Disintermediating the media with… Substack?

When you post a brainfart on Twitter and Jack Shafer replies saying, “I would read that piece,” you write it, so here goes.

Yesterday Mike Solana listed Signal, Bitcoin, and Substack under the heading “anti-authoritarian tech stack,” and asked what else belonged. I said that while I love what Substack is doing right now, I’m afraid it could end in tears. Why? When something ends in tears it’s almost always due to unmet expectations, and right now the expectations being put on Substack are pretty high.

Substack has built a fantastic platform for independent writers to not only reach their audiences directly, but to support themselves financially while doing so without having to depend on increasingly stultifying media institutions. As a result, Substack is not incorrectly seen as a great option for heterodox writers who might otherwise find themselves homeless. So. not seconds after Andrew Sullivan and Bari Weiss announced they were leaving their respective perches, the predictions and encouragements that they would or should go to Substack came rolling in.

And Substack has encouraged the perception of itself as an open platform for heterodox expression. The day after Weiss’s and Sullivan’s announcements, Substack announced a new “legal support program for independent writers” pledging to “use our financial and legal resources to vigorously oppose any bad-faith efforts to dissuade Substack writers from doing their work.” That is truly wonderful, and I am very glad to see many writers begin to realize that there are viable alternatives available to them. Not surprisingly, Sullivan announced yesterday that he would be starting a Substack newsletter and podcast.

The possible letdown, however, is that there is nothing in Substack’s technical or legal design that guarantees that it will remain a tolerant home for heterodox writers. I have no reason to think it won’t, and I hope it does, but there’s no guarantee, and more than once in the past I’ve seen corporations change their attitudes contra expectations. Tears ensued.

From a technical perspective, Substack does not belong on Solana’s list next to Bitcoin and Signal. Signal is a company, but they have almost no information about their users—no names, no messages. Bitcoin is not a company, but instead a permissionless decentralized network, and “it” can’t decide who can use it or for what. Substack, on the other hand, is a centralized service that permissions who’s allowed on and what they can do, and it is subject to official and market pressures.

From a legal perspective, Substack is no different from YouTube or Twitter. You can create an account with the service at their pleasure, and you must agree to its terms of service to do so. Those terms are not very different from other platforms and include prohibitions on hate speech, as well as content that promotes “harmful” activities. How these terms are interpreted is essentially up to Substack, though I have no doubt that today they would interpret them very liberally. Things can change, though. Substack has 18 employees listed on LinkedIn. I imagine it will be a different company when it grows large enough to need an HR department, or if it were to get acquired by some behemoth.

That’s why some (like Balaji Srinivasan) have been suggesting Substack alternatives like Ghost, which can be installed on one’s own server so that a writer can have a direct relationship with their readers. Ultimately a service like Substack (or Medium or YouTube or Twitter) is an intermediary between you and your readers for both content distribution and payments processing. That can be great for folks who want to focus on their research and writing and want to outsource the rest of their business, but this is were expectations come in: you have to understand the risk. Having ownership and control over my own content is a big part of why I blog on my own platform, and I’m willing to make certain tradeoffs for that.

As some responses to Solana made clear, though, even I am at the mercy of my hosting provider and other miscellaneous intermediaries. To be truly independent and censorship-resistant, we’ll want platforms that are fully decentralized, and I don’t think we’re too far off from these being viable options for mainstream writers. If you’re curious, check our IPFS and Urbit.

In the meantime, subscribe to my Substack newsletter here. You won’t regret it.