Substack Lock-In

Probably the closest publishing platform to the one I’m using — Ghost — is Substack. Although Substack is much more popular for a few reasons, not the least of which is the low barrier-to-entry (it’s free if you are not charging for your publication), it has come under quite a bit of scrutiny lately. There was a big push to get writers to abandon the platform after The Atlantic posted an article asserting that there were many Nazi publications using the platform to spread and even monetize their ideas. A prominent tech journalist named Casey Newton, who was using Substack, led the charge to get the company to amend its content moderation policies. After not getting complete success with his campaign, Newton took his publication, Platformer, to Ghost. Substack did, however, remove five accounts (out of the six that Newton reported) that were distributing Nazi material in accordance with its existing policies about violent speech. Many writers opined that this was the bare minimum that Substack could do to quell the outrage that was being directed at them.

Despite the outrage, though, no one, including Newton, ever really came out with compelling evidence that there was a major content problem on Substack. The six accounts that were reported to Substack were among hundreds of thousands on the platform. Nor did the people criticizing the moves that Substack took ever really specify what concrete actions they were seeking. Some worried that Substack making content moderations was a slippery slope and that writers who weren’t associated with Nazi speech would be the next targets. So the furor eventually died down.

Now, the latest source of upset with Substack is that they recently created a separate category of followers for blogs that are not tied to subscriptions. People are worried that this will create lock-in, as a publisher can export their subscribers, but cannot export their followers. Andrea Grimes (presumably no relation to Elon Musk’s mistress and baby mama, Grimes) writes about the change, comparing the move with something Twitter would do.

But when Substack tanks — and I think its right-wing, Musk-flavored, tech-bro-brained management indicates that it will — it won’t just mean losing the audience for our 280-character late-night gummy jokes and covfefe memes. It won’t just mean losing a huge community of colleagues and readers. It will mean losing a substantial portion of the audience for content that takes a hell of a lot more effort to produce — the thoughtful rants, the reported deep-dives, the serial fiction, the smart criticism. And without access to follower” lists and emails, there will be no way to find them again. Writers will, once again, have to rebuild from near-scratch elsewhere.

It does seem like a concern, and some major publications are reporting that their subscriber growth has dropped off since the changes were made. It’s also the latest controversy about the company to get people all riled up (a trend that started way before the Nazi scare). Given the reactive nature of many writers who are terminally online, I think it’s safe to suggest a wait and see approach.


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