The “future” of Substack

In one word: Wasteland. It is the Myspace of our generation, and for those who missed the initial bus, I am thrilled to announce that we are likely to see something similar roll out. Boom. Bust and crash. Though you wouldn’t hear the sound.

Substack is a sub-par blogging experience with a white-label news delivery and external third party service provider (Stripe). That’s it. Nothing more. So if they write about platitudes around “supporting journalism”, you need to be aware that it’s just PR speak. Its “meteoric” growth in the pandemic was because it happened to serve as a distraction from the Corona news cycle. It made “news” by advancing six figure sums to “large writers” (which they refuse to divulge). Hence, I wasn’t surprised NYT started making veiled attacks on this. After all, it impacted their addressable pool of potential subscribers. One subscriber to a “substack newsletter” is one less for the preachy “journalism” from New York Times. (Assuming you can call a tabloid or a “newspaper”).

Will Substack Go Beyond Newsletters? A Company Weighs Its Future. – The New York Times

Ben Thompson, whose tech-focused Stratechery newsletter inspired Substack, wrote last month that Substack has gone from being a “Faceless Publisher” behind the scenes to trying to put “the Substack brand front-and-center,” building up its app as a destination on the backs of writers.

“This is a way for Substack to draft off of their popularity to build an alternative revenue model that entails readers paying for Substack first, and publishers second, instead of the other way around,” Mr. Thompson wrote.

For those who need to build a personal brand, it won’t be feasible. You are just another writer on Substack. Like this is just another WordPress blog. However, I own the data if I ever need to migrate to another service, including the unique URL.

It is difficult, if not impossible, to make money if you are starting out – it means a content mass; a paid search listing in the future – much like the Apple App Store, which makes money on advertising by listing the apps higher on the search list. The fight will be on “discoverability”, which will be owned by Substack. Whether it’s written word/ podcast/ video or anything else. The writers need to be wary of building their audience on this platform, and then be shunted out like what Etsy did to its sellers. It raised the platform fees in excess of 30%, and then left the sellers with lesser take-away income. For those who depend on this for a living, you need to understand unbundling the experience – own the domain, own the hosting and have a local payment processor.

Elizabeth Spiers, a Democratic digital strategist and journalist, said she gave up her Substack last year because she did not have enough time or paying readers to justify her long weekly essays.

“Also, I started getting more paid assignments elsewhere, and it didn’t make a lot of sense to keep putting stuff on Substack,” she said.

Substacks’ underbelly is “moderation”. Wait till the mobs arrive crowing about the content there. It has already started:

But Substack’s biggest conflict has been over content moderation…

Critics say the platform recruits (and therefore endorses) culture war provocateurs and is a hotbed for hate speech and misinformation. Last year, many writers abandoned Substack over its inaction on transphobic content. This year, The Center for Countering Digital Hate said anti-vaccine newsletters on Substack generate at least $2.5 million in annual revenue. The technology writer Charlie Warzel, who left a job at The New York Times to write a Substack newsletter, described the platform as a place for “internecine internet beefs.”

I don’t give credence to self appointed “non-profits”, but it is bad PR when your company is “named and shamed”. There are bigger problems than “digital cultural wars” and is in a sense running away from real problems. Substack knows that its shilling business model is beatable – hence it padded up with cheap VC money.

For those who need to blog, examine alternatives to own your content and not run after the shiniest object. I’d recommend sticking to either WordPress or other upcoming independent blog platforms (or open source static site generators).

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