How Substack has lost its mojo

Nintil has this delightful guest post

Consider SlateStarCodex, one of the most popular blogs in a pre-Substack era. It had posts ranging from political science fiction, to pharmacology, to artificial intelligence, to media economics. That’s not a selective assortment, it’s his last few posts in chronological order.Heterogeneity works for blogs since you grow through an occasional viral hit, and gain loyal readership through the occasional post that strikes a reader just right

I’ll be going through this critical blog post to highlight a few important points; especially for those who are considering to set up a “newsletter”. Building audience is tough. You have to spend hours on a platform before you can accumulate those “virtual” likes only to inflate your pseudo self-esteem.

Newsletters will eventually get slotted in a single variance- especially if you have to write daily to provide value. Ben Thompson is a wonderful writer (Stratecherry) that costs $100 per year. Beyond a specific point, his writing became stale on a daily basis wherein he started defending his choice of Apple products and evolution of iPod to iPhone. He hammered on same themes repeatedly. It may serve value for someone expecting to get sectoral insights for investments, for example, but insufficient variance impelled me lose interest. Although, I do have “subscribers” here but I have no idea where you come from, what your background is and whether you are interested in reading about what I write. My blog remains the place where I explore ideas by writing and its individual decision to agree or disagree. If you are reading it through a newsletter, you are welcome to delete and move on to the next. (these options came by default on the wordpress.com hosting and I believe they own the complete list too).

Despite my misgivings, it’s pretty clear that Substack isn’t going away. The internet had the last 20 years to figure out sustainable monetization for blogs, and largely failed. Like most digital and creative work, blogging has zero cost of distribution, which means that revenue follows a power law. Outside of a few tremendously popular writers, it’s not possible to fund yourself through ads, grants and patronage.

In the language of Ben Thompson, Substack has two choices. It can become a full fledged aggregator, build network effects and community, personalized content and so forth, but risk the moral purity of being one of the last ad-free algorithm-free corners of the internet, or it can become a platform, provide valuable infrastructure and flexible pricing for writers at scale, and operate as a cheap service for small writers while benefiting from the upside of the huge successes

Ah, aggregator. Thompson’s favourite analogy to explain everything. As I mentioned- building up the network affects costs significant investment of resources. There are many newsletters on Substack that I get through RSS feeds and discovered only because I follow the Substack blog. If there is any hint of a paid subscription, I scoot away. I am not missing anything; therefore, it is likely that the Substack may use investor money to get recognisable names and create the classical FOMO (fear of missing out).

At the risk of veering into the extended metaphor of insight as porn (at least the latter does actually have infinite variety), or the worse and more general crank-dom lamenting the death of my culture and its replacement with the horrid youth culture, it is still worth speaking the obvious truth that having someone who is not your spouse feed their thoughts to you 5-days-a-week, thoughts that they themselves have only had a day to work on, thoughts which would likely go refined or unexpressed in a publication with longer-time horizons, is probably not good for your brain. That’s not a “weekly update”, it’s a parasocial relationship, it’s the same poison you get from every other one-sided social media platform.

This is exactly what I had been writing about- the idea of SoMe is only FOMO because an individual ends up believing that the ones “tweeting” out the most are effective. However, at what cost?

I have built up routine in a manner that allows me purse reading and writing at the same time. It didnt come easy to me but it meant automating the most boring part- even if I have to pay money to achieve the objectives, it is worth it.

I’d suggest staying clear of Substack or access it through RSS feeds. I track a couple of newsletters through this way and it is easier to glass over unimportant themes. If you are considering to start over some public broadcast medium to share your ideas, look no further than a blog.