an urgent question, but it’s arguably worked out well for certain media figures. Podcasters who once scrounged for writing assignments in prestige media now rake in tens of thousands of dollars a month on Patreon, freeing them from ever having to make another anxious pitch to a gatekeeper at a magazine that fewer and fewer people read or care about anyway. Paid subscription newsletters support investigative journalists, essayists, and arts critics who don’t really have a home in traditional media anymore, assuming they ever did. Scott Adams said he gets around five times as much money from 6,400 paying subscribers on Locals as he does from his presence on YouTube, where he has 100,000 subscribers.
Meanwhile, consumers clearly like the products that an unbundled news media offers them. A shockingly viable economy has built up around voluntary contributions supporting what is otherwise mostly free content. Readers and listeners have been happy to finance this creative explosion at a time when mainstream news readership and cable and broadcast news viewership have plunged, and when tech and media have become two of the country’s least trusted institutions. For some significant number of people, creators like Substack’s Freddie deBoer and the podcasters at Chapo Trap House now fill the mental space that New York Times columnists once occupied.
Does all this mark an exciting new frontier of media creativity, or is it merely another accelerant of polarization, helping sort us all into separate societal enclaves that have nothing to say to each other? Rubin, Lev, and perhaps their investors believe Locals is filling a political and cultural hole left by big-tech-controlled information channels, which a large number of people see as insufficiently free or trustworthy. “Every single person, if you have a flicker of an original thought, is a sitting duck,” Rubin claimed, adding that users on the major web platforms “are playing a very fake game right now.” A significant segment of the country seems to agree that the information ecosystem is broken, and is beginning to wonder whether they even need to care about the battles fought on the Twitters and YouTubes of the world. For those who regard an even more fragmented future with a mixture of wariness and hope, Locals offers a preview of what might lie ahead.
Armin Rosen is a staff writer for Tablet magazine.