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An algorithm for quality
Searching for the better versions of ourselves
Sometimes it can feel like the online spaces you spend time in are working against you, pushing you toward things that their owners value instead of what you value—and harnessing your energy to fuel the very things you hate. Like me, you probably know the feeling of spending too much time gorging on digital junk food, wasting precious moments of your life that you can’t get back. Maybe you’ve even felt yourself becoming someone other than who you want to be. Angrier. More distracted. More distant from human connection.
In these states, it’s tempting to blame “the algorithms”—and plenty of people do. (In fact, we ourselves have at times been guilty of muddying the waters.) But algorithms in themselves are neither good nor bad. They’re just technology. The root problem lies in the master that the algorithms are serving.
Who is that master? Well, another sophisticated take you might hear about social media algorithms is that the master they are serving is the advertiser. You’re not the customer; you’re the product. But while it’s true that the legacy social platforms are funded by ads and have built huge businesses by harvesting your attention and selling slices of it as a commodity, that’s not really the whole story. After all, these platforms still have to serve their users. To capture your attention, they must win an incredibly competitive game by serving you the content that gets you to click, watch, and keep scrolling, minute after minute.
Ultimately, the big bad enemy that the legacy platforms’ algorithms are serving is … us. The algorithms have been studying us, and they know what we want. They serve our desires with ruthless intent.
The problem is that the version of us that they serve is the basest version of ourselves. They skip past our values, aspirations, and even our conscious thought, and go straight to pressing the buttons in our lizard brain. Just as with fast food, or in a casino, or taking a drag of a cigarette, we are of course still making a choice—and it can even be an enjoyable one. But if you have higher aspirations for yourself, if you want to feed your mind with something better, you probably want an algorithm that plays by different rules.
Can you imagine how your view of the world might change if you spent your time online in a place optimized for reading what you care most about, rather than just endless scrolling? What would it feel like to check a feed that’s trying to catch you up on what you deeply value rather than keeping you feeling anxious, angry, and alone?
We intend to find out.
On Substack, tens of millions of people already connect directly with writers and creators in an online universe of amazing stories and ideas that’s based on a different set of rules from legacy social media. Increasingly, people are finding new writers and creators to fall in love with in this universe, driving growth that previously had to come from elsewhere. Some of the brightest lights in our culture, both established and new, find the freedom to do the work they believe in here—and they’re starting to find each other, too.
This is rare magic, and we feel an intense responsibility to help it reach its potential. You’ll see a manifestation of these efforts very soon in a new version of the Substack app—a personal portal into the Substack universe—and in improvements we are making across the platform. You can expect these improvements to support discovery across the Substack network, while maintaining the direct relationship between readers and writers.
We’ve set up our business model so that, in order to succeed, we have to serve the best version of you. We are committed to building technologies that cater to the version of you that sits at the breakfast table on a Sunday morning and thinks carefully about what you’ll spend the next 30 minutes reading. We’ll be serving the version of you that is excited to financially support the writers you trust. We win when subscribers are happy. Our business model succeeds when you spend time with the work that you value the most; the work that helps you grow and progress; the work that helps you fall deeper in love.
This is the stuff we’re talking about when we say we’re building a new economic engine for culture. It’s not a perfect system, but it is new, and it allows a kind of work to thrive that is different and better than what wins on other platforms.
We are not against algorithms. We’ll enthusiastically use algorithms, or AI, or any other technology we can get our hands on, as long as we can use them to serve the human ends that we care about. For readers, that means letting you decide what you read as the best version of yourself—helping you take back your mind.
The real trick is that culture is not just about getting what you want. What you want is not set in stone. Culture is also about learning why you want what you want, refining your tastes, challenging your convictions, and promoting humanity and agency over the process. Systems that work against you can erode your will over time, and cause you to drop your standards ever lower. But a system that serves your aspirational self can kick-start a positive loop.
The more you read with agency and are able to curate your attention, the greater the return your mind will get from the time you’ve invested in reading every day. One morning you may even wake up to find you are no longer feeling angry or distracted but, rather, pretty confident that—when it comes to reading, at least—this is going to be a day well spent.