The network effect of Big Tech comes for words
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.
Although I'm quite pleased with the centralizing dynamic you describe, and wish it all the best, I think there will still be a place for the small bloggers, operating halfway between Tumblr and Substack, writing which laser focus on their own unique obsession. Substack definitely has a streamlined and "solved" feel; it's like a literary quarterly, the BlogSpot / WordPress crowd making the zines one finds in coffee shops. Both are necessary.
As long as Substack continues to run the recommendations feature as it has been run so far - an organic outflow of particular writers' preferences - I see no problems for the future. But if they ever decide to bypass the human element and give algorithmic recommendations, the siloing you describe will be gone, and the end will be near.
A close analogy to Substack's model would be Dostoyevsky's "Writer's Diary", the magazine he wrote and published entirely by himself from 1877-1881. I assume he still referred to himself as a "writer", probably also a "journalist."
Love this. I resonate on a gut level with the sense that something is growing here. My own experience with the platform looks something like this:
- 12 months ago: Started reading one Substack (the author relocated there for the liberty it afforded). Loved the lack of ads, the no-pressure sense of community, the weekly inbox dings to look forward to, the professional look.
- 6 months ago: Began a 10-month research grant (long story, won't get into that here).
- 3 months ago: Realized writing publicly would be a great way to supplement said research grant.
- And as of today I write weekly, read Glenn Greenwald AND Heather Cox Richardson and about 20 other Substacks.
And I feel mildly insulted when referred to as a "blogger".
Long live online writers.
This article could have been written about Amazon, particularly Amazon's publishing arm KDP (Kindle Direct Publishing). The rise of self-publishing has completely upended the traditional world of publishing, and this trend was and is still being spear-headed by Amazon. In many genres the percentage of books bought that are self-published exceeds those that are traditionally published. Self-published romance, science-fiction, fantasy, and mystery books have come to dominate their genres - so much so that a literary agent in conversation with my friend admitted that traditional publishing houses in fantasy have effectively ceded 'popular' fiction in those genres to focus on finding new 'literary' writers that will spark conversation in other ways. That same literary agent - a big-name in the fantasy field - had never heard of Will Wight, a friend and colleague of mine who goes to #1 in the entire Amazon Kindle store (this is all books, a market that is 85% of all ebooks sold in America . . . and to further drive home how impressive this is, realize ebooks make up 50% of all fantasy sold. You can get a sense of how popular he truly is) whenever he launches a pre-order for his next book. Right now the pre-order for his newest book is #2 on all of Audible. The powers that be in publishing have buried their heads in the sand and refuse to even acknowledge the self-published authors that are absolutely eating their lunch. Now, say what you will about quality, which is obviously variable (there are no gatekeepers, after all) but this has been a tremendous boon to writers. In 2017, over 1,000 self-published writers just through KDP made over 100k USD - that excludes audio books or other ebook stores - and that number has certainly increased dramatically over the last 5 years. By cutting out several layers of middle-men writers have been able to capture more of what they deserve for their creations. Authors have always been relegated the scraps of the fruits of their labors . . . but self-publishing changes that equation.
You mentioned the idea of centralization in your essay, but with self-publishing we can look at it from several angles. Yes, self-published works are published through a few large ebook stores (Amazon, iBooks, Nook, etc) but prior to this revolution the vast amount of fiction bought in the English-language book world was published by a few massive publishing houses (previously the Big 5, now 4). A handful of editors and agents controlled what fiction pretty much all Americans read. That's changed. Now readers are far more in control of the fiction they consume. By knocking down those gates, we've found that the fiction being funneled to the reading public wasn't necessarily what they preferred. It's now glaringly apparent that incredibly popular subgenres were ignored by traditional publishers because they didn't conform to what a few editors thought we should all be reading. Honestly, I find it liberating.
Sorry if anything here was incoherent while writing this I've been trying to keep a kitten from chewing through my computer cords.
I agree with the premise of the essay, and centralization on Substack overall is a wonderful thing. However, even if they can remain a neutral party platform, they are never completely safe. Domain registrars are under very strict regulation when it comes to censorship, but hosting providers are not. The largest hosting cloud provider, AWS, very much has their finger on the destruct button for any customer who steps outside the boundaries of what they consider acceptable use. Now consider all of the third party vendors or services beyond hosting that a company like Substack might use, which are required for business operations. Contracts these days often stipulate conditions open to interpretation that allow for easier termination of the relationship. These third parties could bury Substack in legal costs should Substack choose to sue before it would ever matter.
It's the one primary disadvantage to centralization. You become a target.
Growth will skyrocket when Google starts indexing and serving Substack pages as well.
(Just like what happened with Reddit in the past.)
Great article btw Erik!
Substack works because the business model is transparent- we give you the infrastructure to get paid subscribers for your writing and in return we take a slice. Simple. No ads, no mysterious algorithms, no Skinnerite strategies to manipulate you into maximising time on app (whether as a creator or as a consumer).
Under these conditions quality can thrive, rather than clickbait. Therefore substack attracts the best writers and becomes prestigious. Which mimetically reinforces itself. And so everyone wins, at least for now.
I’m quietly optimistic about it all- Lord knows I’ve made more money and reached a wider audience with stranger and less ‘optimised for engagement’ essays than I ever did as a blogger or direct newsletter sender.
Yes, 'online writer' is actually very good, and not at all pompous; and as a pointer to one's substack, to be able just say 'online writing @ whateveryoursubstackis.substack.com (I assume no such substack exists) is so nice and handy. There's some change happening in reading and writing, for certain.
I sometimes think what we're evolving towards is differing media serving differing cognitive architectures for reading and writing: I know some really great tweeters who are not really very good extended-form or long-form writers; now there's room for everyone - the aphorist (tweets); essayist (blogger/substacker); etc.
This post makes me sad, mainly because I'm afraid you might be right. One of my primary motivations for working on The Sample has been to create a network between readers and writers that can be tapped into by anyone, regardless of what app or publishing platform they're using. It is unclear if I'll be able to scale it and continue working on it full-time though.
IMO one of the biggest hindrances to decentralization efforts is that people who work on them often are too motivated by the tech or the idealogy, without focusing enough on the practical everyday benefits. The practical benefits of centralization are clear, as you've articulated; whereas it takes an enormous amount of effort just to stay even on ease-of-use with decentralized solutions (for example, all the effort I've put into supporting 1-click subscribes on The Sample...).
As such I've put a lot of thought into the "why" behind decentralization; is there something there that makes it really worth trying to fight against the hurricane as you say? Or should I just go work for Substack 🙂?
My current line of thinking is that the primary benefit of decentralization is that it enables experimentation. It's like the exploit vs. explore tradeoff, or in evolution the tension between optimizing for your current environment vs. being ready to adapt to new environments. I like the idea of anyone being able to experiment with new types of reading and writing experiences, not just people who work at Substack.
Take algorithmic recommendations for example: many people (and in particular, Substack) hate them; I personally think they can be a tool for good. The only reason I was even able to get The Sample off the ground is because lots of people still use a decentralized system for reading (email). If everyone exclusively used the Substack app for reading--which only supports Substack newsletters, RSS notwithstanding--The Sample wouldn't have been possible.
Whether or not adaptiveness/the ability to experiment is valuable enough to spend a career on, I don't know. My current line of thinking is that it's not really an either/or, rather there will always be centralized and decentralized systems coexisting to various degrees, and it's worth having people try to support both types of systems and let the optimal "overall system" emerge on its own. Since I like tinkering with different ways of doing things, I'll probably keep working on decentralized systems--they may never have as large of a direct impact as Substack and other centralized systems, but I'll be happy as long as I can make a living from it, and maybe if I come up with any good ideas I can convince larger platforms to adopt them 🙂.
This makes lots of sense honestly cause recently, I've been noticing that I'm wayyy more excited when my favorite substackers post a newsletter (ex. you, sasha) than when my favorite youtubers do. Theres something to be said about that sort of thing I think. Definitely can see substack being a new "cultural growth industry" thing like YouTube but for writers and that's super exciting!
Completely agreed. In the past I would click a link to a blog post, read the post and think it was interesting, and then probably never read that writer again. Now that approximately 100% of such posts have a convenient button to add the writer to my substack feed with one click, I will almost always do so and see all their subsequent posts. I have concerns about centralization, but I can’t deny that my behavior as a reader strongly contributes to it.
Substack is what I have always wanted as a writer and a reader. It’s finally the social media for those who like to write and read!!!! Consider me a die-hard fan.
Gosh, I hope you're right. The advantage of Substack is that it's goals are aligned with the goals of the writers. I worry that it will go the same way as a lot of previous platforms, though, because it'll become saturated with people who will devalue it. Perhaps the silo protects from that, I don't know.
It seems that Substack has more in common with Shopify than Medium, where the platform made it easier to create and sell and took advantage of good timing. The downside is that the Shopification of e-commerce has turned me off to many brands using it, as it feels designed to game me. Other have posted that they are annoyed by newsletters that aren't on Substack, but I wonder how much it will take in bloated features and capturing of attention will flip that feeling?
I feel human beings prefer centralization over decentralization, mainly because we like to have the number to call or somebody to complain about.
The only worry I have with substack is that the longer I stay, the stickier it will get and the harder it will be to leave and set up something independent (eg. Repost everything on a private blog).
It's all good today, but who knows what is behind the curve?