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Making the internet work for writers
(Not the other way around)
The internet has never really taken writers seriously. There have long been places to sell your hand-knitted tea cozies or your imported pogo sticks, or ways to make money from playing video games in front of an audience. But there have been few places online that truly serve writers. The tech companies that have promised to save the media haven’t been able to do much better than offer whiz-bang link aggregators or beautiful web pages. And while there are platforms that give your work a chance of being seen by a global audience, in return you have to agree to be squished into a dystopian mega-feed that sends all resulting dollars into the ruling company’s bank account.
Writers, simply, have never been the customers.
As a result, the digital products that have been offered to writers have always left something to be desired. The infrastructure doesn’t link up and is full of holes. We’ve all been jury-rigging a toolkit out of misshapen spare parts: email marketing software for newsletters; ad metrics to measure influence; meme propagators for distribution. It’s like trying to build a car with a hula-hoop for the steering wheel. The results—a failing media business; brains scrambled by social media; public discourse that has become a shouting match—are hardly a surprise.
For the past six years, we at Substack have been trying to help writers by building great publishing and networking tools. We started with a content management system that pairs seamlessly with subscription and payment tools, so you can publish your work and get paid in the same place. We introduced collaboration and cross-pollination features that help you reach new readers, and we coupled it all with community tools to bring your readership into the conversation. These are some of the critical missing pieces in the writer’s internet toolkit, but not all of them. The most glaring missing piece is a giant one.
How does your work get found? How do your stories reach new people? How can you spark conversation outside your existing readership? If you’re a new writer without a pre-existing audience, how can you break out?
This will be a core area of focus for Substack in the months ahead.
To date, we have effectively outsourced the majority of this work to the large social networks. And not without success—these platforms, despite their flaws, are the best discovery systems writers have ever known. But they are not reliable partners to writers, and we shouldn’t expect them to be. They are built to serve advertisers by maximizing attention and keeping people glued to their feeds.
To date, one of the most powerful ways for Substack writers to find growth has been to complement our publishing tools with the discovery offered by the big social networks. This approach can work well, but it shouldn’t be the only way.
We are building a discovery system that attempts to maximize subscription revenue for writers. In this system, it’s imperative to respect writer ownership. To keep writers happy, we have to prove ourselves of service to them—not the other way around. Unlike legacy social media platforms, we’re happy when you stop scrolling and click in to read something deeply. We don’t want a closed system; we want writers to share their work across every platform, to ensure maximum exposure. At the same time, on Substack the concept of “following” is a means to an end (subscribing), and not the end in itself. And when we use algorithms to rank content on Substack, we optimize not for the kinds of conflict and piqued emotion that sustain the attention economy, but to help readers find what they truly value: exceptional writing, considered argument, and robust debate—the key factors, as we have learned in six years here, that drive subscriptions.
We are betting that a perfect integration of publishing tools and a new system for discovery can lead to something magical. It’s an entire system that from top to bottom serves readers and writers. It’s a system where there’s one tap from a note to a post, and one tap from a post to a subscription, and one tap from a subscription to a payment. Discovery works in this subscription network because, when you subscribe to someone, it’s a commitment and a signal of deep appreciation—it’s a high-fidelity signal not only to the writer that you love their work but also to other people that the writer’s work is valuable.
Sitting here in the year 2023, it is easy to fool ourselves into believing that we have seen the best of the internet’s media discovery systems—but we’ve only really seen one version of what’s possible. We are now embarking on a project to see what new heights are within reach when the internet’s most powerful technologies are deployed specifically in service of writers. You’re going to notice some changes.
We are not going to be shy about trying big things in search of this better future for writers. There is so much waiting to be discovered. We hope you’ll join us in forging the way.