Substack is for communities
Kylie Jenner and a few hundred million other people have been complaining about Instagram’s new direction, which favors algorithmically recommended content over sustained relationships between real people. “[S]top trying to be tiktok,” Jenner demanded, “I just want to see cute photos of my friends.”
TikTok is remarkable for a number of reasons, but chief among them is the platform’s ability to beat social media giants at the game they once played better than anyone: monopolizing a consumer’s attention. For more than a decade now, social media platforms have built insanely addictive online media experiences on the strength of their social graphs and the practice of “following” people and personalities in casual relationships. But then TikTok came along and created a mass media apparatus where the content matters far more than who made it. Instagram is right to be worried—but the people who make the stuff that gets shared on these platforms also have reason for concern.
The Jenner Revolt highlights a key tension at the heart of the dominant social media platforms. It’s one of the problems Substack is trying to address. Instagram, TikTok, YouTube, Facebook, Twitter and the others can give people enormous reach, but they don’t give them much in the way of control. It is the platforms that decide who gets attention, and when. The platforms determine who finds an audience, and who doesn’t. The platforms influence who gets paid and who misses out. These platforms are often understood as hubs for online communities, but they compromise an essential element of community by mediating the relationships between the members.
As the years have progressed, more and more people have come to recognize that the trade-offs between building far-reaching communities and ceding control to the platforms just aren’t worth it. There’s a time and place for the all-in public discussion offered at those places, but increasingly people are finding escape in semi-private community spaces such as Discord, Telegram, and Geneva. These “third spaces” sit between the out-in-the-open approach of social media, where users have lots of distribution but little control, and the private spaces of direct messaging, where users have limited distribution but total control. A third space, like Substack, can offer the best of both worlds: the benefits of being part of a network, with the control of a private space.
On Substack, writers and readers benefit from broad distribution while remaining in charge. Writers own their mailing lists, content, and even their payments relationships. They can easily take all those things with them off the platform whenever they want. At the same time, readers control what they see in their Substack “feeds” (i.e. their email inboxes, or the Substack app) by choosing what to subscribe to. They can even directly influence a writer’s success by paying to support them.
By respecting this sense of ownership, we can help writers build their own powerful platforms.
As much as it is a home for newsletters and podcasts, Substack is a home to writers’ communities. Heather Cox Richardson, the number one newsletter by revenue in the Politics category, writes letters to her subscribers about the news of the day. She has a large audience on Facebook, where people leave comments and argue with each other under her posts, but her community is on Substack. If you read the comments on Letters from an American, you will see the intensity of the interaction and sense of belonging. Indeed, the ability to comment on posts is the only feature that is exclusive to paid subscribers there, ensuring high-signal discussion and fostering a strong sense of connection.
The podcaster Daryl Cooper of Martyr Made has been bringing his community together in giant question-and-answer sessions while also seeking his subscribers’ advice. A similar dynamic can be observed at Anne Helen Petersen’s Culture Study. On Culture Study’s one-year anniversary, Petersen celebrated the role her community played:
You made the subscriber threads the highlight of my week. You shared your stories of grief and place and weird neighbors. You asked and sought advice, and reliably suggest at least 500 new books every month. You sent me tips, and interviewed your kids about their video games, and suggested and then set the agenda for the money advice column… You made the comments section a place where you might actually want to hang out again. Whether you’re the first person in the Tuesday thread or just open the email once a week and sit with it, you have made all of this feel like community.
These effects are perhaps somewhat surprising on a platform that still has pretty primitive product features for community engagement. Most of the community activity on Substack happens in the comments sections or in simple discussion threads prompted by the writers. Sometimes, subscribers will reply directly and privately to a post via email. But those basic tools are already enough to provide writers and their readers an effective alternative to social media, where they can gather and communicate on their own terms; where they are in charge. It is, as the celebrated author George Saunders has said, “social media purified by conscience.”
We’re deeply interested in building out further support and features for communities on Substack. There is great beauty and power in writers having their own “private social network,” where they set the rules of engagement, and where they own the relationships with all the members.
The paid subscription piece is important, too, and not just because it funds the writers to do more of the work that their community values. To a large extent, we see that people who pay for Substacks are paying to feel part of something bigger than themselves, to be closer to the writers they most trust, and to be in communication with others who feel the same. That’s why some of the most successful Substack writers—including Patti Smith, Michael Moore, and Dan Rather—have thriving subscriber bases and yet paywall hardly any of their content.
We’re excited about what’s possible here. While we are a long way from having this all figured out, you can expect us to experiment with extending the ethos of giving power to writers and readers into new kinds of community experiences.
The last era of the internet has been dominated by platforms owning people, but the next era will be about people owning platforms. Watch this space.