31 Comments
Jan 13·edited Jan 13Liked by Dave Karpf

There are actually three versions of Substacks. The two you mention, free and paid, and a third: a free or paid newsletter with Notes.

If Substack was just a platform that hosted your newsletter/blog/site, like WordPress or Blogger or Squarespace or Wix or Weebly or Buttondown, writers on the platform wouldn't even notice who else was on the platform (besides the people they read). But no, you can't just be a writer on Substack you have to be a SUBSTACK WRITER (TM), marinating in Notes (which has become more like Twitter than people will admit) and liking this and that and recommending and getting badges and stars and hearing from the CEOs all the time and being part of the "writer's community." Sigh.

More here:

https://sassone.wordpress.com/2023/09/28/we-need-to-talk-about-substack/

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This is a good point. What I'd also add, though, is that if you'd asked me about notes six weeks ago, I would've said "oh yeah, that. I never look at that feature. Total flop, right?"

And that perspective split matters in two ways, I think.

The first is that, the more one marinates in Notes, the more Substack feels like Twitter and the more immediately galling the substack nazi problem is.

The second is that I probably would've been paying more attention to Notes if I was trying to monetize. Because you probably have to be a SUBSTACK WRITER if you want to get a lot of in-network attention boosts, but if instead you mostly just want to write stuff that folks on Bluesky or Mastodon will find clever, then it's easy to forget Notes is even there.

Ryan Broderick made a related point in his "I'm outta here" post, noting that, instead of building a better newsletter platform, Substack keeps adding social features that don't really help writers build audience. The critique is basically (a) this makes the nazi problem worse and (b) it hasn't actually driven subscriptions, so what's the point?

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Thanks for this. In keeping with the Bullet Points approach, two things. Your FarmVille point reminds me of how undependable the big platforms have been for ISVs over the decades. VCs learned the hard way not to invest in software companies that were single-threaded on any one platform (Microsoft, for example, back in its server days) as those platforms could and did change their API and partner policies (we like you! we'll buy you! we'll crush you!) on the fly. On your substack point -- see the above. Platform volatility is as great today as it's ever been. But we have a much more broadly distributed creator economy than before ... so platform earthquakes affect a whole lot more folks , quickly. I wish there more coverage of the 'long-tail' of substack users who eke out an audience and maybe a little dosh and really can't afford the time, tech capability, or money involved in switching platforms. Platform volatility has been around since .. platforms .. just hurts a lot more a lot harder, now.

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Jan 13Liked by Dave Karpf

I thought your December post was realistic and summed it up well. I don’t want to leave as a reader is I subscribe to 40+ newsletters, many found through notes or perusing writers or commenters subscriptions. I really like it and value each persons perspective. But I also feel torn between the opportunity to pay writers (has to be on a rotation as paying 40+ writers is erm, out of budget) and the shocking Substack owners’ statements. That was surprising. They are not well versed in history or human nature and their idealistic statements are those of very young people. If you don’t leave now it makes nuanced sense. Honestly, some things are right or wrong - nazi vs not nazi, but can still have nuance - a writer finding their readers and making some money to support the writing even though some writers of ill intent on the platform slip through moderation. For context, I work for a site that places a strong focus on moderating a safe environment while providing benefit of the doubt to the people using our platform.

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Jan 14·edited Jan 14Liked by Dave Karpf

"Facebook's main strategy in the late aughts was to invite third-party developers to create apps that would run within Facebook's walled garden.": And then they drove most of us out. First, their APIs were lousy: badly implemented - stuff broke frequently - worse documented - sketchy, often outdated, and sometimes downright incoherent wiki pages do not constitute acceptable documentation - and worst of all continually changing - the feature churn was endless and exhausting. Second, they kept placing tighter restrictions on what apps could do, less for the sake of users' privacy - plainly, Zuck and his bros could hardly care less about that - than for the sake of ... I don't really know what, exactly; for example, it was a heavy blow to many apps, including mine, when they banished apps from user profiles.

Which is to say, even if I didn't consider OpenAI massively overhyped, I wouldn't be inclined to build anything on their "platform" - once burned, twice shy.

"I am optimistic that this will be the last post I write about Substack management for a good long while.": My, you *are* optimistic! Wait till you hear whatever the proprietors say next week. (Okay, I'm snarking, but the proprietors seem dedicated to upholding Alex Balk's Third Law of the Internet: If you think the internet is terrible now, just wait a while.)

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Yeah... The Facebook-as-a-platform-for-third-party-developers era only lasted for a few years, and it didn't turn out great for the developers. Even Zynga got screwed.

Maybe people will learn the lesson and this time will be different. But every time I begin a thought with "maybe people will learn the lesson," it seems like the answer turns out to be "alas, no." <shrug emoji>

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So very, very tired of it. I'm a business management major and designed corporate learning experiences for tech companies and Harvard Business School's corporate learning arm, among other industries, and watching all of their terribly idiotic missteps has been cringey and downright painful, like watching an old Vine of someone take a hit to the crotch doing some stupid stunt. Like, this whole thing should become a case study to warn about how these dweebs fucked up on the most fundamental stuff any first year undergrad could have seen coming from miles away. How to Fail at Business Without Really Trying: The Second-Hand Embarassment Musical!

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I am reading "Survival of the Richest" by Rushkoff, and he made a point that the winner of the tech wars was whoever managed to scale up the "next level of abstraction" most effectively, usually with a first mover advantage. Example, conglomerate all personal websites as facebook pages in one convenient, easy website. I am very concerned that with OpenAI's weight, they will win this latest battleground, and even more concerned that even if they don't, the only players that we can see taking it are just other big names from the last era. The more tech changes, the more the power players behind it stay the same.

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Great book. Might be my favorite by Rushkoff.

And yeah, agreed, seems like the most likely outcome if OpenAI doesn't become the biggest player in this arena is that one of the existing tech giants takes its place. (Microsoft is now a 3 trillion dollar company. Microsoft!)

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Jan 13Liked by Dave Karpf

I haven't seen the Substack controversy put into the context of major media orgs like the NYT and CNN showing signs of planning ahead for an authoritarian future. That is, as a non-professional consumer of media, I feel that many of the big media companies are pre-positioning themselves to be seen as cooperating with a new Trump administration and all the new restrictions that would imply. Certainly, opposing a victorious Trump would damage shareholder value. Maybe Substack's long-term plans are to cooperate with what they see as the coming dominant (and therefore more profitable) ideology.

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Jan 14Liked by Dave Karpf

It's a good point about the NYT et al. However, I doubt the proprietors of Substack are that forward-thinking - that immoral, sure, but that forward-thinking, I doubt. They strike me as typical "techno-libertarians", which is to say, affluent men with little self-awareness who think of politics as just rhetorical games and noise to which they shouldn't have to pay much attention.

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Dave, I have to say as a marketing professional that you nailed their crisis response. Seriously, they need to muzzle Hamish, hire a real comms team, and pay a retainer to a crisis PR agency to be ready for their next own-goal.

But the Tech-Bro small-l libertarian mindset, self reinforced by their peer group will not let them do that.

My personal substacks are unpaid, and small audience. I will keep them here, as they cost resources to keep running from the platform side, and anything that helps take money from the founder's pockets is good.

But it seems like there is a rush to the door for many of my favorite pages. I will follow and support them in their endeavors (also Ed Zitron is bailing as well).

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Jan 14Liked by Dave Karpf

I really like(d) the free tier of SS. I have no intentions of monetizing my miniscule newsletter, but SS makes it easy to have a decent-looking landing page/blog and a mailing list. That said, for $108/yr on Ghost(Pro)— decidedly not free—I don't have to worry about how close the the nazi bar I'm hanging out. Maybe the free Internet is a lie, but damned if I'm going to be seen at the drinking anywhere near Hamish, his non-existent comms team, the dudes with literal nazi tattoos on their faces.

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A year ago, I was worried that SS would adopt an advertisement business model to generate cash. But their hamfisted response to the Nazi issue, and where they have fallen (the wrong side of the issue) will make them about as toxic to advertisers as Twitter has become.

That is the one pony I found in this huge pile of feces.

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Jan 13Liked by Dave Karpf

Dave, I indeed moved my newsletter from free on Substack to something I have to pay several hundred dollars for. My newsletter is free, so no upside beyond escaping the VC funded tech bro idiocracy. My move to Buttondown has been more or less painless and the support excellent. I suspect some of the “network effects” of Substack will be lost and the UI is not nearly as slick, but it feels like the right thing to do. Hope you do it too.

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Thanks Andy. I hope the move goes smoothly for you, and the network effects turn out not to be much of a loss.

I expect I'll be joining you once I've got a book draft. I think you're right on the moral calculus, but I'm granting myself permission to put this low on the priority list of mentally-taxing, unpleasant activities.

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Dave, thank you for the explanation on the economics of the situation with Substack. So much of the discussion has sounded like writers just talking to writers. This was helpful. I only recently found your blog and enjoy it.

On the Wired/techno-optimism piece, in the nineties I was in my 30s, far away from Silicon Valley, making a transition from teaching college history to web mastering and then instructional technology support. I remember picking up the early issues of Wired and being dazzled by them. I need to look back through the ones I still have. I do not recall much in the way of negative stories. I recall the exhilaration of the era. It is partly about being young, partly about the nature of the internet in those days, partly about the culture and optimism of the nineties in general. We knew the world was being remade. We just didn't see the direction it would take. Of course so many of us were operating in a mindset that was informed by cyberpunk novels, maybe the possible dystopian aspects of what was going on didn't seem all that bad. There were too many connections we failed to make, though I am not sure that most people are still making that many of the right ones today.

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Thanks Guy. And yeah, stay tuned, I'll have a lot more on the optimistic ideological project of the 90s, and what it means for today. (That's the core of the book project!)

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Typo: "... inspired him in 1995 is what we is necessary" - I believe the "we" is superfluous

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Jan 18Liked by Dave Karpf

"I’m a little worried that their finances will collapse and the whole thing will go up in flames"

I think this is a very underrated part of the equation that especially the Substack-defenders aren't including in their calculus. Substack has been *revenue-negative* in their (misguided imo) quest to land the (often-also-problematic!) big writers and their growth has leveled off. There is no hockey curve growth in media. There are no other revenue sources coming. They are screwed, and it's really a matter of when, not if. The best possible scenario for everyone involved is if they get acquired by, say, Automattic; a likelier case is that a mini-Elon Silicon Valley Free Speech Defender does the acquiring and things go further south. But the center will not hold *regardless* of the Nazi Question.

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Just dropping by to say this is an accurate summary of my post.

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Dammit, Paul. You know how I feel about accurately summarizing/generally being fair to you.

(Schattschneider.)

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I agree with the optimism/pragmatism section. And the additional point that I’ve not seen the media tech optimism bias reduced at all since the 90s. Whether self-driving cars, crypto, AI 1 and 2 and now AI GPT - every tech trend is massively hyped. Only after many years of disappointment does the narrative switch.

I think many of these commentators are disappointed in how their darling companies have turned out (eg monopolies) yet that is the normal cycle of a business capitalising on a niche.

We don’t get the economy without a mix of good and bad. Regulation is meant to help that balance but it’s not instant and moves back and forth. This “battle” if you can call it that plays out over generations.

And I agree that any comparison of 90s journalism with today will find the quality of top-tier writing much better today. But the volume of content is massively more and thus it’s easy to confuse and lump up the mass of horrible, junk content available with the amazing journalism still happening.

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I do think there was a demonstrable critical shift in the late '10s. The techlash was real, and the tech barons took it very personally.

That's a good point about the volume of content, too. Though here, we kind of get to hold constant since Malik and I are both making comparisons of stories in the same magazine at each slice of time.

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Good points. I’m maybe too distant from the tech scene. In Singapore, any tech backlash in the late 10s was mute or non existent. But again I’m maybe in circles (or too disconnected from mainstream) to have felt it.

Excellent catch on the comparison of same magazine, I’d not processed that angle. You are right that makes it a more obvious example of opinion driven comments.

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Love your writing! Will you email readers about a new location if that happens please?

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I certainly will, and thanks!

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