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Toward a better media system
You can’t rely on social media
In the last few weeks, following the launch of Notes, Twitter has chosen to restrict writers’ ability to share their work by hiding Substack previews and limiting the distribution of Substack links. It has also cut Substack off from its API, which means writers can no longer embed tweets in their posts. We are deeply disappointed by Twitter’s actions and have been trying to resolve the issue (unsuccessfully so far). We badly wish writers weren’t in this position. Writers should be able to share their work freely on Twitter and any other social network, wherever their readers may be. This is a challenging moment for writers who have used Twitter to help build their audience and who now find they need to revise their strategies.
At the same time, we recognize that—fair or not—this was probably inevitable. Twitter’s actions are part of a well-established history of social media platforms limiting writers’ and creators’ ability to share their work. Ad-based social platforms want writers’ and creators’ audiences glued to their feeds, and they design their products to keep them from leaving. In 2012, Twitter stopped embedding Instagram posts after Facebook acquired the photo-sharing app. Today, Facebook deprioritizes links that take people away from its feed. Google prioritizes YouTube search results over TikTok and Vimeo. While Twitter has now come for writers on Substack, it is extremely likely that we won’t be the last publishing platform to receive this treatment.
Substack was created in direct response to this kind of behavior by social media companies. Writers cannot build sustainable businesses if their connection to their audience depends on unreliable platforms that frequently change what you see or what partners they prioritize. That world is built on shaky foundations that are crumbling all around us. You need only look at the fates of BuzzFeed, Mic, and Upworthy to see what happens when a media business over-relies on social platforms. That history demonstrates why it was so important to establish that any publisher who uses Substack retains ownership of all their content and their relationship with their audience.
Of course, for writers to realize the impact they seek for their work, they need ways for readers to find them. One compelling path is for actual humans, loving their work, to share it with other actual humans—by email, word of mouth, or in conversation over drinks about a new writer they’ve found who’s changing their entire worldview. That peer-to-peer support is the foundation Substack is built on, and it’s why we’ve invested so much in SEO—to make sure the people who would love your work most can find it. But we also know there are many ways these behaviors can be amplified.
For the past year, we have been building tools for writers to grow their audience and business without needing to rely on social platforms. In the Substack network, the major growth drivers are not opaque algorithms that reward viral content, but the writers and creators themselves. Our top growth features include Recommendations, through which writers can promote other writers, and Notes, through which anyone can post their work and where readers can find new writers to fall in love with. While we’re still in the early days with these features, the Substack network already drives 20% of paid subscriptions across the platform. A year ago, that figure was 8%.
Meanwhile, Twitter’s share of Substack traffic, already relatively small, has been waning since even before its recent actions. At the start of the year, Twitter on average drove less than 3% of all views across Substack. Today, it accounts for less than 2%.
To be clear: we encourage writers to publish on any platform they choose so they can raise their profile and engage with ideas, or even just because they enjoy it. But writers cannot rely on those platforms. To become independent, they need the direct connection with their audience that the Substack model provides. And fortunately, the growth benefits of the Substack ecosystem already far outweigh the benefits from sharing links on social media.
While we have no say over how social media companies treat writers and creators from this point on, we can commit to continuing to build a strong, reliable platform that not only provides great publishing and growth tools but also puts writers’ needs first. Our business depends on it.
Our mission of building a new economic engine for culture is a long-term project. It can be achieved only in partnership with writers and creators, and with real, steady gains that can’t be undone by a third party. In the Substack ecosystem, writers can focus on what they do best: producing great writing that earns readers’ respect and support. For our part, we’ll focus on creating a platform that makes everything else—from starting to managing to growing an independent media business—simple and powerful.
Thank you for your trust, patience, and continued support of independent writers and a better media system for us all.