Yesterday, Substack announced they are launching a social app.
The announcement has created lots of buzz. Some people are thrilled with the announcement, others (like myself) are weary.
In this article, I will break down all the benefits and potential consequences of using the Substack app. In short: I don’t anticipate this ending well.
You can watch the announcement video below.
The vision for Substack
A few years ago, I was lucky enough to interview Hamish McKenzie on my podcast. Hamish is a co-founder of Substack.
Till this day, it has remained one of my favorite interviews. He explained to me his vision for Substack, and why he thought the subscription model was needed to save independent writing. I loved everything he said, and to a large extent, I still completely agree with him.
This was slightly before the explosion of Substack, and I knew then that his idea and his company was going to take off.
(I even asked if I could invest in his company, with no idea that they already closed a round with a16z. He politely declined my offer.😛)
Hamish’s motives are pure. He’s a true writer, and he believes in the power and need for writers that get paid to seek truth.
When Gonz reminded me about list ownership
A few week’s after my interview with Hamish, I had my friend Gonz on the podcast.
Gonz writes an amazing newsletter called Seedtable, which is a weekly update on the European tech scene. When talking to Gonz, he reminded me of something I already knew, which was that ultimately, Substack has large investors that need to make a return and when you build an audience on a third party platform like Substack, you run the risk of losing your audience.
On Substack (and any FREE third party platform) the audience is never actually yours, it’s Substack’s. They may say you have control over your list, but fundamentally, the email addresses that sign up for your list are stored in Substack’s database. Which means they can take them at any time, and there’s nothing you can do about it.
It’s a valid point, and it’s something I’ve always been mindful of. But still, I want to believe in Substack. I want to buy into the mission of supporting great writing.
I make myself feel better by reminding myself that if you want to, you can download and export your email list at any time. In addition, I remind myself that as company, they have been open and out in front of the censorship drama, and thus far have given all voices an equal opportunity to write, publish, and be seen.
Then, Codie Sanchez was blocked …
Last year, I read a thread from Codie that claimed she was blocked from her own Substack account and then she gave multiple reasons why building a business on property you own is so critical.
- the UX of Substack is very weak in comparison to a custom landing page you can design
- over time, third party platforms always move to power and consolidation of data
- they charge 10% of all fees (which is a lot)
I wasn’t surprised to read Codie’s thread, because it’s only a matter of time until platforms transition to consolidation. Their revenue depends on ratcheting attention. Codie was technically de-platformed because she promoted one of her paid products that Substack didn’t have a cut of.
Why the Substack app will succeed, for now …
Now that I have explored many of the downsides of Substack, it is important to look at the positive aspects as well.
- There’s no question that Substack has created a hybrid journalism culture which does a great job of promoting freedom of speech while giving writers a legitimate stream of income.
- The signup process for Substack is incredibly simple, which makes it easy for non technical writers (which is most of them) to sign up, create an account, and start building an audience.
- Creating a Substack account also gets you recognition within the ecosystem, because all Substack accounts get promoted within the platform.
If you consider the success Substack has already had due to it’s simplification, then creating an app is a logical next step.
The app will benefit writers in a few ways …
- It will create a social network around writing. (I’m not sure if this is truly a benefit, but in the short term, we will see writers get more views and exposure through the inevitable algorithm).
- It will give writers another way to be seen, other than through the inbox. This is especially important considering that spam folders and promotions folders are a huge deterrent for newsletters and email marketing in general.
- The app can potentially help writers go viral.
Ultimately, I don’t have a good feeling about it
Why would I?
We have seen over and over again that third party networking apps only ratchet towards censorship and control of data.
If I had to make a prediction, I would say that the Substack app will undoubtedly have initial success, but in time, there will be more and more complaints / problems with writers feeling like the app is stealing ownership of their audience.
The writing will be commoditized. Writers will find out what performs best on the app and will start to conform their content to what gets them the most exposure. This is a sharp contrast to the original mission which is to do what is best for the writer, the audience the writer serves, and for society at large.
Like Nicolas Cole said, this could easily turn into Medium 2.0.
This is me saying “I told you so.”
I plan on using Substack like any other social app. I will use it to benefit me, in the same way I use Twitter, TikTok and LinkedIn. It’s a tool that I will use to build my business.
From a practical standpoint, Substack’s only benefit to me is to assist in driving traffic back to my website where I know I can control my list and have final say over the narrative.
Over time, it’s inevitable that the investors will continue to sacrifice quality in exchange for revenue and that the early adopters of Substack will see that they have been tricked into generating revenue for Substack, as opposed to generating revenue for themselves.
Always remember: If it’s free, it means that you are the product.
There’s no such thing as free. There never was.