22 November, 2020

Why I am Bearish on Substack

The big trend in writing and journalism in the year 2020—other than the New York Times continued conquest of everything in print—is the flowering of the Substackerati.[1] Hardly a day goes by without some famous figure announcing their new hope you will become a new subscriber to a new newsletter they are writing on this new thing called Substack. This thing’s rise is a glory to behold—but a glory whose shine I am deeply skeptical of.

I will admit at the start of this post that my bearishness on all things Substack may just come down to an obstinate old-fashionedness on my part. I am a child of the old blogosphere. I am nostalgic for the old ways. It is possible that all I am about to write confuses what I wish for what I see. But my skepticism of the Substack model is rooted in my experience of writing on the web over the last decade and a half, and informed by my research into what made good writers tick in the decades and centuries before that.

I invite you to read some of these investigations (start with “The World Twitter Made.” Also relevant: “Requiem For the Strategy Sphere," "Public Intellectuals Have Short Shelf Lives,” “Life in the Shadow of the Boomers,” “Book Notes: Strategy, a History,” and “On Adding Phrases to the Language.”) A running theme in all of these essays is the importance of seeing individual authors not as individual authors, but as voices in a chorus. No writer is an island. If a "public voice" is inspired to spend hours massaging paragraphs and digging up references, it is because she has something to prove, and more important still, someone to prove it to. She writes in response to ideas she has heard or read. She feels compelled to add her voice to a larger conversation. The best thinkers speak to more than their immediate contemporaries, but without that contemporary argument in the background few would bother speaking at all.

Substack is the medium of the solo artist. High-rolling soloists at that. Like Patreon, Onlyfans, book publishing generally, or any other medium where creators connect with the masses sans bundled packaging, Substack has (and will continue to have) a power-law distribution. The biggest names will earn in their hundred of thousands; the median user is going to scrape away $100-200 a month, at best. If measured in page hits instead of dollars, the same could have been said for the high and low tiers of the old blogosphere as well. Then the world's most popular independent writers occasionally drove national news cycles. After a few weeks of feeble posting the vast majority of bloggers in the lower tier gave up writing altogether (by 2009 Technocrati was reporting that there were 133 million blogs in the world—and a full 95% of them had been abandoned).[2]

However, the blogosphere allowed for a healthy medium layer of independent writers that existed between nationally prominent blogs and your next door neighbor's defunct site on typepad. What allowed this middle tier to thrive? Other middle tier bloggers! Each writer was embedded in her own little archipelago of other writers all working on the same topics. It might be devoted to climate science, counterinsurgency theory, Black politics, New York fashion, Mormon Mommy blogging, Harry Potter themed slash fan-fiction, or something else altogether, but the archipelago was there. Other bloggers—along with a few of the long term commentators shared by the various blogs—were the intended audience of most pieces. Others' pieces were the inspiration for one's own. Bloggers were nodes on a network, and it was the network that sustained them.

The current intellectual sphere (centered on Twitter) makes interaction even easier. Its cost is an eroding sense of community. The borders between different blogging communities were permeable, but they were borders. On Twitter everyone and everything is tossed together in one great jumble. Users are always one bad tweet away from upsetting the entire internet. In this twitter-driven intellectual scene, conversation is vigorous but vapid. Tweeting favors performance over coherence, anger over insight. The show goes on but is ever less worth the watching.

At some point a correction was due. The driving force behind the correction may simply be fatigue with this state of affairs. It may also be rising Zoomers, "social media natives" who joined Facebook and Instagram well aware that their parents and teachers were peering at what they posted, trained from adolescence to shy away from public eyes. Whatever the cause, the new trend is clear: conversations are moving onto platforms like Slack, Discord, and Substack. In place of the easily searched, permanent records of yesterday, we find conversations behind closed doors, reserved for followers, fans, and fellow travelers. If old and existing platforms were designed to catalog your best moments then bounce them across the breadth of the world wide web, this new suite of platforms are intentionally opaque. Even a private bulletin-style message board (of the sort that reached peak popularity c. 2007), just as closed off from the general public as a private Distro or Slack is today, was legible in a way these new chat-apps are not. Those old forums were designed so that members could easily locate past discussions of a certain topic and read them in full. Forum etiquette often demanded they do so. Try to do the same on Slack!

What Slack and Discord are to the old forums, Substack newsletters are to the old blogs. All three are closed off from the outside, difficult to navigate, and impermanent. That impermanence is relative—conversations on Discord do not disappear, and anyone who receives a Substack newsletter can save it if they wish. But most Discord chat messages are buried in the stream, never to be read again. Most Substack send-outs are deleted from inboxes as soon as they are read. None of it is indexed for the search engines. With the rise of these new platforms we see the death of old hopes. The dream of an unbounded internet was realized, and we discovered a nightmare. Scarred,  participants in public intellectual life retreat behind the battlements. We revert to something like the internet of the early aughts, but with apps.

The great question is whether this new internet will be able to sustain meaningful intellectual exchange. By default, Substack splits intellectual activity into vertical silos, with readers at the bottom and authors at the top but no horizontal connections between them. In a world where most content exists behind paywalls and is distributed through private channels, neither the high tempo conversations driven by twitter virality nor the blogophere's slower cycle of post and response will be possible. Both of those systems assume that readers have access to the full conversation taking place. More importantly, both systems assume that writers have full access to the full conversation that prompts them into writing. On Substack, there are too many walls dividing up the garden.

The history of 21st century web publishing is not the rise and fall of individual writers, but the rise and fall of entire communities of writers. This is the central contradiction with Substack's quest to remake intellectual life. It is one thing to pay $10 a month to support your favorite writer. It is harder to pay $10 a month to each of the 10 or 15 other writers that make your favorite writer's writing possible in the first place. Steam rarely rises higher than the source. Those writers are a necessary part of a healthy media ecology. Lose the source, and the steam goes with it.

Prior to blogging, these communities were usually centered on magazines and journals, which gathered the various voices committed to an intellectual project and packaged them together under one masthead. One can imagine something similar happening on Substack: a meta-newsletter that delivers content from the best of various Substackerati. But in making such a pivot, all Substack will have done is recreate a media format that is currently failing: the paywalled online magazine. The start-up costs of a new Substack-based magazine will be substantially lower than hiring web developers to create one's own site. But low enough? Low enough to save a format already dying? Is a mailbox delivery system really enough to distinguish future Substack magazines from existing journals sitting behind paywalls or begging for support on Patreon?

That is a financial take on the problems of a Substack-based epistemic community. But the intellectual problems of such a community may prove just as important. Substack favors those who already have large megaphones. A Substack-based intellectual sphere will be intensely, if unintentionally, hostile towards new blood. Magazines and newspapers solve this problem by packaging new authors that might appeal to their readership in the same issues as big names. The blogosphere solved this problem through comments and trackbacks, which allowed bloggers and their readers to discover other quality writers worth following. There is no mechanism for this sort of thing on Substack. A minor writer on Substack will not grab the attention of a major one; readers will never stumble from the big to the small.

This is a recipe for intellectual sterility. A media ecosystem composed of the New York Times, a few other large newspapers, and a swarm of hungry Substackerati will starve itself out. The big Substack names will continue to rake in subscriptions, of course, but what will they have to talk about? Only the same old ideas they had been playing with for decades. These lone agents will lack a milieu to work against. The dominance of a few big newspapers and a few big newsletters will guarantee that no milieu of new writers will form. The most interesting conversations will be happening in private Slacks and Discords, or on even newer apps like Clubhouse, in all cases available only to the select few who began the game prominent enough to be invited into gilded circles.

I do not think this is sustainable. I admit there is a possibility that I am letting my normative preferences cloud my objective view of the situation. On the other hand, this is an issue in which I have "skin in the game." I am putting my money where my mouth is. I am currently working with a Wordpress development team to move The Scholar's Stage to a more professional domain, complete with a suite of additional features. (Soon I will be releasing some Scholar's Stage polls to discover a bit more about what features and content my readership would most like to see on the revamped site, and what sort of things might induce them to contribute to my Patreon). This decision to not transition to Substack reflects both my skepticism about the new platform and my personal commitment to an intellectual sphere that is both public and healthy. We lose something when intellectual discussion retreats entirely behind the battlements. I do not want to hasten that loss.


If you would like to read more of my musings on the rise and fall of epistemic communities, you will find the essaysThe World Twitter Made," “Requiem For the Strategy Sphere," "Public Intellectuals Have Short Shelf Lives,” “Life in the Shadow of the Boomers,” “Book Notes: Strategy, a History,” "On the Angst of the American Journalist" and “On Adding Phrases to the Language” of great interest. To get updates on new posts published at the Scholar's Stage, you can join the Scholar's Stage mailing list, follow my twitter feed, or support my writing through Patreon. Your support makes this blog possible.

[1] I take this wonderful neologism from Clio Chang,"The Substackerati" Columbia Journalism Review (Winter 2020). 

[2] Douglas Quenqua, "Blogs Falling in an Empty Forest," The New York Times (5 June 2009).


Brett said...

I suppose the Big Names can use some of their money to buy subscriptions to each other, creating a walled discussion space only amongst themselves even if their readers only get the filtered take of whoever they're following. Still rather limiting, but there's some hope.

I'm not so convinced of the self-limiting factor, though. That should have limited Patreon in the same way that it caused most blogs to be abandoned, but instead Patreon brought in a bunch of content creators who aren't really full-time at it, but make enough to keep doing it as a side-gig (or an alternative to their day job).

Who knows, though? Maybe Substack will end up self-limiting in another way, when the VC money runs out. They're throwing around money to attract bloggers - I remember Scott Alexander pointing out that they gave him a very generous offer to come over there.

Brian Ballsun-Stanton said...

One minor correction -- for substack we need to differentiate paid v. free. Taking one of the academic substacks I run infrastructure for as an example, https://onwork.substack.com/p/foucault-on-the-centrality-of-work has an archive at (https://web.archive.org/web/20201120093109/https://onwork.substack.com/p/foucault-on-the-centrality-of-work). But, as you so correctly point out -- that same thing while available on archive.org is *not* trivially searchable on google or duckduckgo (but does for some strange reason appear on bing.) Whereas I designed the citation-site that is the whole point of the "substack" to have lots of embedded dublin-core citation data.

Intuitively, I would suggest that substack is eating Medium's lunch, and Medium attempted to be the successor to the old blogs. There is also useful differentiation on the free-pay spectrum, with most of the folk that I've ended up subscribing to in my RSS reader having a good mix of free (archivable) and paid (paywall'd) posts. I also advise my students against moving to wordpress-like blogs due to the security/maintenance issues. (I'm happy to chat about various static site blog advice I give to my fellow academics).

My other response to you is on the problem of comments. We've observed most discussion (of not much) on our substack happening on reddit and twitter. Do you have any useful intuitions about closed communities with the same network effects? How do we maintain a community, set good norms, keep spam and trolls out, and yet not have dedicated teams of moderators? I feel we have devolved to a "pick your walled garden" mentality where we are free to choose whichever feudal overlord (https://www.schneier.com/blog/archives/2012/12/feudal_sec.html, https://towardsdatascience.com/digital-feudalism-b9858f7f9be5, various thoughts from Stross and Brin that I can't find quickly enough to cite in a comment)

In short -- substack qua medium qua blogs all suffer from the community-holding problem. I don't really have any evidence (besides the absence of same, which isn't useful here) that there are "interesting" articles being shared on any of the hundreds of sites in my RSS feed that are behind substack paywalls. Though, if we treat substack as an inferior financial-times, there is a small trickle there.

How would you manage the administrative costs (moderation, security, updates) versus the ability to get paid versus the ability to be seen versus the ability to maintain a community? These various tech stacks all the way back to the lamented and forgotten days of the dialup BBS have all had various tradeoffs in that regard (Do look at https://www.cs.columbia.edu/~smb/blog/2019-11/2019-11-14.html which is a remarkable history of Usenet to see where this whole mess started from).

Brian Ballsun-Stanton said...

(Procrastinating from editing a paper here) -- It's also important to remember that the heritage of mailing lists is almost the same as usenet. Thinking back to some old old classes, we studied https://www.well.com/ as part of the history of electronic communication. It's "conferences" are not unlike mailing-groups or lists. And Schneier has been publishing his "crypto-gram" for decades (https://www.schneier.com/crypto-gram/). As Brett notes, Substack has noted amounts of VC money, allowing it to compete with mailchimp and medium but it does not seem to be "novel" save for its monitisation strategy.

gordianus said...

I don't use Substack much, but from what I've seen of it, some of how you're describing it doesn't seem to fit. You state that "[m]ost Substack send-outs are deleted from inboxes as soon as they are read. None of it is indexed for the search engines", and yet I am able to find some (but not all) publicly accessible Substack blogs and articles by searching on DuckDuckGo, and others are still accessible through links independent of email. You state that "[b]y default, Substack splits intellectual activity into vertical silos, with readers at the bottom and authors at the top but no horizontal connections between them. In a world where most content exists behind paywalls and is distributed through private channels, neither the high tempo conversations driven by twitter virality nor the blogophere's slower cycle of post and response will be possible. Both of those systems assume that readers have access to the full conversation taking place. More importantly, both systems assume that writers have full access to the full conversation that prompts them into writing. On Substack, there are too many walls dividing up the garden." But if Substack writers allow non-subscribers to view posts and make comments, as some seem to, then why wouldn't they be able to read and respond to each other's work in public view, as the earlier bloggers did? I agree with you that the most popular writers may be tempted to limit access to their articles or comments to subscribers, i.e. people who like their work enough to pay for it, and thus close themselves inside an echo chamber. However, most writers wouldn't make very much money from subscriptions no matter what they did; if they recognize this wouldn't they be more likely to follow the earlier model (keeping their writing publicly accessible while encouraging people who like it to give them money through subscriptions) to allow people to engage with their writing, and thus potentially form communities?

I am probably misunderstanding some important aspects of the software or the way it's used, with which your post would make more sense. If so, could you describe these details, so that people not already familiar with how Substack works can fully understand your argument?

Anonymous said...

I would not describe magazines and such as anything but sterile, they seem to only publish consensus a month or more after they're formed on looser lipped platforms. Stripping any of the figures of their published position, seeing behind the scenes on their social media, most references are casually crowd sourced. Long form tends to be just be creating a structured narrative from inflammatory symbols workshopped somewhere else.

I don't have a source but I would guess the middle layer subsisted less on comments and trackbacks, more on first impressions and social norms. The health of blogs was due to a different culture and the health of magazines were due to a different environment.

What may be afflicting them now may be a sort of cost disease of consumption. Culturally we're probably degenerating due to obscure vanguard parties, whether anon right ankle biting or more substantively others emailing sponsors and infrastructure management.

The ecosystem is not just NYT and substacks. 4chan and twitter and subreddits are
rhetorical evolutionary environments that define the frames and labels that are used in conversation. So intense and rapid they tend to outpace even the vanguard parties. I would liken boomers in their backwaters to quokka, until recently never having had a predator. The sponsored press will continue to play catch up until zoomers age and boomers adapt, maybe returning to tradition.

Andrew Wilcox said...

Some thoughts...

I'm a sponsor of The Scholar's Stage on Patreon at the $10/month level.

I find The Scholar's Stage especially valuable because posts are public.

I can imagine paying for a specialized news source and not minding that posts were behind a paywall. As an example, I enjoy reading The Orbital Index, a weekly listing of everything happening in space flight.

There's a difference however: if I were to share something that I found through The Orbital Index, I wouldn't share The Orbital Index's post. I'd share the post or web site that I'd found through The Orbital Index.

Since The Scholar's Stage does original analysis, I'm more likely to share one of The Scholar's Stage posts directly.

Which is less valuable to me if a post is paywalled so that fewer people can read it.

I've already seen this on Substack: someone on Twitter will say "here's an insightful article" and give a Substack link... which is paywalled. And so far at least, I've been unwilling to pay the $10 just to find out if I also think the article is insightful :-)

By the way, you should have more Patreon tiers! Having $10/month as your highest tier is too low.

Anonymous said...

There are still people doing old school blogosphere type things, languishing in (perhaps deliberate) obscurity. See e.g. https://www.reddit.com/r/hnblogs/ or lesswrong.com

K said...

What I love about the blogosphere, and the web more generally, is that it probably can't be killed really; forgotten perhaps or maybe dormant. But it's perpetually pregnant with possibility.

I've also found that those that remain in the blogosphere, or those that join it, if but for a short time, are invariably more interesting to follow anyways.

Roger Sweeny said...

For a long time, auto makers made "station wagons", basically sedans with a squared off back, so you had twice the space of a trunk and it was connected to the cabin.

But then SUVs came along, mounted on a truck chassis and offering even more space. Station wagons disappeared.

But SUVs were bigger than many people wanted and some people preferred the handling of a car, so we now have "cross-over vehicles", which are basically sedans with a squared off back, so you have twice the space of a trunk and it is connected to the cabin.

Online magazines are mainly dead, but maybe there is a space for the magazine equivalent of a cross-over.

catfitz said...

I'm going to stay on Typepad on my little blog because I don't think I can compel many people to pay any monthly fee. On Typepad, I can have Google ads. On Substack and Medium, you can't have Google ads (or at least I don't see them). So how can you even pay the cost of your blog service? If Medium and Substack are free to authors, or at least famous authors, but not free to readers, that's great but as you point out, it's not much of an ecology. @catfitz

I constantly feel as if there is no good magazine anymore, especially after The New Republic was ruined. Atlantic is ok, but I find it's not worth the subscription, too repetitive, too narrow a scope, too whiney. I don't like the politics of New Yorker (too left) but they have very good, professionally researched long-read articles on topics like "COVID in the prisons" or "unrest in Chile" so my subscription dollars go there. I feel as if I must give to Arc Digital which is very good, but recurring bills always jam on you and cause overdraft fees unexpectedly so I avoid them. I find that I stop supporting podcasts for the simple reason that the haughty authors never answer a single Tweet, even one praising them, let alone any with criticism. They are too far above. It's not as if I need them to be my new best friends; I need them to answer maybe every 100th tweet to make me feel connected, but they are afraid, because what if they are called a "neo-con" or some other label?

I find that I'm more willing to give $5 to @LostinthePond, a funny YouTube channel, because the guy answers me or likes my responses. Normcore, a newsletter on Internet tech by a coder mom with several children, is run by a person who answers me. So I keep her subscription. It is all about that interactivity. Matt Yglesias in my mailbox every morning has turned out to be way too much Matt and whatever the value of his bail from Vox, it has to be said he is even to the left of Vox, wanting to establish socialism in one state, Massachusetts. No thanks. The silos are silos, they are opinionated, with no adult supervision once they exit their mainstream media, and they don't want to talk to you, the little guy. I noticed in 10 years, Matt has never answered a single query or comment from me on Twitter. We are invisible, we non-chekists.

In the old days, there were magazines like "The Nation" or "Commonweal" or "Dissent" or "New Politics" which constituted a range across Alcove 1 and 2, Trotskyists to Communists, etc. and there were what we called "parties," that is, you went to somebody's loft, you discussed the issues of the day, before the Internet, when your conversation, which might be tentative and exploratory, wasn't recorded and sent out to millions to remain indelible for your lifetime as it is now on Twitter.

So of course the Internet tended to kill all that, and COVID finished it off. If there are newsletters in closed groups disappearing below the fold forever, never to be dredged up when someone is nominated for a government job, maybe that's a good thing. But it's like trying to find where the good parties are. You don't know, and only connections at work or friends or whatever will help you. 50 years ago, we subscribed to "Harper's" and "Atlantic" and "New Yorker" and the whole family ran to the mailbox to get them and read them and discuss them at dinner or at -- again, bridge parties, on the front porch, whatever. Of course there were the Salons of past centuries. So now I just sample from all the buffet in an effort to somehow create that "journal" which used to be such an obvious and coherent thing 50 years ago, 25 years ago, even 10 -- and now is gone.

Anonymous said...

Gosh this spawned interesting comments