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The Best Writing Against, For, and On Substack

Many good points have been made on both sides, I’m compiling this writing here. If you’re aware of other examples, please send them over.

Against Substack

Packy McCormick (#11 Free): Personal Email

their product velocity is dog shit… don’t do anything for discovery… it crashes all the time… It absolutely blows my mind that they’ve raised as much as they have and have improved the product as little as they have.

Gwern: Comment on Reddit

One additional aspect of this is that Substack, technically, [is] just not very good. When I moved over, I ran immediately into multiple problems: the tracking links are so long that my newsletters get cut off, subscripts/superscripts just don’t work, etc. (Other problems have come up: AlwaysKillSticky is broken on Substack because they do really abominable things with comments, and we never did figure out why a Substack page is constantly firing off requests to the server.) I don’t aspire to make my newsletters as awesome as my website, but I expected Substack to at least be as decent as your raw dumped-HTML Mailchimp newsletter.

The Scholar’s Stage: Why I am Bearish on Substack

This is a recipe for intellectual sterility. A media ecosystem composed of the New York Times, a few other large newspapers, and a swarm of hungry Substackerati will starve itself out. The big Substack names will continue to rake in subscriptions, of course, but what will they have to talk about? Only the same old ideas they had been playing with for decades.

Applied Divinity Studies x Nintil: How Substack Became Milquetoast

The most damning thing about Substack is not any of these theoretical structural mechanics, it’s the easier more intuitive understanding that nothing great will be written here. Each piece we read and publish is a bite sized dose of momentary stimulation. It follows an unwritten contract between each party: I will not try too hard to write anything serious, you will not try too hard to understand my writing, and both of us will be happier for it.

Rob Hardy: The Case Against Substack

This is a top down, rather authoritarian approach to community. People can discuss things, sure, but only when you explicitly allow them to. If your fans want to find, connect with, and converse with other like-minded audience members outside of that structure, they’re shit out of luck.

For Substack

Nadia Eghbal: Twitter Thread
Re: Homogeneity within newsletters:

On the contrary, we encourage, and see the best success from, writers who actively take risks with their newsletters. You should try to filter for your most loyal fans. This problem is endemic to creative work generally… if anything I think Substack reduces this issue more than other social platforms (e.g. Twitter). A lot of ppl feel pressure to acquiesce to fans, but they’ll be rewarded more if they don’t.

Byrne Hobart: Subscriptions and Incentives ($)

This is true—a newsletter with exclusively evergreen content is closer to a library than to news. But it’s possible to work within this constraint, by focusing on evergreen themes that are illustrated by day-to-day news. And this enforces good intellectual hygiene: a theory that never produces evidence in its favor is a pretty useless theory, and pure theorizing without practical examples is boring to read

Applied Divinity Studies: How to Become Famous on Substack Overnight (in Ten Years)

I’m pretty confident saying that these overnight successes tend to take ballpark 10 years, either in building a mailing list, gaining expertise, or struggling in obscurity writing words no one will ever see…. [this] strengthens Substack’s argument that it is genuinely a place for writers to achieve financial stability and own their relationship with readers. This isn’t some horrible new wave distinct from all previous media, it’s just a better format for the same authors.

Petition: Yes it can work

So f*ck it. If you have a good idea — a differentiator — and you have the stamina to give it a go, you should. Be the exception to the rule (if it is even, in fact, a rule). Don’t listen to the naysayers.

The Atlantic: Why Matthew Yglesias Left Vox

Like Andrew Sullivan, who joined Substack after parting ways with New York magazine, and Glenn Greenwald, who joined Substack after resigning from The Intercept, which he co-founded, Yglesias felt that he could no longer speak his mind without riling his colleagues.

The Geyser: Site of the Year: Substack.com:

Clearly, Substack has tapped a need in the market, and their technology, while still nascent, is effective and easily adopted. By embracing the subscription model, Substack has also made writing commercially viable again, something many newspapers forgot how to do years ago, to their peril.

Neutral

The Guardian: Why are public thinkers flocking to Substack?:

It’s a Faustian bargain to commodify your personality. You’re free from the limiting influences of institutions… Yet, input from editors is inevitably just replaced with the pressure of analytics… In a few years’ time, I predict we may look back at the chaotic information ecosystem of the 2010s as a sort of social media interregnum. Seduced by the seemingly magical qualities of our new powerful technological tools, we deluded ourselves into believing clout and exposure could be a replacement for dollars and sense.

Alexey Guzey: The most we can say about earnings of Substack’s top writers

Below is the full table of the best possible earning estimates of all the top Substack writers, as of 2020-11-15, based on both bounds-based reasoning and the changes in orders of magnitude of the number of paid subscribers in October-November 2020.

u/nansenamundsen: The Case For and Against Substack

It makes the web less open. Each blog/website has its own culture and aesthetic. Each Substack pretty much feels the same. It also makes it much harder to find content online without each author’s home looking different.

Put A Number On It!: SubOnlyStackFans

People talk about how the 90s promise of the internet as a medium of unconstrained individual expression turned into a reality of social media monopolies forcing people into homogenous boxes for data harvesting. But if you have something to express and show the world you don’t have to stay boxed up. Let the internet be your canvas.

Napkin Math: Substack Rhymes with Medium

However, the big question is their cost structure. For each publication, they take 10% of the subscription revenue. At the beginning of a publication’s life, this is reasonable. Maybe even a steal. But once a writer builds a business that makes hundreds of thousands of dollars a year, what’s stopping them from moving to another platform like Ghost or building their own tech in-house to save money?

Writing On Substack

Earlier, I wrote “the most damning thing about Substack is… that nothing great will be written here”. Accordingly, Substack’s true redemption lies not in theoretical arguments, but in the writing itself. Screw the incentives, the mechanisms, the fixed or variable payments schemes and arguments about media ecosystems. Either Substack produces great writing, or it doesn’t.

This is a difficult point for me to make, because I don’t read Substack! But there are still a few pieces and blogs that have stood out to me. If you email me your favorites, I’m happy to take a look and add them to this list.

High Tea
As far as I can tell, High Tea is the only good “explainer for Gen Z culture” out there. It achieves this distinction largely by not functioning as an explainer, but as a language immersion experience. If you’re old, the first post won’t make any sense, but by the 3rd you might feel like you genuinely understand something beyond the top line demographic trends.

The Dispatch

Tyler Cowen mentions over email that he reads Bill Bishop’s Sinocism.

I also like The Diff by Byrne Hobart, but I liked his pre-Substack writing even more.

Changelog:

  • Added Sinocism
  • Added Napkin Math article
  • The Geyser emails me their own article
  • Sean Monahan emails me his own article