Substack is Anti-Social Media, and the Next Social Media

From Hello Stranger:

At it’s core, Substack is a newsletter provider with a user-friendly interface. It’s a place for writers and creators to build and email list, write a newsletter, and cultivate a relationship with readers. The added bonus? Top fans can opt for subscribers only content, and writers get paid.

Substack claims to be a place for independent writing, separate from the toxic world of social media. Here in the Substack utopia, your content has value beyond clickbait. Substack’s claims of empowering independent writers and journalist have lead to headlines like “What is Substack Really Doing to the Media” and “Why We’re Freaking out About Substack“.

(The jist of all these articles more or less, is that Substack is not actually upending mainstream journalism, and is in fact, another iteration of social media. All of this according of course, to the major publications and media threatened by Substack itself. Hm.)

. . . .

Is Substack actually good for small creators and writers?

Substack claims to be changing the way we write, and upending social media. But is Substack actually helping small creators and writers? What does an independent writer or creator without a large platform stand to gain by using Substack?

In short, yes. Substack can be a great tool for a small creator or independent writer. But like any platform, social media or not, Substack comes with its own set of limitations.

What is Substack?

Launched in 2017, Substack today has over half a million paying subscribers. This statistic does not include the hundreds of thousands more of subscriptions to free publications.

Substack cuts into the subscription-based news industry, generally dominated by publications like The New York Times and The Washington Post by giving journalists who have already garnered a following on social media the means to go independent by starting their own subscription-based newsletter through Substack. While there is some heated debate as to whether or not Substack offers any real chance at income for the average independent writer, several notable journalists have switched to independent writing through Substack.

For most people, Substack subscriptions will not become income replacement. Still, Substack functions as a tip jar similar to Patreon and a way to create content outside of the influence of a social media algorithm.

Essentially, Substack is a platform for anyone to have their own small publication. You can either offer your content completely free (and at no cost to you as a creator), or you can paywall your content through a subscription. Personally, I use a combination of majority free content, with 1-2 subscribers-only articles a month.

Substack and subscription-based content: why it matters

Fundamentally, Substack is both anti-social media, and an iteration of social media itself.

Social media apps like Facebook and Instagram are designed to keep users on the app as long as possible in order to sell ad space. Instagram and Facebook quite literally use your content to keep people addicted to the app, then sell ads, profiting without compensating creators. This ad-based model of content prioritizes clickbait over quality. Basically, social media today is designed to keep you scrolling, not provide value.

Substack is different in that as a provider, they don’t depend on ads to make money. Your content is not ranked by how long people spend on an app, and it doesn’t feed into the attention economy. Collectively, we’re tired of being used by social media.

Substack’s subscription model prioritizes the quality of content. If you don’t write something good and interesting, there’s no incentive to subscribe to your publication or newsletter. If your content is especially good, readers will forward it to a friend, or share it on Facebook. If they stop enjoying your content, they’ll unsubscribe.

Substack seems to put writers and creators first in a way that Instagram, Twitter, and Facebook just don’t.

What are people subscribing to Substack for?

There are sort of two ways and reasons people subscribe to a Substack style subscription based newsletter; they either find clear value in the content, or they are interested in supporting a person.

Celebrities and influencers can likely make money through simply providing additional access to them as a personality through a paid online dairy, while smaller writers and journalists will be able to write, and have to write, quality content to build a subscriber base. The savviest Substackers, and those who already have become and online personality with a social media following, will likely use a combination of both access and value to gain and retain subscribers.

Link to the rest at Hello Stranger

PG is not certain how he feels about Substack.

On the one hand, he’s happy to see people making money from their creative talents.

On the other hand, he tends to fall into the information-wants-to-be-free camp and has done so for a long time.

When PG’s online wanderings bring him to a Substack account behind a paywall, he tends to head off into other places. He hasn’t ever paid for a subscription to a Substack feed/stream/newsletter, etc.

While acknowledging his virtually non-existent use of/exposure to Substack, PG suspects that were looking at a classic 1% v. 99% situation with 1% of Substack authors earning meaningful sums of money from their writing, while some of the 99% get a dribble here and a drabble there and the rest are ignored by anyone other than close friends and relatives.

However, as always, PG could be totally wrong.

He would love to hear from lovers of Substack as as readers plus those who are using Substack to earn some money and feel its a worthwhile endeavor.

Feel free to submit links to your own Substack if it’s working for you, articles that explain why/how Substack is a good idea. You can use comments to do so, although PG does have a WordPress plugin that short-circuits Russians and others from stuffing comments with links to websites of dubious repute.

If you have a bunch of links to places that will shine light on PG’s Substack ignorance, feel free to send them to PG via the Contact PG button up at the top of the blog.

5 thoughts on “Substack is Anti-Social Media, and the Next Social Media”

  1. My husband and I follow some current events and academic fields, and are thus closer to Substack target readership in those areas. Most of the “publications” we follow are free, but we’ve subscribed to a couple of them. Granted that I am no great expert at marketing on social media (far from it) here are some of my thoughts…

    Substack works for:

    1) Current events deep dive specialists. “Here’s a serious analysis of event X and all the background (with my own tailored recommendations/commentary).”

    This is a huge improvement on most of the free internet. Some famous worthwhile journalists (there aren’t many) provide free or near-free content online via journals, newspapers, etc., but others are migrating Substack-ward where they can bypass gatekeepers and be independent for some or all of their content.

    2) Specialized researchers. “I’m really interested in genetics. Are you really interested in genetics? Here’s what the current academic journal articles and other sources are saying, translated into educated reader (not academic specialist) parlance, and recommended readings.” (This example is for Razib Khan).

    This is wonderful for readers who are interested in all sorts of fields, without being academic-level specialists in those fields. The writer can treat this material as if he were producing non-fiction essays in his own areas of interest, for a general educated audience. If he does this in a scattered approach, he can indulge all his areas of interest for interested parties. If he does this in an organized way, he can preview sections or draft content of an upcoming book and solicit general opinions.

    3) Specialized celebrities. I don’t at all follow popular celebrities (and doubt their ability to write, anyway), but academic and journalistic fields have celebrities (or wannabes), too, and they do have a following (e.g., Curtis Yarvon). These people don’t have “normal” platforms, but people know about them, and Substack is a good base for them — a sort of flame-central for the otherwise difficult-to-publish crowd. The ones we follow are often futurists.

    General Remarks

    A) On Substack, as on a blog, you control the length of everything you produce. If your current venue is a newspaper or journal (online or not), that might not be the case there.

    B) On Substack, you control the illustrations, footnoted references, links, all the (simple but functional) layout.

    C) Unlike a blog, the subscription and monetary and newsletter aspect is controlled for you with some rigor.

    D) You may have a following, as in the older internet days where there were ways of finding people who have something useful to say, but may be unpublishable via any conventional modern venue. Might as well switch from old-tech to Substack and make the occasional buck.

    E) On Substack, you can prioritize your content and/or your voice as a strategy.

    CONTENT: We’re willing to pay for academic-field experts who bring us the latest science or other specialist research which we will never otherwise see, at a level that is miles beyond what a conventional journalist can do, with an explanatory hand-hold suitable for an interested but not currently qualified audience. In our case, that includes linguistics, ethnology, archaeology, genetics, paleontology, music… We value interpreters of current discoveries, massive-overview whole-field specialists, cranks with an interesting POV… these are often grad-students or their ilk who are still fired with enthusiasm for their fields and may (or may not) have published books yet.

    We are also willing to pay for VOICE: intelligent internet flamers on topics of interest, or just plain good writers (modern day John McPhees, Roger Scrutons, etc.). These people are not always in fashion, and some are controversial. But what they have to say is… well said, and not available anywhere else. A good writer can make ANYTHING interesting.

    F) Substack lends itself to dedicated readership as well as dabblers. The ability to offer some content for free and put other content behind a subscriber paywall is more useful than just a simple blog. A summary of the paywalled content for the non-subscriber whets the appetite for the full plate, and a newsletter notification for all followers (full-pay-subscribed or not) keeps the writer in front of his audience.

    G) HOWEVER… is Substack a useful platform for fiction writers? There I have my doubts.

    i) For non-fiction writers whose content isn’t long-form enough to be suitable for book publication, it can work well. Academics (eg., grad students) who want to build up a resume outside of academic journal publication would find it useful.

    ii) For non-fiction writers who want to try out content that is targeted to be part of a longer form for book publication, it’s also good.

    iii) For writers of any kind who have a good voice, especially journalists, you can attract a (subscriber) following.

    iv) For fiction writers with a strong non-fiction component (e.g., historical or other specialized settings), you may be able to find a subscriber audience for articles about your research.

    v) For other fiction writers who want to sell subscriptions, that’s probably a stretch. If your voice is good enough, you may be able to drive some of your audience to your books, but I don’t think moving from a blog to Substack is necessarily useful.

    H) WARNING… Take this from someone who has seen the pre- and current-internet world for her entire career, from the days of punched paper tape. On your blog, you can reasonably rely on backups from your hosting provider and can even add WordPress plugins to do backups to your local drives. If you move from that environment to Substack or a similar service, be sure you understand how to make backups or otherwise duplicate your content in some form of archive so that you never lose your content. NO PLATFORM IS FOREVER. You must remain in charge of your own content as a backup or risk having it all vanish.

  2. I don’t subscribe to any Substack, but I read free content from there via links in other places pretty regularly. If there was a way to subscribe to Substack itself and have access to a certain number of articles behind paywalls monthly (which would mean Substack itself would have to distribute my money, of course), I’d do it, but subscribing to everything I’d like to read would be burdensome.

    For me it’s political commentary from known writers who have lost their places in mainstream publications because of today’s rigid expectations of toeing the preferred line on all subjects. I don’t see Substack as a place for fiction writers but maybe that’s just me.

    Several writers have tempted me, and I’ve come close to subscribing but haven’t yet given in. Can’t say it won’t happen sooner or later.

  3. I agree that Substack is good for those who work in niche markets who otherwise wouldn’t be able to sustain themselves in a larger market. A couple of examples spring to mind. I listen to a localized podcast for a MLB team. While he managed to get his podcast on a couple of large platforms (IHeart and Stitcher come to mind), he has newsletter that he’s been doing for a few years on Substack after he decided to leave a small website for the same MLB team in question.

    I follow another podcaster who originally got into podcasting from his love of world history while doing his day job as a sportswriter. He also writes on Substack as an offshoot for that podcast.

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