Substack, the popular newsletter publishing platform with millions of subscribers, is at the center of a user quagmire in 2024: should we stay or should we go?
In a recent article from Atlanticthe platform was called a “time bomb” content moderation issues, which prompted several prominent blogs and writers to post scathing accusations against the site before ceremoniously leaving the platform.
The company has also faced other battles over the past year, including a brief feud with Elon Musk-owned X/Twitter. So why are users ushering in the new year by leaving the site now?
Users demand content moderation and accountability
In November 2023, the Atlantic published a investigation into growing white nationalist networks hosting alt-right and neo-Nazi blogs on Substack. Apparently contrary to the terms of service that prohibit hate on the platform, the frequently anti-Semitic blogs generated steady revenue for both publishers and Substack itself, which takes a cut of subscription revenue.
In response, hundreds of writers published an open letter to Substack to request an explanation. Later, another group of writers and fans published a letter in favor of subscriber freedom and oppose increased content moderation.
On December 21, Substack co-founder Hamish McKenzie uploaded a blog post responding to protests over “fringe accounts”, saying: “I just want to make it clear that we don’t like Nazis either – we wish no one had those views. But some people have these and other extreme views. , we do not believe that censorship (including demonetization of publications) will make the problem go away – in fact, it will make it worse. »
As of January, Substack had removed only a few of the offending blogs reported by other users. Thus posed an age-old question on the Internet: to what extent should a platform – or a “content host”, in this case – intervene with its user base, and what kind of protection does it owe to those who browse its site?
Casey Newton, creator of the Silicon Valley news blog Platformer, announced on January 11 that the blog would leave Substack due to ongoing content moderation issues and the lackluster response from Substack maintainers to the removal of alt-right content. The post (captioned: “We’ve seen this movie before – and we won’t stand around to watch it unfold.”) also details his own efforts to have anti-Semitic blogs removed from the site.
“As all of this unfolded, I spoke twice with the co-founders of Substack. And although they requested that these conversations be off the record, from what I understand from our conversations – based on the material they had shared with me in writing – it was in the future that they would consider explicitly Nazi and pro-Holocaust material a violation of their existing policies,” Newton described of his efforts and those of his fellow Substack editors. “But on Tuesday, when I wrote my story about the company’s decision to remove five posts, this language was missing from their statement. Instead, the company presented the entire discussion as being about the handful of posts I had sent them for review. »
Other newsletter publishers, including a popular writer Ryan Broderick, were also disappointed by the response. In his announcement, Broderick wrote that Substack “has a habit of turning these, frankly quite basic, trust and safety issues into bizarre political fights that last for weeks.”
“Substack has faced occasional controversy over its laissez-faire approach to content moderation,” Newton explained. “The platform hosts a wide range of content that I find distasteful and offensive. But for a time, the distribution of this material was limited to those who had registered to receive it. In this regard, I have not seen the decision to host Platformer on Substack as being significantly different from hosting it on, say, GoDaddy. Substack’s aspirations now extend far beyond web hosting“.
Pure web hosting has fallen by the wayside
In addition to Substack executives’ questionable content decisions, many posts on the site have shared a distrust of the platform’s evolving mission and its impact on independent writers, a shift by compared to the site’s original marketing as an ambiguously defined content hosting site without the ambition of mainstream publishers and social media sites.
But in April 2023, Substack launched its Notes feature, a “Duped by Twitter“which allows Substack subscribers and editors to share articles, links, excerpts, and more, in a streamlined feed reflecting the X timeline.” Notes also marks the next step in our efforts to build our subscription network — a network that puts writers and readers in charge, rewards great work with money, and protects press freedom and free speech,” Substack wrote in a blog post at the time.
Meanwhile, the platform was under close scrutiny from financial journalists, following the revelation of the the 2020-2021 accounts of the platform (the numbers were grim). Substack had recently launched a site-wide program crowdfunding campaignalso generating over $7 million from users.
Some authors note that they believe the broad push for the “Substack network” — referring to the growing ties between its writing community, its subscription recommendations, and new features such as Notes — runs counter to the organic discovery and subscription models that inspired them to join. initially.
All of this signaled to many that the platform’s pure content hosting focus was changing, moving the site closer to the domain of an advertising social media company instead of an independent publishing route, fostering small communities of self-moderated readers. and writers.
As Newton warned in his original post, Substack:
” touts the value of its network of publications as one of the main reasons to use its product and has built several tools to promote this network. It encourages authors to recommend other Substack publications. It sends a weekly summary of publications for readers to consider subscribing. And last year it launched a Twitter-like social network called Notes that highlights posts from all over the network, whether or not you follow those writers. don’t use all of these features. Some of you may not have seen them. But I can speak to their effectiveness: we added over 70,000 free subscribers in 2023. Although I would like to attribute this growth exclusively to our journalism and analytics, I think we’ve seen first-hand how quickly and aggressively tools like these can grow a publication. And if Substack can grow a publication like ours that quickly, it can also develop other types of publications.
Where are people turning now?
Substack remains a popular site with writers, cultural commentators, film critics and even journalists, but disenchanted users are looking for alternatives. Some turn to other hosting sites like Ghost and Beehiiv, the Atlantic reports.
The decision is in your hands.