Jan 23 • 1HR 7M

Episode #56: Marko Ayling

Writer of The Missive newsletter and former YouTuber.

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The New Worlder podcast explores the world of food and travel in the Americas and beyond. Hosted by James Beard nominated writer Nicholas Gill, each episode features a long form interview with chefs, conservationists, scientists, farmers, writers, foragers, and more.
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Instead of the usual culinary interview I’m speaking with

, who is the American born, Mexico City based writer of the Substack newsletter . It’s a dispatch of his life in Mexico and world travels. He is a former Youtuber, who built up a following of more than a million subscribers to his channel Vagabrothers, which he created with his brother more than a decade ago. He talks about what that life was like, how exhausting it was, the ups and downs of YouTube, and what he is trying to do on Substack. He has a lot to say about making a living as a creator within this world of the internet and social media. Before YouTube fame he studied economics and worked in development in India, and sine the pandemic he has been living in Mexico City, where media reports about remote workers intensifying gentrification are frequent.

I think a lot of everything we speak about and what I have been writing about in the newsletter is related to some degree. Globalization and the issues surrounding it, increasing inequality, division driven by algorithms. I personally have been trying to make sense of the economics of being a writer, which have been disastrous since content began moving towards to the internet, which basically began within a couple of years after I started making a living as a writer. Yet, it’s more than just my own economics. How we live, where we live, and why we are living there and doing the things we are doing. We are all trying to make sense of this changing world.

- Nicholas Gill

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Full Episode Transcript

Nick: “So, you used to have a YouTube channel, and now you have a Substack newsletter,

, which I subscribe to and it's great. One of the main reasons I wanted to talk to you was the about page on The Missive and you talk a lot about being frustrated with social media and algorithms. What do you mean by that?”

Marko: “I became an influencer, I think, by accident. I never really liked that label and I never found that applied to me. I always felt like I was the outsider within some of these rooms and circles I was moving in. I essentially had started off as a travel writer. I wanted to be a novelist when I was in my early 20s, but I'd studied like economics. And so I ended up getting a job in economic development. And that led to my first newsletter, which was really informal, just for friends. I was writing about living in India and what I was learning through the direct experience of travel and working in economic development issues in a country that really has a lot of challenges. And that's kind of how I started getting into travel writing, which eventually led to guidebook writing and freelance writing when I was teaching English in Spain. And that led to basically writing my first guidebook, which was just happenstance that I had moved to San Sebastián, right after the peace treaty with ETA. So, I was kind of there in 2009,10 and 11, when there was finally peace in the Basque Country, and really the wave of tourism we've seen in the last five years hadn't really arrived. So I got an offer to write a guidebook about food.”

Nick: “My own story is a lot like this, my moving to Peru. I was traveling through Latin America and I was writing. I was a writer. And then I got stuck in Peru, because I got a job writing a guidebook, because everything was starting to open up in 2005 and they needed somebody. So, I got that gig and it was one of the things that caused me to first stay in Peru. Which publisher was it?”

Marko: “It was a startup that's no longer around. It was called Sutro. And it was essentially an app company that had a revenue model where they would split…they basically made a platform that allowed freelance writers to easily make a downloadable app as a guidebook. And they were looking for writers from different places. At the time, I was taking writing classes from Matador, which are still around. It's a publication and they have travel writing school. And through that school, one of my teachers offered me an opportunity to write about San Sebastián because they were looking for someone for that part of the world. And I didn't know anything about fine dining. I was a backpacker. I was making the point of living cheaply and I was probably 24 years old, but I got this gig.

Sebastián has more Michelin stars per capita than anywhere in the world. And so I was like, Okay, well, I need to work my way up to interviewing Arzak. At some point, I have to interview him, specifically, but all the other big chefs, who kind of pioneered that new nouvelle Basque movement, which was based off the French generation of fine dining chefs in the in the 70s, and 80s. And so, I didn't know how I was going to do that. I actually read Kitchen Confidential, by Anthony Bourdain as just like a basic primer. Someone said you need to read this because I was stressing out. And I read that book just to get the language of fine dining. And then I worked my way up from the cheapest restaurants up until I got to finally interview Arzak. Even though I didn't get have enough money to buy a meal in the restaurant, because they provide no budget for the guidebook. So, he cooked me a tortilla and poured me a glass of wine. And we ate it while we talked about food. And that was enough for me to write the last review of the guidebook.

But it wasn't profitable. You split the revenue 1/3 with Apple for the App Store, 1/3 to the publisher, and 1/3 to me. I probably sold a couple hundred copies. I think I got back like maybe like 500 bucks max, over a few year period, and invested so much more on it. I think that's where I started looking at other ways to make this dream of travel and storytelling come true. And that's kind of when YouTube was exploding. And my brother and I decided to team up and that begins a whole new chapter of wedding travel storytelling to video.”

Nick: “So, you start traveling and making videos. Does it take a while to build up a following and to start earning income from YouTube? I have very little experience with YouTube. I've thrown some things up randomly a few times, just to do it, but it feels like a whole other world.”

Marko: “It was mostly an accident, to be honest with you. We were not trying to be YouTubers. We were trying to pitch a TV show. At the time, Bourdain was the only decent travel host in my opinion. I don't mean to throw shade on everyone else. But that was our opinion at the time. I'd read his book, and I discovered the show through the book. At that time, it was No Reservations, which was a good show. But he hadn't quite arrived at Parts Unknown, which I thought was a great show. But there was not really anyone else. And there was no one from the millennial generation. And we're firmly in the middle of the millennial generation in terms of age and everything.

We have a family friend who was watching my brother and I do similar things; we both were teaching English in Spain. And she was like, you guys should team up. You're so different, because we really are, we're like night and day difference. And so, we teamed up, just to make a show reel. And we have the idea on paper, and we pitch it to her friends. And they're like, we need to see a video. I was so awkward on camera. I was a writer. I was very pensive. Every time the camera turned on, I turned off. I could not be on film. And my brother was a natural showman. He could talk even if he really didn't have a point to say. He could just flow. We were really kind of an odd couple. But we did make the video and we sent it back to them and they're like, you have no chemistry. Are you even brothers? You guys are so awkward together because we were. We had such a rivalry and like years of animosity, but we decided to not quit. We decided to keep practicing because we were teaching English in San Sebastián still. So, we kept practicing until six months later, my visa was expiring and it looked like I had to go home.

I had to go online to buy my plane tickets and when I went online to look for a plane ticket to go home, just feeling like I was going to have to go back and face my parents, my whole writing career, this idea of like traveling, it's failed. I'm 27 and I need to go home now. Instead, I went on Twitter to distract myself and I found a contest that said win the ultimate travel filmmaking dream prize, six month trip around the world to six continents and a $50,000 cash prize. Just make a three minute video of anywhere in the world. Now it's like we have to enter this contest. And so, with the two weeks we had left being in the Basque Country, it rained for about 12 of those days. We had one day to go out and film it. And we filmed it and entered the contest, and we won. And that is what started our YouTube channel. It's not replicable. Like I can't say just go into contests. But we were also lucky because there just weren't a lot of people doing it. And especially with travel because it's expensive. And at that time, we were teaching English so we did not have to go anywhere. We just filmed outside of our house and just happened to be living in what would later become a major tourist destination.”

Nick: “So you have a year making videos for this channel? Or was it a what was?”

Marko: “I'm realizing that my career has like a graveyard of failed startups.”

Nick: “That's the entire history of the internet. If you knew how many publications I've written for that have died or lasted six months or a year or completely changed concepts and names...It's a never ending list.”

Marko: “The platform was called My Destination, it was a British company. And the six months that we spent on the road would have been, if it was a movie, would be the montage. It was a career crucible having to put out two videos a week; write two articles a week; post to daily to Snapchat, Instagram, etc. Just constantly posting at a pace that was completely unsustainable. We crossed the finish line exhausted. And at the end of the trip, we basically found out that we weren't getting paid the whole salary. They had gone bankrupt. And we got we got like a quarter of the money that we were promised. It was like $12,000. So, we ended up going into my grandparents’ house in LA and trying and staying with them and trying to figure out how to make it work with this 12 grand.

We started taking classes at YouTube's new space that they opened up in Playa Vista in the old Howard Hughes airport hangars and networking until we had enough of a base to pitch ourselves to tourism boards, and kind of cobbled together opportunities for a free flight to go to Finland to do some tourism videos, no money, but just a free flight from the US. And then another one and another one until we spent the whole summer cobbling together opportunities and making our first travel videos on our new channel, which became what's called Vagabrothers. That was the channel that we founded after the contest.

Through that time, we got to 10,000 subscribers over the summer, again by accident mostly because I lost a very famous YouTubers’ backpack on live camp television. He does a video every day of his life. His name is Fun for Louis. He's this British YouTuber who was pioneering what's called daily vlogging of like making a video every single day of his life. We had been in the space long enough to meet up with him and kind of hang with him and it was like our big debut and we're like hanging with him in London. And, and we go out all night until it's so late that his car is locked up in a storage facility and he has to jump the fence to try to find the security guard. He says watch my backpack and to update the video. My brother and I are there with his camera. We're going oh my god, we're in Louis’ videos. Oh my god. We hear a honk and turn around Louis’ car is there. And in the excitement of filming him getting his car, which was in that video, the climax of the video we thought, you run to the car. We drive off and we're passing headphones inside and we're like, where are they? He goes they are in my backpack. We say where's your backpack. He goes you're supposed to be watching it. And it's five in the morning. We have to drive back to the Truman brewery and look for the backpack. Of course, it's been stolen. And it's all being filmed. So, we went from having like 2000 subscribers that we pulled off the channel that we did for this company, to having a multiple day saga of trying to find backpack, which despite a lot of angry names – they're not even repeatable – we were getting all this sort of internet hate from people, but we also got like five or six thousand subscribers that boosted us from like two to nearly ten. And that kind of put us on the map. For better or worse, we kind of face planted on the red carpet. But we were suddenly YouTubers.

Nick: “Did it take a little while after that? In the days that followed where you just like, fuck, is this the end?”

Marko: “Obviously, right when we lost his backpack, we thought this is the worst thing that could possibly have happened. Like this was a total failure of the plan. But then I remember distinctly walking down the street and some guy looks at us and he points ‘Hey, hey, I know you!’ And we thought it was recognition for our work. And he goes, ‘You're the fucking assholes who lost Louis’ backpack.’ And we're like, at least you recognize us.

I think at that point, it was just one of those things where everybody knew Louis and everyone still does. He just was a guy that was super extroverted and was featuring new people in his videos every day. He kind of paved the way for later people like Casey Neistat, who really took that format of daily vlogging and just exploded it. I credit Louis with really being the godfather of that style. Everyone knew Louis and the fact that we lost his backpack made us, maybe not world famous, but certainly all the other people that knew Louie and followed him knew of us just because it was such a debacle. It became a five-day CSI style hunt for his back. And we actually found the thief. We used security footage to find this homeless man who had taken it and the security guards said this guy comes around every Sunday, begging for change. We go outside, it was Sunday, and we see him we had him arrested, but the bag was not with him. It had already been sold. We never got it back. We were asking for forgiveness for Louis for like, a year until he goes guys, you have no idea. Those five videos, just the ad revenue from playing it on YouTube has bought me a new laptop over and over again. You're totally fine.

It was a really weird way to hit the scene. But we were at least known at that point. And then I think the harder battle was getting to 100,000 which is when YouTube gives you a silver play button. But at the time, it wasn't just about numbers for vanity’s sake. The amount of subscribers was what YouTube was using to unlock access to their spaces. So, we originally had gone to the YouTube Space in LA to get classes, kind of the 101 classes. But the once we had 10,000 subscribers, you could start filming in their studios, you could borrow gear, you could take advanced classes. We started doing that more often. And then the next level of unlocking spaces was 100,000 subscribers.

And we really made the goal of trying to be in what was called their Next Up program, which was a program where they were selecting channels in different categories that they wanted to cultivate. And they had to be under 100,000 so when that program was relaunched in 2016, we snuck in at like 95,000. Right under that mark. And I think being part of next up really opened up a lot of doors internally within YouTube to take further programs. Our trip to Peru, which is a place I'd always wanted to go, was financed because we had got into the YouTube Virtual Reality creator program and they were looking for people to make VR content 360 content and we used Google's budget to get permission from the Peruvian archaeological department to film in Machu Picchu, which is notoriously difficult ever since a beer commercial in, I think the 80s, had a camera on a dolly fall over and crack open a very famous Inca artifact. Filming there is notoriously difficult, but we filmed a VR film, and then use the rest of the budget to go to Lima and Cusco and eat in all the famous restaurants at the same time. That's a very condensed version of the three or four years it took us to get to those places.

I do think with YouTube, the way the algorithm works is once you have a certain number of subscribers, it will continue to recommend your videos. If people watch a smaller channel or something more niche, like they might be searching for the best restaurants in Peru, and it will tend to float up the videos that have trust, but they think it has trustworthiness based upon watch time, upward votes, etc. And we were able to benefit from that at the time.”

Nick: “Over time, do you feel like you lose that trust? Or what happens?”

Marko: “I love YouTube as a platform. I think it's definitely the best social media platform. But I do think that there's something inherently difficult in providing content as a living. I'll say this. I never intended to do the sort of content that we fell into with the daily vlogging thing when we when we met up with Louie. I thought it was weird that everyone's filming their lives every day. I didn't really want to do that I want to make content about the places I was going and not really feature myself in it. But social media was going a different direction. We could see that they want to know more about us. They want to know more about our personal lives. Were we dating somebody, blah, blah, blah. And I gradually shared more and more of that until I got to a place, personally, I think I got to a place where it was really difficult to know where my online self was starting and my personal life was ending. It becomes such a blurred line.

The part of me that felt like really exhausted by the travel probably started in 2018. I started getting really burned out. We had a video go viral in about 2017 and we went from having about 100,000 or  maybe 130,000 subscribers – kind of like a medium sized channel, but pretty solid following and in our niche of travel – and suddenly that video hit the front page of YouTube over Memorial Day weekend. And just like we're talking about, I woke up in the middle of night on Memorial Day having a horrible hangover, and I hear my phone just buzzing constantly. Like who was calling me? And I look it over and we still had notifications turned on for a subscriber. Like, Oh, cool, a subscriber. I look at my phone, and it is just blue. And I scroll for like minutes. And we had, I think on that first day, 50,000 new subscribers.

Nick: “What was the video?”

Marko: “It was a listicle format. This was very deliberate. I was getting frustrated with what I felt was a lot of really good content and people not really seeing it. I always loved narrative style. Like we would go to a place for maybe 10 days, and we come away with like six or six to eight videos that we really talk about the history and culture. And we were filming them each day and each one or two days was a video. And that was a format I really enjoyed because I got to go see new places and I got to go to find the best chefs in the world and getting access to the kitchen and sitting down at tasting menus of Michelin star restaurants. We are in your hands. Go for it. I loved that and I really loved the storytelling aspect of trying to blend history with physical locations in a replicable format so you could watch our video series on Northern England or Peru and, even though there's a lot of magic happening behind the scenes, it would look like we did everything in a replicable way, although it's very deliberate. We're kind of guiding you through the history. And each time we went to a new destination was a code to crack. And I love that. But the views were clearly not coming from that content. They were coming from when we did like, Top 10 Things to Do in Singapore. Top 10 Things to Do in LA. Which we at first were doing, because they were something we could film when we weren't on the road, using footage we already had. And we could see that that was head and shoulders above in terms of SEO, and bringing new people in channel.

So, for Memorial Day weekend, we're like, we should just make the ultimate SEO friendly video. I literally studied the psychology behind numbers and listicles on how does BuzzFeed choose these random numbers and what works for an enticing title. I think the final name was, I think I researched that 29 or 31 was a very catchy number. Because people are like, why isn't it just 30? Why 31? Like, it must be very precise. So, it was like 31. And then we use cheapest, because we saw that was a big search term for destinations. And you have to visit now, the imperative, the timeliness, right? And then instead of putting a photo of ourselves, which we always did, we got a stock photo of some beautiful girl in a bikini sitting on a boat, in like the Philippines over some blue ass water. It was just a recipe. Plus the video was long, which at the time, YouTube was favoring watch time. So, we just kind of had all the right elements.

We launched on Memorial Day weekend, which is when we had seen historically searches for travel spike. So, we put everything together, and it just was like, boom. It just exploded. And by the end of the summer, our channel had gone from like 130,000 subscribers to put approaching two thirds of a million. On our way to a million. It was enormous, quadrupling, or quintupling the size of the channel. And with that, obviously I felt really good things happen. I felt like we had tons of new opportunities. Television opportunities being thrown at us. Sponsorships. Our deal sizes went double, triple, quadruple. And so, we're making more money, there were more views, but at the same time that's where I think the algorithm becomes a problem.

We were now pegged a bit. Like, okay, this is what people came here for, so they need more of it. The problem was, we didn't really have more content. We didn't have 31 other destinations we've been to. We were already kind of scraping the barrel in terms of content that had not been featured. We were even dipping into places that were like, okay, well, we haven't been to Nicaragua, but we really would like to go, so this is going to be on the list. And the more that I felt, as a journalist, I was like, No, I can only do things that are objective. And that I've done myself. And you just felt the pressure to constantly continue to meet that desire, that need that from the audience starting to strip away and being like, well, what are we going to do? Either we need to start featuring places that we haven't been, which I didn't think was really ethical to be recommending places you hadn't been, at least not to a large degree. Okay, if you're making a list of 10, the ninth or tenth one can be some place you want to go, but we can't be making huge articles about places we haven't been. Secondly, we would need to either travel to new places, so then you're just traveling for new content, which is almost kind of out of alignment for your personal needs.

That was basically the conflict. Travel more or start making shit up and I didn't want to make shit up. So, we started trying to travel more, or repeating ourselves and recycling content. And so, it just became very stressful in that regard, trying to meet that demand. And we started making more listicle content, as a result of a listicle going viral. And I just started to feel a lot of pressure.

I remember one day I had pitched a concept for Visa to go to Japan for the Tokyo Olympics. In the lead up to it. They wanted to make a guide to Tokyo and I pitched this dream concept. We were going to go to the best type of every type of food in Japan. We're going to go the best on the best omakase restaurant in Tokyo. The best sushi. The best udon. The best ramen. Everything. And they approved it. So, we got to go to Tokyo for about nine days. And film in Michelin starred right restaurants, street food, everything. We hired Bourdain’s fixer to help us plan the whole thing out. I mean, when you work with a fixer who worked with Bourdain, and you're on a major job for the Olympics, it was like, wow, everything is great. And yet, I was so exhausted from the previous trip, I had not recovered from jet lag for years. And I remember on the eve of this trip that I so wanted to do, just being like, I don't want to go. I really wish I didn't have to fly to Japan right now, to pay my rent. I wish I could just be still. And the nature of YouTube and social media in general is like, especially with burnout, if you are feeling burnt out, and you're scraping together everything you can to make the next video, you can do that. Then time to start on the next one. And I remember just starting to feel dread of putting all my effort into making the next video, but I will still have to do it again next week. And there's no end to this. There is no social security for YouTube, and there is no paid time off. There's just kind of an incessant demand for new content from the internet.”

Nick: “I totally agree with you. Not only just this incessant demand, it's also incessant demand for new kinds of content. It changes so much in a period of years at a time that no single person can ever maintain the evolution of themselves enough to to maintain this level of social media connectedness or whatever. I don't know what I'm saying. It just never ends. The algorithms will just keep pushing numbers. They don't care about humans. They don't care about the users. I feel. I don't know. It seems like YouTube, from what you're telling me, actually did a lot of development things that I haven't really heard of before, until Substack.

Marko: “I think YouTube is definitely the best social media platform. I think they definitely do care a lot about the creators. I think that the problem, and I didn't really have a way of articulating this until I recently read a book called Like, Comment, Subscribe by journalist Mark Bergen. He's the first one to really look at YouTube because it has escaped a lot of the scrutiny that Facebook had after Cambridge Analytica, Instagram has around mental health, and Tik Tok has around national security. There really hasn't been a huge look at YouTube in that same way. And he illuminates something that I was not consciously aware of. But now it makes sense in retrospect, which is that there's a split within YouTube. In terms of psychology, there is the original scrappy YouTube that was about that anyone can have a voice. You can put up anything, the weirder, the better. That was what the founders were kind of about. It got then purchased by Google, which was about optimizing everything, throwing AI at every problem to optimize everything. And I think it produced some adverse results that we're only now starting to understand.

I also think there's a desire for YouTube, on the executive level, to become the new TV to kind of supplant television, by attracting Jimmy Kimmel's clips, SNL’s clips are huge, getting on the right side of copyright by kind of convincing those large corporate players to put their content on YouTube. And I was initially very welcoming of that, because I thought that our initial idea was to make a TV show. What I really wanted to do was ride that professionalization of YouTube to benefit the sort of content I wanted to make, which was always very highly produced. I wanted more budgets, more people, bigger vision, a global network, global expanse, and I was aware as an individual that there was only so much I could do as an individual, especially when you're trying to cover something like travel on a global level. I mean, you've done it around a continent. And that's ambitious enough but trying to be relevant and up to date about travel around the world. I was very aware at an early stage that we need producers and writers and researchers and a team. So, I tried to ride that wave. Unfortunately, I think that as a YouTuber, you're wearing a lot of hats. You're trying to film, edit, write, produce, post all the time. And what I didn't understand at the time was to rival these corporate companies, especially when they started making their own sub, YouTube specific digital first subdivisions, is that when you are trying to make a list about the best places in the world, BuzzFeed has hundreds of people, editors. I didn't really realize this until I walked into some of these content farms, not content farms, but content houses, it's hard to see.”

Nick: “Content farms. I’m not disagreeing with you.”

Marko: “When you walk into a content house and you see 25 editors working on videos, you understand how much money and budget and manpower is going into what's currently trending and currently dominating your feed. You realize that it's really hard to stand up against that. And I think my burnout was, partially at least, my own perfectionism, wanting to have all the answers and be definitive, had kind of led me to have these kinds of exhaustive lists. I think when you do that, if you're going to make the best 31 destinations, we copied kind of like a Buzzfeed format to do that. But guess what? Buzzfeed is going to win. Maybe one of the writers burns out. Then they have a new one. I think that trying to compete against those multimillion-dollar companies with a lot of resources, is really difficult. So as an influencer, who is going to have longevity has to find a way to balance out doing it in your own way with your own personal twist in a way that also allows you to feel like you have an off button. I think that's something that I'm only, I'm still trying to figure out.”

Nick: “The algorithms, it seems like they don't let you have an off button. If you slow down one bit, your numbers, your likes, your interactions just goes down. Like Instagram. For me, it has just become a waste. That was kind of the only platform I really ever used and kind of invested time in, but it seems pointless now. When you actually see what things actually get to my users, it's hardly anything.”

Marko: “I'll just start by saying, I am not a Luddite. I have a Luddite streak within me, that I had before I got into YouTube. I didn't even have a smartphone until we won that contest. I needed it for the job. I had a Nokia brick until about 2013. I have definitely had a conflict with my own heart about whether social media is the future, whether it's the ills of the world or whether it's necessary evil. And I think I'm currently settling on the conclusion that it is a tool that we need to use it intelligently. It is a reality of the ways in which artists must survive today. It is necessary to a degree, but it has to be used as a tool, because it is very easy to fall into the idea of, I need to do more, I need to do more.

Let's be real. These are platforms that are optimized to keep people paying attention. To keep people and to keep content creators producing for free. Essentially, there are now some monetization things, but the idea of FOMO, falling behind. It's clearly something that motivates people to create more, which is benefiting the platforms, but it can be a sword of Damocles. The sword of Damocles was the king's throne that had a sword hanging by a horsehair over the head. And that's how I felt. I got the top and I was like, Okay, I'm here right now. But if I don't keep producing videos, I'm out and some other younger kid who has more energy than me and has copied my style is going to start doing it himself. Of course, that's what happens.

I mean, I've turned to Substack, because I like the model, because it's about trying to find a niche that people value and then giving some away for free that can be shared. So that's kind of playing off that network effect, and then having a paywall that people can pay for to get additional content. And that's something I'm still trying to figure out. I'm still trying to figure out what is my niche? What exactly am I doing on The Missive? It's been about just six months or so since I launched, and it has been a time of exploration. I've been very happy with it. I'm just trying to find a way to blend it with my other social media.”

Nick: “Me as well. I mean, I've been doing it since, I think March is when I officially started putting out content. It's definitely a different rhythm of writing than I'm used to. It's different in the sense that I'm not relying on social media as much to get traffic. The traffic's coming from subscribers. And it's also different that I don't need something to reach 100,000 people. I can reach a few 1000 people but impact them in a much different way than just some SEO driven thing that everyone sees. I think, at least for the type of writing I do, and the content I create, it makes much more sense. For me.”

Marko: “I think so. I think you're right. I think there's a wisdom to not try and to achieve a million views or whatever. I think it really is allowing the whole concept of 1000 true fans. When I look back on my YouTube career, it's like we were pushing to get to a million subscribers, because that's what made it profitable. That's the point when it seemed to be profitable.

People ask, how many views do you need on a video? You have to have tens of thousands of views on your channel a day minimum. Really, you need hundreds of thousands of views. And I'm in a lucky position in which the channel, thanks to that one video that went viral, and some others, and the trickle-down effect that it had…I mean, that video is still paying my rent here in Mexico City. My brother and I are still splitting that check even though our channels aren’t active, but I'm still getting a sizeable paycheck from old videos. That's the power of YouTube. What you have on social media is the ability to be discovered, you have network. Because there are so many people on Instagram, and so many people on Tik Tok and YouTube, if you are able to rise above the noise on those platforms, you are able to tap into a global a truly global audience. The downside is that the economics to make it, only the top people are really making a really good living. If you look at the figures of like Mr. Beast, Liza Koshy, these large creators, I mean, it is very similar to the inequality we see as a product of globalization, where there are some places that are very rich, and there, there are a lot of places that are left behind and are poor. And I think it's a similar sort of economic distribution on the internet. You are going to have the people who win really, really big. And then there's a really long tail of people that create that are making no money.

What I think Substack is starting to do that I like is that it's starting to help foster the network effect. When I sign up for your newsletter, I'm instantly offered three new ones to subscribe to and that's really powerful. I've seen that your newsletter, which was actually the first one I ever subscribed to, because I saw the value instantly. I mean, the first one ever paid to subscribe to because I see the value. I like it, I want it. And I've also been able to see through the analytics that your newsletter recommends more people to me than any other one.”

Nick: “Yours has done a lot for mine as well. There are a handful and I appreciate that. I appreciate that there's a lot of overlap and interest. And it's not so much as we're competing against each other. It's just people having different interests and it brings people together that way, not just like a single viral clip. I think it makes much more long term sense to get those handfuls of people interested, to get people in a deeper way than just some social media posts.”

Marko: “I mentioned being able to see who's recommending who, because that's a really interesting thing. This is my first collaboration with a Substack writer. And I do think the more that Substack helps us understand who's driving traffic to our site, if we can start seeing which writers our readers read, like what other publications they read. That's something that was an early YouTube feature that we had, where you could see what other channels your subscribers subscribed to, and then you could start reaching out to those subscribers or those creators and say, let's do something. And your audience was like, yes, dream collaboration, you know? So I think Substack is wise to be developing those tools. I do think they need to do more community building stuff, like there is currently no equivalent of YouTube Spaces. Those do not exist even in YouTube anymore, notably after the armed attack on YouTube's headquarters.”

Nick: “What were YouTube Spaces?”

Marko: “They're gone now, but that's what one I was describing in LA. YouTube Space LA. YouTube space London. YouTube Space Tokyo. Paris. They were putting them everywhere. And I really loved that model, because it was a way to connect with other creators. Like when we went to India, we were able to contact YouTube, India, Mumbai, and say, Who can we collaborate with? The same thing for London. That's why we went to London, because there was a YouTube Space in London that first summer that we got launched. And we met creators and did our first collaboration through those spaces. But they also represent the contradictions of an open internet in the sense that the openness is not necessarily always a good thing. That's why they were closed, because it was so open that someone walked in with a gun and started shooting employees.

I think the openness of the internet is something we're still trying to navigate, but Substack is definitely doing a lot of the right stuff. And they have a lot of tools for supporting writers. And I think if they start doing more classes, and more workshops that are free, and basically the kind of the equivalents of the YouTube NextUp programs that we were offered into, they start offering bonuses or, grants to make original content….that's the direction that I could see it going in. What about you? What do you what do you think about that?”

Nick: “I've been coming from a weird place. I feel like I have been the outsider on everything I've always done. I've always wanted to be a writer. And I feel like the internet happened at the wrong time. For me, I wish it would have happened 10 years later. I started, when there weren't really opportunities of making content online. I started writing for magazines and newspapers. And I started to build a name, but within five years everything changed, and everything's just been a mess actually trying to make a living as a writer.

For the last 20 years, the internet has made it basically impossible. Publications, print publications, all shifted to the web. Then the web shifted to social media. Then social media shifted to video for a while. And then Facebook, basically killed off half of the world's print publications just by fudging the video numbers. Payment rates have gone down. Nobody has been able to quite figure out exactly what to do. So writing, you know, the life of a writer has been, it's been a mess. There has been no consistency of how you can make money as a writer, online. Some people still manage to, you know, squeak out that staff job or whatever, but most people have struggled.

I've tried not to keep reinventing myself. I've tried not to shift my focus. I figured out what I wanted to write about, what I was interested in, 20 years ago, and I've tried to stick to that. I've tried to figure out ways to get that message across and to get deeper into my work and that kind of thing. But it's just been basically impossible because there hasn't been any consistency whatsoever to really build any kind of following other than, social media numbers, which, especially for food writers, most of them are fake. Most of the engagements are fake or bought or whatever. I do see hope in Substack because I feel like I do own the content. I own the subscriber list, and if Substack fails, I can take it elsewhere and just, start my own newsletter or whatever.

I don't know, I feel like things are definitely shifting. I think the SEO driven everything just hit a wall, it hit its max of how much you can do with it and still be credible, especially in writing long form content and deeper narratives and things like that. I feel the BuzzFeed world of the listicles and things, I am sure they'll always be around, but I think something is changing. Since the Trump election with Cambridge Analytica, all these things, the Facebook numbers and just everyone's seeing with their own eyes and feeling how the numbers can be abused in such a way to change how we're all living and how, who our presidents are. And, like you said, with the numbers of that one viral video, just one viral video can change a lot. And it wasn't your best work. It was just plugging in the recipe for this thing. And I'm sure many other people have that recipe. Big companies have that recipe and they're not a guy and his brother. It's the worst people. The worst people have these recipes now. And that's what scares me. And that's why I think people are tired of it. And they're more aware, and I think they're ready for some other way of taking in content and hearing stories and storytelling and things that are real. I think that's been missing for a while. Just the realness of people and all that.”

Marko: “I agree with you. When I see publications like yours, with relation to your social media, it's like you're basically running your own publication, and you're one person. You have all the talents. I mean, you're a writer and a photographer, and you know, your stuff, and you have the contacts. I think your Substack is a perfect example of a publication that could really benefit from something similar to what we went through on YouTube with the Next Step program. If there was a way of connecting capital know how, workshops and a little hand holding, I think a lot of us who are trying to make a living on Substack could find a way to penetrate the algorithms of social media. It's just hard to do on your own. You are interviewing these amazing chefs and if you were able to have a budget to record them, preparing one of their favorite recipes, that's a video that could go viral on Instagram, it could bring in a lot of new views and new subscribers for you. And for Substack.

Nick: “There's definitely a lot of growth potential in what Substack is doing. I am interested in how they added video. I saw you've been adding some videos and things into your post, which I think is quite cool. I think there's a way to merge a lot of different talents into the newsletter format. Is it even still a newsletter at this point? I get that people get it in their inbox, but these are little publications that I think calling newsletters is limiting.”

Marko: “I agree with you. I do think it's definitely a newsletter, but Substack has introduced video, and I've been playing around with it, but I would not put a lot of work into a video for Substack. I have a camera that has a five-minute max of recording and I typically will try to do a little video for my paid subscribers. It gives a behind the scenes of things. It's not polished. I'm kind of going off what Patti Smith has been doing for her paid subscribers. She just reads a poem or something like that. Because there is no discoverability on a video. I mean, someone can see a cool video and forward it to a friend. But it does not have the network effects of YouTube. There is no way to put a video on Substack and get the potential for reaching a large audience that you have on other platforms.

I think I would say a couple things about the future of Substack. I think number one, they need to find a way to penetrate, maybe help writers get eyeballs from these larger platforms and bring them over. If that means coaching them on how to make video content or something that can kind of go onto Instagram and take people back. But I've noticed that Instagram does not like linking to other sites and seems to penalize you for Substack. That's one thing. And the other thing I think is there's going to be a reckoning at some point when people kind of get saturated on how many they've subscribed to. There's only so many that you want to pay for. Then there's going to be a problem because the temptation will be to go the Medium route and allow people just to pay a monthly subscription to have access to Medium and get all writing. That would also require some sort of algorithmic sorting of getting shown on media, which is the whole problem we're trying to avoid.”

Nick: “I could see, you could like package a few writers together somehow, and maybe give, a subscription to five writers. Like you, me, and three other people that are based in Latin America writing in English. You could get all five for, you know, a certain price or something like that. But if it becomes like, Medium, I think it's done. I don't see how it work. Then you're not writing for the 1000 true fans anymore. You're just competing with the with the monster.”

Marko: “They're doing a good job. I think that I think the challenge is trying to help writers do better on social media, as to bring more people to the platform. You know what I mean? In a way that doesn't cause a major…like Tik Tok was stealing eyeballs from Instagram, so Instagram banned you from uploading videos ahead, or they penalize you, if it has a watermark. They're clearly territorial. The problem with Substack is that we're always putting links to Substack.com. It's so easy for them to say, let's just not promote that content. I don’t know if they're doing that.”

Nick: “I feel they are. When I write the word Substack or link in profile or newsletter in my Instagram post, it definitely doesn't reach as many eyeballs.”

Marko: “I don't know what the solution is. It's definitely a challenge, because these platforms do not want to lose eyeballs. I think that what Substack is offering is a more sustainable way to browse content and read content curated by yourself. And it's not designed to steal your attention and keep you logged on and reading. And if you're logged on reading for a long time, well, good. You're reading more. That's not a problem. But it's definitely trying to do something that hasn't been done before. And I love it. I think it's very laudable.”

Nick: “The Missive, we've touched on it, but I've enjoyed the things I've read on it. I mean it's a lot about your life in Mexico City, which I find interesting. Especially, you keep touching upon the expats in Mexico City since the pandemic. I mean, is it that crazy there now? It has been a few years since I've been there, but I can remember walking around Roma and hearing English, probably more than Spanish. And this was five years ago. Has it just become an entire gringolandia now? Or is it still contained to two neighborhoods?”

Marko: “Well, I think it's nuanced. And I think that's why I keep returning to this subject, because there's a lot of layers to it. I think I had no intention of writing about gentrification in Mexico City. I just kind of found myself being tagged in a lot of posts that were on social media over the summer, when I think the LA Times and San Francisco Chronicle started writing about this. It has been written over and over and over again, and I am someone who's on social media. I've been very vocal about my love for this country. And for the city, specifically, in the beginning of the pandemic, because I did not actually want to live here. I was dating a Mexican, who lived in Condesa. The first day I got here, which was in August or September of 2020. She and I had met on a dating app, and I met up with her in person, you know, to take a risk on it. During our first kiss, my cell phone was stolen from my hand. No joke, from my hand. So I was like this is a sketchy place. Like I've only been here once before and this seems sketchy. Also, just more importantly, with COVID, I was already kind of worried about coming down to travel. I didn't want to be in the largest city in the world in the middle of a pandemic. I was like, I actually think I was ready to leave for California. The YouTube channel got to its natural conclusion with the pandemic, it changed the economics and we weren't even able to travel. So, we both went separate ways at that point, but I knew I wanted to work on writing and I needed a place to lower my expenses. And so it seemed to me to be logical to go to like Mexico.

Meanwhile, Oaxaca, I wanted to learn about food, take cooking classes and just develop the side of myself that I think was hurting during burnout. So, I did do that. Initially, I went to Oaxaca, but after a while in Oaxaca, I was going to visit my girlfriend in Mexico City, and I was really enjoying every time I came up here. I was like, Wow, there's so much more. It's so much more cosmopolitan. I think that you can see destinations on a spectrum of traditional versus cosmopolitan. Well, Oaxaca is very traditional. You want stuff that is passed down from generation to generation that is done an ancestral way, in a pre-industrial way, that's the place to go. If you want to open up UberEats, because you're tired, and you haven't cooked and you want something besides, the very, very staple cuisine. I remember there were just a handful of places that were other cuisines besides Oaxacan or Mexican. There was a pizza place, an Italian, and maybe an Indian spot. And I know it sounds like such a yuppie comment, oh, I can only find so much stuff on UberEats, but I was really craving that. I am someone who appreciates the traditional, but ultimately, knowing myself, I'm someone who really appreciates and needs the Cosmopolitan. I thought the city had so much more culinary diversity. It's a crossroads. And everywhere in my life I've always lived I’d go straight to the center. And I go to the crossroads. And I love being in those sorts of places.

So, I came there during that time, and I watched, and I was promoting Mexico City because there really weren't a lot of people here in late 2020. I remember coming here in January 2021. Every other building on Amsterdam, the main walkable street in Condesa, was for sale or for rent. It was a great time to get a good deal on rent, and I rented the place here, I got residency, and I started making it a home. Obviously, a lot of people got the same idea. I'm not sure how responsible I am for that by promoting it on social media. But it certainly was a topic that came back to me, and it kind of drew me in. And now that I've been discussing gentrification in Mexico City, I see it as a larger topic, it's so much larger I could write about it for a while because it is the intersection of globalization. The new geography of work, which I think is something that's applied to a lot of places around the world, the fact that remote work has unleashed creators and workers around the world, it's changed the nature of travel. Travel is no longer a one week or two week or three week or month long vacation, it is now a way of life that people are doing for potentially years on end. I kind of see this period starting to be called the roaming 20s instead of the roaring 20s. And people are going to be roaming around the world, and it's going to change the faces of cities. It's going to change the distribution of income around the world. And it's also got a lot of potential to help people understand a lot more about the places that they're visiting in a more meaningful way than they would have if they were just on vacation. I think the challenge is finding that right balance.”

Nick: “I think that's why I like your newsletter, because you do come from this background of travel, but also you have this kind of geopolitical background. You worked in economics and development in India. You are living in Mexico City, a place that's changed by globalization. And all these things coming together. I see them in your newsletter. Those are my favorite posts, I think the ones where your expertise, and all these kinds of strange subjects are coming together in this weird way. And especially with all the stuff about social media and algorithms and how it all ties in and in. Those are my favorite posts of yours. Those kinds of things where I see your experience and this knowledge of a bit you've gathered over the last, you know, 15 years or whatever. And it's cool. I enjoy reading it, and I think everyone should subscribe to


Marko: “I appreciate that. Yeah, there's definitely more to come. I will be exploring this topic and I might even take it on the road and go, Okay, this is where remote workers are gathering. I’m potentially thinking about going to visit Lisbon, or other places to see how this phenomenon is shaping our world.” Nick: “Buenos Aires is a good one in South America.”

Marko: “I have an opportunity to go down there with a friend later this year. And I might take them up on that because I think we're really seeing ways in which our global system is breaking down. Globalization is falling apart and it's causing massive dislocations and displacements and it's going to get ugly.”

Nick: “And it's going to get worse. Climate change is going to cause migrations, political chaos. I don't know how many Venezuelans are in Mexico but everywhere else in Latin America, the entire country seems to have emptied into and it's changing the dynamics of everything, very rapidly. I appreciate seeing someone think about these things in a different way.”

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