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A Defence of Substack

Initially I thought Wired's article 'Substack Is Now a Playground for the Deplatformed' was going to be another hit piece at a non-mainstream platform that happens to be less moderated than social media. It poses instead the question 'The company’s CEO says the old way of social media is broken—but is his alternative much different?'

This is actually a good question, and I think the answer is yes - Substack is demonstrably better than social media for articulating one's ideas and opinions. Even 'alt-tech' social media has the same inherent problems as the mainstream services: Minds.com, just to give one example among several, still has a scoring system that determines which posts are promoted or buried, depending on who might be dumb enough to pour actual money into some NFT scheme. Alternatives to Twitter are just as likely to represent a narrow perspective. And they're based around the same 'microblogging' UI design.

But the Wired article's title is a little deceptive, as the focus isn't on the many reasons why authors are leaving the mainstream for Substack, but rather the revenue model that's supposed to keep Substack and its contributors in business. As you probably know, writers can limit their posts to paid subscribers, and Substack takes 10% of the subscription.

I started using Substack for an entirely unrelated reason, sometime last year. After looking into its viability as a newsletter service for a client, I found it pretty attractive as a blogging platform. Maybe it's the simplicity of the interface. It does lack what I consider to be a couple of core features: Being able to tag posts and search for them would be nice. As a reader, I often find the quality of journalism, opinion and analysis much better on Substack than elsewhere.

Where the revenue model is concerned, the Wired article points out that only a handful of high-profile authors are making a reasonable income from what they publish, and quotes one Kleis Nielsen, who is a journalism expert at the University of Oxford:

'The digital media economy reinforces the already very strong winner-takes-most dynamics that exist in the media marketplace, [...] You quickly end up where the benefits accrue to the platform and a limited number of very prominent voices.'

This isn't the case here. High-profile contributors are being paid generous financial incentives to publish on Substack, and much (if not most) of that money is still venture capital, so it's not clear how much is being made from the content itself. Substack also offers grants to help writers publish as a full-time job (if such a thing is possible), and it does email its users with reading suggestions from lesser-known bloggers.

Censorship and Moderation

That Substack pays considerable advances to prominent contributors has led to claims that certain political/ideological views are being promoted. It's more likely that the authors are being paid simply because they had already acquired a large audience elsewhere.

I think the call for censorship and 'moderation' is a consequence of being too conditioned by social media, which encourages outrage and a prevailing attitude of intolerance of different perspectives. In other cases, it seems the mainstream media is trying to discourage the publication of information and ideas that question its flimsy narratives. The result is that opinions on all sides merely become more entrenched.

This is why we should be encouraging the use of Substack and other platforms like them, where some level of equality exists among authors, and there is an equal opportunity - generous payments aside - to question things and advance the best arguments possible for why certain perspectives might be incomplete or wrong. Substack is (currently) far more democratised, and it doesn't have the same reputation as YouTube for 'demonetising' content creators for publishing content that isn't deemed 'advertiser-friendly', or for promoting and burying content according to some algorithm. If there are readers willing to pay a subscription for decent quality journalism, analysis and opinion pieces, the money is there.

And we're not even reliant on Substack or any one company for this. Alternatives exist, such as Ghost, which is kind of a low-grade, but quite usable system that includes a paid subscription method, and can be deployed on any Web server.