Substack’s view of content moderation

Building a system that puts readers and writers in charge

As Substack grows, there is increasing interest in the stance we take on content moderation. It’s a complicated issue, so we wanted to take a moment to lay out our position clearly and explain how we got there. 

In this post, we cover: 

  • How the Substack model puts readers and writers in charge

  • How our company’s beliefs and values inform our approach to content moderation 

  • Why we promote quality work on the platform. 

Substack is different from social media platforms

In conversations about content moderation on the internet, there is a tendency to consider Substack in the same category as Facebook, Instagram, YouTube, and Twitter, all of which also host “user-generated content.” But there are a couple of differences between Substack and these platforms that have major implications.

Difference 1: On Substack, readers are in full control of what they see.

Today’s dominant social media platforms dictate to a large extent what you see, pushing content to people in news feeds. The content that appears in these feeds is filtered and ordered by algorithms that have been designed to maximize engagement. For billions of people, these engagement-optimized feeds have replaced newspapers, magazines, and TV news channels in being the main deciders of how timely information finds its way into our brains.  

But with Substack, readers choose what they see. A reader makes a conscious decision about which writers to invite into their inboxes, and which ones to support with money. 

Difference 2: On Substack, writers are paid directly by readers.

All of today’s big social media companies make their money from advertising, which means they compete to dominate your attention. For these companies, no metric matters more than engagement, which is why the world now has autoplaying videos, trending tabs, and clickbait. It also means that these platforms succeed by amplifying irresistible content, which is often sensational material and conflict-driven exchanges. 

Substack’s key metric is not engagement. Our key metric is writer revenue. We make money only when Substack writers make money, by taking a 10% cut of the revenue they make from subscriptions. With subscriptions, writers must seek and reward the ongoing trust of readers. And Substack only gets paid if writers feel like they’re getting ongoing value. Our entire business depends on holding writers’ trust, which is exemplified by how easy it is for a writer to leave the platform. With Substack, writers own their content, mailing list, and payment relationships – and they can export it all with the click of a few buttons.

When engagement is the holy metric, trustworthiness doesn’t matter. What matters more than anything else is whether or not the user is stirred. The content and behaviors that keep people coming back – the rage-clicks, the hate-reads, the pile-ons, the conspiracy theories – help sustain giant businesses. When we started Substack to build an alternative to this status quo, we realized that a tweak to an algorithm or a new regulation wouldn’t change things for the better. The only option was to change the entire business model. 

A lot of people suppose that we started Substack to be the next big thing in journalism. But what we’re actually trying to do is subvert the power of the attention economy. We want people, not engagement-motivated platforms, to ultimately be in control. We think this path offers a better future for writing specifically, and for culture generally.

Substack is not apolitical

None of these views are neutral. Many Silicon Valley technology companies strive to make their platforms apolitical, but we think such a goal is impossible to achieve. As the founders of Substack, our beliefs are fundamental to how we have been building the platform. Our personal politics, while differing in specifics, are liberal in the general sense. We favor civil liberties, believe in democracy, and are against authoritarianism of all kinds. We also hold a set of core beliefs that are reflected in every aspect of the company: 

We believe that subscriptions are better than advertising. 

We believe in letting people choose who to trust, not having click-maximizing algorithms choose for them.

We believe that the prevailing media ecosystem is in disrepair and that the internet can be used to build something better. 

We believe that hosting a broad range of views is good for democracy. 

We believe in the free press and in free speech – and we do not believe those things can be decoupled. 

These beliefs inform how we have designed Substack, which is why, for instance, we don’t support advertising in the product despite many calls to do so, and it’s why we will never use algorithms that optimize for engagement. However, we believe that our design of the product and the incentive structure we have built into it are the ultimate expression of our views. We do not seek to impose our views in the form of censorship or through appointing ourselves as the judges of truth or morality. 

All things in moderation – including moderation

From the start, we have set out to encourage a broad range of expression on Substack. In most cases, we don’t think that censoring content is helpful, and in fact it often backfires. Heavy-handed censorship can draw more attention to content than it otherwise would have enjoyed, and at the same time it can give the content creators a martyr complex that they can trade off for future gain. We prefer a contest of ideas. We believe dissent and debate is important. We celebrate nonconformity. 

None of these are new ideas, of course. The fights for a free press and free speech have been fought for centuries. But, increasingly, there are questions about how to handle questions of free speech when the internet can spread damaging ideas faster, and when vast conspiracy theories are allowed to take root via social media persuasion. 

We are aware of the history here, of how initial hopes about the internet’s ability to promote healthy and productive discourse have been disappointed. Look around you: the internet is broken. But we are not convinced that the solution lies in more censorship; nor do we think the problem is that almost anyone can publish on the internet. The major issue, we think, is that business models based on engagement have created a class of wildly successful media products that distort online discourse. It is increasingly difficult to participate in reasonable discussions on these platforms. 

There are no doubt some people, alarmed by the events of recent history, who will argue that Substack should put free speech concerns behind a need to cultivate a more controlled community that can guarantee safe spaces to all involved. Some people will argue that we should cultivate a community of writers and ideas that fall within a narrow window of a specific conception of respectability; that we should embrace the role of moral police (as long as it conforms with their views). 

We appreciate that there are reasonable arguments to be made on all sides of these questions. We just disagree with those who would seek to tightly constrain the bounds of acceptable discourse. We think the principles of free speech can not only survive the internet, but that they can help us survive as a society that now must live with all the good and bad that the internet brings. We welcome competition from anyone who thinks we’re wrong about this. Anyone can attempt to recreate the software platform we’ve made and we make it easy for readers and writers to opt out at any time. We are happy to compete with “Substack but with more controls on speech,” just as we are happy to compete with “Substack but with advertising.” 

With that in mind, we commit to keeping Substack wide open as a platform, accepting of views from across the political spectrum. We will resist public pressure to suppress voices that loud objectors deem unacceptable. If you look at Substack’s leaderboards today, you’ll see writers from the left and the right, the populist and the elite, the low-brow and the high-brow, the secular and the faithful, the activist and the academic. We’re proud of this range and strongly believe that this breadth strengthens the discourse. 

Ultimately, we think the best content moderators are the people who control the communities on Substack: the writers themselves. On our platform, each publication is its own dominion, with readers and commenters who have gathered there through common interests. And readers, in turn, choose which writers to subscribe to and which communities to participate in. As the meta platform, we cannot presume to understand the particularities of any given community or to know what’s best for it. We think it’s better that the publisher, or a trusted member of that community, sets the tone and maintains the desired standard, and we will continue to build tools to help them to do that. Such an approach allows for more understanding and nuance than moderation via blunt enforcement from a global administrator. 

Of course, there are limits. We do not allow porn on Substack, for example, or spam. We do not allow doxxing or harassment. We have content guidelines (which will evolve as Substack grows) with narrowly construed prohibitions with which writers must comply. But these guidelines are designed to protect the viability of the platform at the extremes, not act as a filter through which we see the world. There will always be many writers on Substack with whom we strongly disagree, and we will err on the side of respecting their right to express themselves, and readers’ right to decide for themselves what to read.

At the same time, while we take a hands-off approach with who may use the platform, we will continue to take an active approach in helping and promoting promising writers. We are doing this by improving discovery on the platform and building programs, such as fellowships, grants, and mentorship, to support writers. Our partnerships team will also continue to work with high-revenue and high-potential writers. We do these things because they help Substack’s business – a writer’s financial success is our financial success – which in turn means we can make larger investments in the overall health of the platform and the level of support we can offer writers generally. 

Through this mix of philosophies and measures, we hope that Substack’s approach to content moderation improves on the status quo and allows a diversity of writers to flourish while letting readers retain full agency. 

To recap: 

  1. Readers and writers are in charge. Readers can opt in and out of media experiences as they wish, and they are in control of what they see. Writers can choose to leave the platform at any time while retaining ownership of their content, mailing list, and payment relationships. 

  2. Substack holds liberal ideals on matters of the free press and free speech. We will continue to encourage a broad range of expression from viewpoints across the political spectrum. Our content guidelines will evolve over time, but the prohibitions will remain focused and with a strong presumption of protecting that freedom.  

  3. We will support quality work being done on Substack however we can, including by helping readers more easily find those writers who want to be discovered. 

Thank you for reading, and thanks to the hundreds of thousands of people who are paying to support independent writing through Substack. There’s a lot more to come. 

Chris, Hamish, and Jairaj 

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