Elon Musk's Substack ban was needless drama. Where did the adults go?
On the petulance of our public figures
You didn’t hear from me last week because, right as I was about to publish, links to Substack were banned on Twitter. Shortly after, everything I’ve written here on The Intrinsic Perspective—all ~222,000 words, or about three books worth—was labeled as “spammy or unsafe” by Twitter.
When the trouble first started I thought it must be a mistake, so I held off publishing, wondering what was going on. It seems as if Elon was provoked into these actions by Substack (the company) releasing a new feature called Notes. I personally didn’t even know what Notes was—on Friday it had just launched, was invite only, and had effectively no user base. It looks like this:
Personally, I’m not clamoring for it. I want Substack to be about the writing, and this expansion looks, well, a lot like Twitter, and Twitter is a terrible place. In response to this beta that no one besides a few Substack writers had access to, Twitter (presumably under Elon’s direction or knowledge) started by ordering a ban on Tweets being embedded on Substack drafts (which is what first made me suspect a problem) and then continued to escalate with more and more dramatic punishments.
Likely Elon felt Notes was too obviously a competitor, or maybe he put in an offer for Substack’s acquisition and was angry at its rejection. Who knows? But after the ban on Twitter embeds, the next day Twitter banned interaction with all Substack links. Next banned was all interaction if you mentioned Substack’s handle on Twitter—@SubstackInc.
After complaints about the Substack ban went viral, I discovered that you couldn’t even search for the latest uses of the word “substack” anymore for several hours on Friday, part of the attempt within Twitter to throttle the subject (my own initial Tweet about the issue, which had accumulated a million views by that afternoon, also noticeably fell off in engagement during those hours).
After people noticed that the word “substack” returned nothing, suddenly searches for the word “substack” began to return results for “newsletter” instead—it seemed as if Twitter was reaching into all our keyboards. Surely you meant to type "newsletter,” my friend!
There were even rumors that using the word “substack” would tank distribution of your tweets, even if you didn’t link or tag anything. The last move in this sequence, the nuclear option of labeling writers like myself unsafe, felt almost vengeful (especially since other websites beyond Twitter algorithmically notice such labels and downgrade accordingly, at least, that’s my understanding).
With as little warning, the ban on interaction with Substack links and the label of them being harmful was lifted on Saturday afternoon (although as of today, the term “substack” is still unsearchable on Twitter, meaning that my own writing is still difficult to search for, since this is a substack domain). So what was the point? Because frankly, being on the receiving end, it all came off as petty.
Now, I understand that some will leap to Elon’s defense on this, pointing out that he’s under no obligation to allow a competitor onto his platform and this was a warning shot. They might even say this is some sort of lover’s quarrel wherein Twitter is trying to buy Substack, or that this is all Substack’s fault for releasing a potential competitor. Fine. None of that is really relevant to what I’m saying here. This whole debate already played out in December when Elon initially banned Mastodon. However, that policy was quickly reversed after widespread outrage and suggestions the move may have been legally problematic. According to CNN at the time:
Now, legal experts are pondering whether there may be anticompetitive or other regulatory implications arising from Twitter’s blocking of Mastodon links.
“You could see all sorts of problems, both from a competition and a consumer protection standpoint,” said Bill Baer, who has served as the former top antitrust official at the Justice Department and at the Federal Trade Commission across two separate US administrations.
We have the precedence that Mastodon—another Twitter clone, except with a larger user base than Notes—can be linked. Facebook can be linked. Instagram can be linked. Even Tik Tok can be linked. And certainly, the names of competitors can at least be searched for. So it seems the rules were changed on a whim. It makes one wonder: is it really the move of a platform, rather than a publisher, to throttle the virality of news that concerns its own behavior? I don’t know the answer to that, but it’s worth asking. Additionally, this ban went against statements made after Elon’s initial attempt at banning competitors, in the aftermath of which he promised there would be open debates on such policies going forward:
On Monday, Twitter walked back the new policy completely, deleting the support page that once outlined the anti-competition rule. Musk said future policy changes would be put to a vote by Twitter’s users.
Elon finally gave a brief explanation of Twitter’s behavior—as far as I know, the only one—on Saturday morning in a reply to Bret Weinstein about journalist Matt Taibbi, claiming that Substack links were never blocked.
Regarding the first point of Substack not being blocked—while technically correct, it brings to mind a kid on a schoolbus saying “I’m not touching you! I’m not touching you!” while holding a finger in front of someone’s face. It’s also ironically identical to the claim that Twitter’s previous owners made in front of Congress when they said they never shadowbanned accounts, although they did happily throttle activity and engagement, they just didn’t call it “shadowbanning.”
A response from one of the co-founders of Substack on Notes said that Substack has used the Twitter API for years, and that Matt Taibbi isn’t an employee, he just, like me, is able to write independently due to paying subscribers.
I’m not here to comb through a dispute between two companies, or say Substack was in the right about everything. As I said, I’m not very excited about a Twitter clone from Substack anyways. And regarding the second claim about whether Substack scraped Twitter in some unusual way: maybe they did, I can’t say. But the Notes beta had already launched when all this happened, and besides, Twitter itself gets scraped for data all the time by a bunch of sources and passes out tokens candy-like for an API that allows for that. Most obviously, presumably the actual .substack links labeled unsafe were not the source of the scraping, making this proposed reason tenuous. Whatever.
What I’m emphasizing is the way Twitter’s response unfolded. The extreme nuclear option of labeling me and other writers as unsafe was (from what I could tell as I watched events unfold live) slapped on after people got mad at the initial ban of interaction with Substack links on Twitter itself. And after throttling discussion of the subject on Twitter failed to quell debate. And after Twitter started replacing one search term with another. So only after several steps of escalation, and increasing outrage, was the evil of Substack’s alleged sin of earlier data-scrapping Twitter realized and acted upon—quite convenient timing!
Now, maybe Elon has indeed forced some concessions out of Substack behind closed doors. Maybe the two announce a deal next month, or maybe Notes is now never released, and it turns out this was all a business success (or, you know, not, given the amount of free publicity generated for Notes). But even the most charitable defense of “It was all 4D business Chess and definitely not just because Elon got increasingly annoyed and therefore kept upping the punishments over the hours” isn’t that great. In fact, it winds up the same as saying that: yes, if you own a social media company, you can use your invisible thumb on the scales, applied without warning and without bounds or signature, to threaten and cajole. It doesn’t change that the actual process, as someone on the receiving end of it can attest to, was haphazard.
A more sane way to do all this would have been to announce clearly that Twitter was banning interaction with Substack links, and would have explained why (blamed Substack, talked about competitors copying, whatever), would have respected the past promise to vote on changes (or at least explained why this was irrelevant), and would have pointed to how this radical move fit with either old policy or was the first example of a new updated policy. It certainly wouldn’t have involved releasing the only information about what Twitter was doing during a reply feud over Matt Taibbi. While I would have disagreed strongly with such a move, I wouldn’t have felt it as autocratic and temperamental, more just unnecessarily competitive and ridiculous (and perhaps questionably legal or at least unethical, given Twitter’s marketing as a free speech town square). I and other writers wouldn’t have felt like sinners in the hands of an angry child yelling “Ban this!” “No, ban that!” “Ban even mention of the bans!” “Punish them! Punish them in every way possible!”
Then, after a night’s sleep: “Whoops!”
This whole drama—and the saga really deserves the term—got me thinking more broadly: there’s been a lot of talk and thought put in by people like Jonathan Haidt concerning how social media is ruining the mental health of teenagers, particularly girls. But what about adults?
Because one thing I’ve noticed is that there is a hell of a lot more dramatic behavior since 2010 and the great social media take-off. Everything seems wild, barely controlled, and unsignaled—i.e., it seems emotional. In fact, I’d go so far as to say that many of the people who were adults prior to social media now act a lot more like children. Which is why when I go to summon up the main movers and shakers of our culture I find a line-up filled with a significant number of people who occasionally act like petulant toddlers.
It wasn’t always like this. Elon himself is proof of this. His successes, like building the first reusable rockets and heading the first major electric vehicle company, have been objectively spectacular. E.g., Tesla cars have a fuel economy roughly 5x better than the cars any other major company, and I’m still going to watch the next Starship launch later this month.
That's the Elon Musk I want.And I'll admit: he gets a lot of unfair attacks, as do all public figures. But it does seem as if he's become more and more distorted in the depths of a dramatic whirlpool over the recent years. Like today he appears to be multiple steps deep in a fight with his landlord over whether he’s allowed to make Twitter’s sign read “titter” in downtown San Francisco.
This in turn feels like just part of a broader trend of cultural figures all going the same way.
Perhaps one reason behind the omnipresent rise of childishness, which in my eyes spares almost no one, is because public figures are attacked so regularly and with such fierceness now. I myself have felt this at times, mostly when using Twitter, although I’ve been attacked to a far lesser degree than someone actually famous (I can’t even imagine the amount of hate someone like Elon gets every minute). Still, the sensation is the same: Why not write a dunk tweet? Why not go personal? After all, they attacked me. Me! Me! Me! Precisely not the way an adult should think, which is you. You, little one. You, partner. You, community. You, world. Sure, adults don’t always manage to live up to their adulthood—it’s not sainthood, after all—but what makes them an adult is that they’re always trying to make things more stable not just for themselves, but for the people around them, because the world itself is naturally unstable and adults are the force that counteracts that.
Here’s my bar for judging if someone acts like an adult: would you trust them as a Little League coach? Would you trust them not to, say, change the rules on a whim, or enter the game themselves, or showboat too much, or become randomly too dictatorial, effusive, competitive, or interfering? Would you trust them to run the games well and model appropriate winning/losing behavior? To not cheat? To not treat the kids like either their best friends or their pawns? To be both supportive but also reserved? To give the team an appropriate name and throw appropriate victory parties? That’s a low bar, but the number of our celebrities, CEOs, and politicians who don’t reach that bar is astounding. In a Little League headed by the most famous America has to offer there would be barely any difference between the coaches and the players. It would be exactly what our culture is: a circus.
Personally, my thesis is that the rise of social media is what’s behind most of our famous people acting like children. In “The Gossip Trap” last year I argued that social media was likely a resurrection of our first form of government, one based on raw social power, and one so horrible it took humans 100,000 years to climb out of it and start inventing civilization.
So either our crop of public figures always were this way, and social media selected them for greater fame, or social media made them this way by vigorously smoothing out the gyri and sulci of their brain with each notification beep. Regardless of how, in their personalities they have been transformed into Lilliputians, aging backwards like Benjamin Button right in front of our eyes.
Watching a child grow up and mature is one of the greatest privileges. Watching an adult get more immature? It’s not quite as fun. In fact, it absolutely sucks.
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Sometimes the claim is made that Elon is merely a rich figurehead who does nothing at his companies. I don’t believe that’s true. Here’s Elon giving a tour of Starbase in Texas, and handling with astounding facility two hours of unscripted expert-level rocketry questions. In my eyes, Elon is obviously very smart and his companies undeniably impressive. Although, it is perhaps worth asking if Elon has been successful at his own stated goal of “improving the fate of humanity?” After all, it was Elon who provided an initial 100 million in funding for OpenAI, and it was his name that attracted all the original talent. And now I, and Elon himself, are both very worried about the existential risk of a technological race toward more and more powerful AI, a race that OpenAI started using Elon’s money and his name. So honestly Elon’s impact on humanity, at least as judged by his own cosmic standards of existential boon or bane, might in expectation be kind of a wash right now, due to several significant positives but one big negative in terms of accelerating an AI race.
And I agree with your general feelings about Notes. Substack said that it will be better than Twitter because it will be funded by subscriptions, not ads, and I’m sure that’s true. I’m sure it will be better than Twitter for a lot of reasons, because Twitter is pretty bad. But that doesn’t mean I want Substack working on it. I would really prefer if Substack was a platform absolutely 100% dedicated to long-form content and small networks. Notes doesn’t help me as a writer, it only helps Substack bring in more users + revenue, and at the cost of focus being placed on the things that actually do help writers.
The Gossip Trap is the best single piece of writing I have encountered on Substack, so I have to say that I largely agree with your take here.
I want to share one point related to Notes . I was invited to test Notes in beta as a reader. I was initially skeptical, even slightly hostile, to the idea. I told the team as much in the product test that I did. I value Substack because it has connected me with writing that manages to deliver me into a state of reading flow--where I am immersed in the mind of another human. I even used your ideas from the Gossip Trap to write an analogy of how Substack delivers the best experiences of the middle school cafeteria--being together with your friends and exploring the world together--as opposed to the worst aspects, basically everything you're talking about in this post.
I'm not sure if Notes will stay this way, but thus far it has mostly recreated the aspects that I value about Substack but on a more interactive scale. For example, the other night I was having simultaneous discussions about basketball (with a writer I've read for 20 years) and free will (with someone I'd never seen before encountering them on Notes). It made me feel like a piece of technology was bridging a gap to enable meaningful human connection in a way that I haven't felt since the early 00s when I was a regular on a few random message boards.