You Don’t Need (To Complain About) Substack

“Our timing was nearly perfect—a mere two weeks after we wrote our joint essay, Substack had a huge controversy, and is now facing a backlash. Writers are thinking of jumping ship and looking for ideas for what to do next. I’ve been doing this without a net for a while, and I have a few thoughts on how it can be done.”

—Ernie Smith, “Newsletter, Untethered.” March 19, 2021.

Basically, Ernie explains how to roll your own newsletter. If you don’t like Substack, Medium, or these other publishing platforms, you don’t have to use them. There are options, but many require technical expertise, which is what you are paying them not to learn so you can focus on writing.

Let me take a moment to comment, with the full understanding that no one cares what I think: The Substack “controversy” is nonsense. What they are doing is figuring out who could make money on their platform and removing the risk for these writers to try it out. I haven’t read up on who they made offers to, but is the world a more interesting place with Scott Alexander publishing Astral Codex Ten and Freddie deBoer being given a one year guarantee to build an audience on the platform and concentrate on writing? Probably. I don’t agree with the politics of either of these individuals. But, I do know that the modern media landscape doesn’t give them a platform, and it should. When we support a media landscape of diverse voices, it means you’re going to hear a lot of viewpoints you’re not going to like. That’s the price of a diverse landscape.

Of course, capitalism comes with incentives, and the incentives encourage extreme viewpoints. That’s what people will pay for.

If you want to promote conventional opinion, write mediocre poetry, share your hot tips on making money (or living your best life, nutrition advice or what not), then you get on a free tier of an online publishing platform. Or, if you are slightly more serious, you pay for the privilege and get a WordPress personal site or equivalent. And, if you are very good, relatable, extreme and/or lucky, Substack might approach you in a decade too. Good luck to you, if that’s what you want.

But, complaining how some company runs its business? Is Substack Amazon, Apple, Google, Facebook or Microsoft? Do we want to talk about the relative harms here and why quitting Substack for some other online publishing or newsletter platform is a relatively cost-free form of virtue signaling? Want to guess how many people will read and heed Ernie’s advice rather than join the platform of the moment? Fractions of a percent. In other words, the objections about Substack and the migrating to another service with the same incentives is the kind of nonsense that characterizes left activism and is why so much of it has very little impact on the real world beyond soothing a few consciences and signaling we are good people at very little cost.

Rolling your own has a serious cost, in time and effort. Giving up Facebook, or one of the other feudal internet companies, also has a significant cost. But, leaving Substack to go to Buttondown? Who you fooling?

For a better argument, see Ben Thompson.

Thanks to Ernie for suggesting a few editorial changes to make it clear that rolling your own is not cost-free nor is it virtual signaling. It is a great way to control your creative output and foster independence. The challenge for publishing ecosystems is getting the tools to the point that non-technical writers can take advantage of them.