If I compare my experience on the web now to that of 15 or 20 years ago, the obvious difference is centralization. Almost everything has been centralized, from where I consume entertainment to where I listen to music to how I get my news to how I interact with other web denizens. That the internet trends inexorably to centralization is neither a good or bad thing, more like a force of nature—one might as well argue with a hurricane.
Of course, there’s been a lot of bad from this tendency. Centralization is why spying on your privacy is such big business, centralization is what forces culture wars, and it is sometimes the creation of a strangling monopoly that can lead to stagnation. Over the past 15 years, centralization of the web has concentrated discourse into a small number of companies, who often abuse their power with impunity.
But centralization on the web has had some obvious positive effects as well—ease of use, the beautification of user-interfaces, the streamlining of communication, the streamlining of basically everything. There’s a really good reason why centralization happens, which is that it is, from a user’s experience, preferable. And decentralization has its downsides: it is terrible for throughput, for audience building, for reaching critical mass. Of course, something like Bitcoin takes precise advantage of these things by being slow and ponderous as a tradeoff for being immutable, but writing, well, writing serves a different master.
If you hadn’t noticed (and you probably have—you’re here, after all) a lot of writing has migrated to Substack, precisely for the reasons of UI and UX and ease and audience onboarding. A lot. And Substack appears to be winning the “newsletter wars,” e.g., Twitter recently announced they’d be pulling staff off the supposed Substack-competitor, Revue.
It used to be that some of the earlier Substack authors were outcasts looking for a place to go, specifically attracted to the company’s free speech philosophy, and therefore in the media’s perception Substack has traditionally been portrayed as leaning Right (most-used examples include authors like Glenn Greenwald and Matt Tiabi). But by now these writers are small potatoes on the platform, and the biggest Substacks are firmly on the political Left—e.g., Heather Richardson, at the staunchly liberal Letters from an American, pulls something like five times the numbers of Glenn Greenwald in terms of engagement. That is, Substack is truly a “big tent” wherein both Patti Smith and Curtis Yarvin live comfortably (ignoring one another at the hors d'oeuvre table). As Vanity Fair recently put it:
In addition to Smith, several other literary lions have joined Substack (Salman Rushdie, George Saunders, Roxane Gay, Chuck Palahniuk, Joyce Carol Oates), which has also begun to attract celebrities of varying stripes (Padma Lakshmi, Nick Offerman, Dan Rather, Edward Snowden, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar). In February, President Joe Biden bypassed the long queue of print reporters clamoring for a sit-down and offered one instead to Heather Cox Richardson, the breakout history professor who became Substack’s most-read writer last year.
It’s interesting that writers who I grew up reading are now joining Substack (a recent find of mine: Mary Gaitskill). What is going on is that an old beast long neglected, writing itself, has finally been given a means of online centralization. The same thing that happened to video with YouTube, to social connection with Facebook, to short-form messaging with Twitter, to email with Gmail, to music with Spotify. And we writers, croaking, bearing cliffs of earth on our backs like turtles coming out of hibernation in spring, are being drawn toward it.
This is, I think, a very good thing. Substack is an alternative means of engagement with the web—it is centralized but, importantly, siloed. If you want Heather Richardson, go read her there, and if you want Glenn Greenwald, go read him there, and never the twain shall meet. We don’t all have to be crammed, hothouse like, into a tiny room of people screaming at one another. We can simply. . . coexist. A radical concept, I know. But coexistence, the forging of spaces, of room to breathe, is precisely what is missing from the Forever War that is online life, a war with combatants wielding highly-evolved linguistic weapons that are handed down by the lieutenants of their side to fire at one another across the trenches. In comparison Substack, albeit be it massively centralized when judged against the old collection of boutique shop-stands of websites and bloggers, is actually a form of centralized decentralization—a partitioning force, a digital federalism.
When writing is “decentralized” it just means it’s spread weakly out across the internet, it means different outlets and blogs and webpages all scrounging for attention via a thousand different streams—all of them used to living on the scraps, unprepared for the torrent of attention that centralization will bring. Neither RSS feeds nor hand-rolled email lists onboard the user into an ecosystem where everything has the same rules, the same ways of liking and commenting and subscribing, nor the same format, UI, layout, and mechanisms; not to mention signing up for Substack is incredibly fast, your account is just your email, etc, which, put together, makes the whole thing deeply convenient and seamless. It seems there is some tipping point of convenience whereafter centralization onto a single ecosystem becomes inevitable, where posting videos on YouTube becomes the default, rather than one choice among many. I think Substack is at that tipping point for writing. A bunch of feet tiptoeing on a massive hanging scale, occasionally some shuffling over to one side.
Just a little more. . . left!
If this centralization I am now expecting does come to pass, and the effects compound with scale in the same way that social media compounds with scale, there is the problem of what to call those who make the move. “Blogging” has some old-school connotations. It is humble, and honest, but almost self-effacing, as there are many for whom it also brings to mind LiveJournals, along with a certain self-obsession. Is Salman Rushdie really a “blogger” now? What about Joyce Carol Oates? This sums it up for me:
I myself prefer “online writer.” A bit pompous, and perhaps overly specific, but right to the point. Substacker is fine, but too specific, and a bit un-sexy. If you are sitting next to someone on an airplane, and they ask what you do, “online writer” is likely the best way to immediately communicate to them what it is you actually do. If you say “blogger” they will generally assume that you are blogging your day-to-day, like a “vlogger”—they might even ask if you’re going to write about them! (The import people place on themselves, even for trivialities, cannot be overestimated; normally I avoid all this by saying I’m a scientist). I think as the centralization gyre widens, drawing more and more writers into its gravity well, terms like “blogger” will become anachronisms, even if we keep using them. And I suspect eventually we will simply start calling everyone on Substack “writers.”
Again, all this is a good. For I’ve spent much time meditating on why the traditional publishing world is so difficult: perhaps the truth is the simple one, that everything is harder in a shrinking industry, and easier in a growing one. Most of the names of writers I admired were people who rode particular waves of literary fashions, that is, they were working in a period of what might be called cultural growth. Ultimately, they got lucky that the wave was occurring in their time and that they got to be a part of it. In this sense, they were very much like an entrepreneur taking advantage of a growth industry—they were determined to get involved in the thick of things, where it was changing fastest. I’m not sure if anything like that really happens anymore—the changes in literary taste seem to be getting smaller and smaller, more like ripples than waves. Oh, there’s still some, of course, but it feels extremely zero-sum, because there’s no wider growth; with only a limited portion of people buying books, for every person who buys some other book, they aren’t buying your book. And the total number of books Americans even read is declining.
This creates winner-take-all dynamics, which are quite vicious. As an example: while traditional writers will give blurbs to one another, imagine the decrying and gnashing of teeth if, right on the front cover of a book, there were recommendations for books by other authors. It’s basically unthinkable.
Yet the equivalent of this exists on Substack, with their new recommendation feature, which prompts sign-ups to immediately subscribe to other author-chosen Substacks. Right now, almost 100 other Substacks recommend The Intrinsic Perspective (unfortunately I can only recommend back a small portion of those, the ones I regularly keep up with). I’m truly honored that other writers do this. But I also think online writers are free with recommendations because they feel, deep down, that this is a growth industry, and that the audience is going to keep increasing, and that the more people on the platform the better, and that this is going to continue for a long while. It just doesn’t have the same feel as trying to carve up a smaller and smaller pie. So where is a “literary wave” in a “cultural growth industry” you can ride? Here. Probably here. Certainly, it’s the clearest I’ve seen in my lifetime. And one might wonder why it didn’t happen before for writing on the internet, given how adroitly we can manipulate, send, store, and share the written word, but I think that’s because the sort of Big Cultural Wave I’m talking about requires compounding, and a streamlined centralized service that’s reached its tipping point provides that.
And by the way, I’m aware this looks like a puff piece for Substack. But they themselves can’t come out and say “All writers, centralization is a good thing, centralize under me!” They’d sound despotic. Instead, I want to point out that almost everyone is radically underestimating the upsides of this centralization of writers onto one website, how powerfully it will amplify the voices of those who take advantage of it, and the benefits it will bring both authors and readers when Substack has hoovered up not just bloggers, but a significant portion of the traditional publishing world as well.
For me, the biggest tell on Substack's changing nature is how many accounts are shifting from read-only to reading & writing. A year ago, when the site was first blowing up and you looked at the comment section of a popular post, only a few people would have their own writing account. As I write this, there are 20 comments on the post and almost everybody has their own newsletter or blog pinned next to their name. There's a growing middle layer between absolute superstars and anonymous lurkers, and that's *huge* for the long-term success of any social media platform.
The recommendation feature and the substack feed feature are what is really going to secure it as the central hub of writing. The network effects are going to be too strong. It's now annoying if someone is not on substack for me. I don't really look at my RSS feed anymore.