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Welcome, Facebook and Twitter. Seriously.
When Twitter announced that it had acquired the email newsletter provider Revue to create a Substack competitor, I tweeted a smartass response:
Some people thought that wasn’t a nice thing to say, and, honestly, they’re kind of right. The tweet makes me sound like much more of an asshole than I am in real life, but – what can I say? – I did it for the internet points.
And then it leaked that Facebook was also getting into paid newsletters. Again, my twitchy tweeting fingers invited trouble.
As brash as those tweets might seem on first glance, however, I swear there was some thought behind them. I genuinely believe that Twitter and Facebook getting into paid newsletters is good for writers and a positive development for the media ecosystem. We need more initiatives that give power to writers and reduce the force of the attention economy, just as we need more electric cars, more solar energy, and less burning of fossil fuels. The Bolt, after all, is a great car, and it’s good for the world that it came when it did. Just look at what General Motors is promising now: a full transition to electric transport.
GM isn’t acting out of concern for the environment. It has realized that its gasoline cars aren’t as good as their electric counterparts. The internal combustion engine, an invention as old as the phonograph, is reaching its limits. At the same time, battery technology is improving rapidly and getting cheaper every day. Later this year, all going to plan, Tesla will release a full-sized sedan that accelerates from zero to 60 miles per hour in under two seconds and drives for more than 500 miles per charge – better performance than a McLaren with greater range than a Honda Civic. GM can’t compete with that by releasing a next-generation Bolt. It has to reinvent its entire business.
Perhaps Twitter and Facebook are realizing that they may need to take similarly radical action to be on the right side of history.
One of the reasons we started Substack is that we were concerned about the effects of the attention economy on the human mind. That might sound grandiose, but it is undeniable that our addiction to social media is having negative effects on both individual and collective thought. As individuals, we fret about doomscrolling and watch in hopeless horror as we become rage-monsters in the digital public square. As a society, we wonder how it has come to pass that a conspiracy theory-addled mob can overrun the Capitol. Not all of these things happen because of social media, but it does play a significant role. We are feeding our minds with a poisoned information supply.
However, we at Substack have never thought that the solution lies in simply shouting about how engagement-based business models lead to media products that are superficially compelling but underneath are eroding the foundation of society. Instead, we have set out to show that platforms that put writers and readers in charge are just better.
Substack is designed to be a calm space that encourages reflection. You read Substack posts in your inbox or on a web page that is free of advertising or any other distraction. There are no addiction-maximizing feeds, autoplaying videos, or retweetable quote-retweets to suck you into a psychological space you never asked to be in. You make decisions about which information to put into your brain based on how well certain writers reward your trust, not based on a dopamine hit gained by refreshing a feed packed with performative posturing.
But it’s the calmness of the model that’s the real killer feature. Perhaps this is giving away too much, but I often find myself telling people: “Our real product is our business model.” On Substack, writers succeed when readers feel that their trust is being rewarded, and we, the platform, succeed only when writers do well. There’s nothing sophisticated about this model. We’re not hoping you become addicted to our feeds or that you will trade sleep for content consumption so we can sell your attention to advertisers. Instead, we hope that readers find amazing things to read and that the writers who produce that stuff make a ton of money.
There are now more than 500,000 paid subscriptions across Substack, and the top ten writers collectively make more than $15 million a year. It’s still early days, but this thing is happening.
If Facebook and Twitter are earnest in their pursuit of this opportunity, I implore them to go all in. They have enormous influence and can make a big positive difference in the world by taking the lessons from Substack to heart. This is about more than just doing the right thing for writers; it’s about improving the entire information ecosystem.
In particular, Facebook and Twitter should do their utmost to give power to writers and readers. That means letting writers own their relationships with their readers and giving them the ability to take those relationships off the platform whenever they want. It also means letting readers fully control what they see in their feeds by avoiding ads and disincentivizing culture-war superweapons like retweetable quote-retweets (such as my mean tweets above).
I sincerely hope that Facebook and Twitter take this approach and apply it to more than just newsletters, because the world’s information ecosystem is at a crisis point. People are losing trust in each other and losing faith in public institutions. Otherwise-intelligent human beings are being led to believe outlandish conspiracy theories instead of the truth. We need a global effort to unpoison the well.
But if Facebook and Twitter only go in for half measures? Well, I don’t mind that, either. There’s a reason I reacted so strongly to the news of their entry into this market. After all, they have announced very plainly that they intend to take our business.
All very well. They’re in our sights too.
This is the second post in my new occasional column. The first post was about reinventing the golden era of blogging.