It's Monday, 9 October, 2023 in Portland Oregon and we had that unseasonably warm weekend. Now we are back to relatively cold, grey, and rainy.
Hallway Track, my ad-hoc event series that's not the talk, but the bit after the talk has gotten off to a great start. The first session, 001: The Cosy Internet, is full after just one day!
You can suggest ideas for the next Hallway Track (I have one I hope to announce soon, and another I'm mulling over) by replying here, or using the form.
I'm having a lot of fun with the 30 minute chats people have been booking. There are still slots open this month.
Okay. Just one thing today.
The Quora wedge is... well, it's not a wedge. It's like a splinter. It's what happens when you search for something on Google and, if Google hasn't rewritten your query to be something slightly more profitable for them, the top result is some Quora question/answer. You go click/tap/press your nose on the glass to read it and surprise! You can't read it, because it's behind a Quora registration wall. All shitty all around for everyone, definitely not a great seamless user experience.
Substack (the second of the three hosts for this newsletter) is doing a Quora, and I'm relatively sure that their Quora wedge is going to get a lot worse. When you hit a link to a Substack newsletter, the first thing that pops up is the modal asking you to subscribe, along with a little "nah, just let me in anyway".2
In fact, here's how I'd do it, just for shits and giggles:
I mean, if I spent more than three minutes on it, it'd be better thought through.
Where I ended on the Mastodon thread version of this2 was:
So fine, my prediction is that Substack is most likely going to enshittify, and it's perplexing that so many people continue to use it for their newsletter, especially people who I think should know better. It's worth thinking about why that's the case, because I need to assume that everyone is making the best decision they can make, and also that they are all smart people. So why might this be happening?
One: People just know about Substack.
It's got brand recognition. When you think "oh, I'm going to start a newsletter" in the same way that a whole bunch of people thought the world should be subjected to more barely edited run-on opinions of white guys and were all "oh, we should start a podcast". Substack is the thing you use to start a newsletter. How do people know this? At a guess, part of the reason is the trucks of money they backed up to well-known media figures to get them to write on Substack. Cunningly, those well-known media figures will totally let people know they're writing on Substack.
Not only do writers know about Substack, but at this point, readers know about Substack too, although in some cases it may cause eyerolling in the "oh, you have a podcast too?" sense.
Two: It makes them money
Did you hear? You can make money on Substack. It's blah blah the creator economy blah blah empowering writers and people will pay! Check out all these other people, who in all likelihood are better known than you, and have already established their own audiences over years and years of work! They are totally making an unspecified amount of money, or have gotten an advance.
Three: It is easier to use than whatever alternative you're not even aware of.
This is compounding number one: not only do people know what Substack is, but its experience for writing is pretty good. They've spent a lot of time on it.
"It makes you money" and "it is easier to use than whatever alternative" are both, in my mind, fairly solvable problems and not particularly unique or interesting. What's much more interesting to me is: what would need to happen for alternatives to Substack to become well-known?
I'll take my very nice newsletter provider, Buttondown.email, as the main example here. Buttondown could:
Embark on a giant marketing and advertising campaign! The reason why Buttondown likely does not is that a giant marketing and advertising campaign is, by definition, large and costly. Because Buttondown is on the non-enshittification path, it likely does not have a shit-ton of cash to burn in the name of acquisition, because Buttondown's strategy is "be good and sustainable" and not "get all the users and then fuck them over to make more money". I do not think, for example, that Buttondown is awash in the kind of cash that would spark a renaissance in podcast advertising.
Adopt a strategy of bringing over key influential [sic] writers, not because it pays them more, but because they're in ideological agreement with the concept of "paying for a service" and not "playing into the hands of burning money to fuck people over". In this way, it is... perplexing that Matt Stoller's BIG, with over 100,000 subscribers, is on Substack because this at least brings up the spectre of:
As an aside, this raises one reason why people might use Substack, which is that Substack delivers lots of email and does so reliably. Delivering email is hard because spam has ruined everything: your newsletter provider is not great if it does not deliver your newsletter into peoples' inboxes. My suspicion, though, is that most people don't think about this because they don't even realize what a problem this is and how difficult it is. This also raises the issue that now that Substack has grown so big or at least so visible, that it probably (citation needed) has the relationships with the big email providers (Gmail, Microsoft and, uh, the other one) to at least have a fighting chance of ensuring a higher probability of email delivery.
But then, I want to go back to the issue of awareness. There are in life, I think two main shortcuts to "achieving a thing" and these are going to be dumb and trite. They are:
The latter will normally take about ten years, I find.
The former is, again, the kind that makes up in conversion the sheer numbers and involves a sort of shock-and-awe approach to awareness, like I mentioned above.
But now I must come clean and say that yes, I have started reading Doctorow's book on un-enshittifying the internet5 (and, to be honest, the entire rest of the world, but he makes a good case for starting with the internet) and there's something that is particularly alluring about fucking up Substack.
The reason is that Substack is built on email, and email is one of the ur-interoperable protocols of the internet, although I do think the clock is ticking.
Substack, for some reason, still will provide an RSS feed for newsletters. Substack must deliver newsletters via email, which protocols are pretty open.
The reason why I say the clock is ticking is that there are signs here and there of enclosure. This should not be surprising given the dominance of big tech and its tendency (and encouragement) to just sew up entire areas and, as I mention above, fuck people over. So Google is shutting down is HTML-only interface, Google is making its own decisions about what should be delivered and how, all of the embrace and extend stuff which results in people who've been doing this for decades just throwing in the towel and saying: you know what? Fuck it. It's just not worth running your own email server anymore6 because of (you guessed it!) the email oligopoly, encouraged by a theory of anti-trust organized around "well if it's cheaper for consumer, it's better for everyone and we should allow it. THANKS CHICAGO".
But I was talking about switching costs. Unlike many other services that have been designed to be walled-gardens from the start, Substack has to work with email, like I said. Substack, for the time being (I think? I haven't checked because I don't run one, I'm going off my experience when I switched to Buttondown a couple years ago) lets you export an archive. That archive is HTML and Markdown which -- again! -- are open specifications which don't even need reverse engineering. The subscriber list? Exported as a CSV with whatever columns you want. The payment system? Substack uses Stripe, and what's more it's connected to my Stripe account, which means because it's Stripe and Stripe isn't completely fucking anyone ever yet, I get to decide what applications integrate with my getting-paid account.
This means that the very nice Justin Duke who runs Buttondown is able to a) grab my Substack export, b) write something that should import all my newsletter episodes to his own system, c) and parse everything like send dates and so on. It means Justin can grab the CSV data to recreate my subscribers. It means that Justin can ask me for an API key for my Stripe account, noodle around, and then recreate all of the payment products, even when they don't map up 1:1 with Buttondown's setup. I mean, he doesn't have to do this, but he did it anyway.
What this means is that technically the switching costs from Substack to Any Other Newsletter Provider are... surmountable, at least. Until Substack decides you can't export your data. Well, the good news is that some people will be allowed to export their data thanks to at least one bit of forward-thinking legislation from the E.U. It's of course within Substack's leadership's influence to decide if anyone else, for whom they don't have a legal obligation, gets to export their data if they suddenly want to throw up a wall. It's not like enshittifying platforms care about what people think when enshittification is on the table, although I like to think Substack might think twice because of their strategy of becoming the platform for influential media people. Perhaps this is Stoller's plan? To be some sort of inside man, ready to leap onto the jugular when Substack inevitably turns around and exposes its true self.
Justin has done a bit of this. There is a sort-of one-click, easy import from Substack if you want to move your newsletter. There is, I have to admit, some nervousness in moving over -- I was certainly nervous because I didn't want to fuck over any paying subscribers and let's just say that the seam of "having a newsletter" and "not fucking up Stripe" is not one that is easy to navigate and the one that has historically caused me the most trouble. That said, it has been capable of being fixed in the end. But still! Anxiety inducing.
Which is to say that this gets back to my gut-feeling central question: if Buttondown or someone else, a small provider, wanted to become more well-known and grow (which they may not!), then what's in the way? Is it the lack of awareness? Is it that they don't have the shit-ton of money to run a Switch campaign, to anthropomorphize Substack and show people how easy it to switch to the much more personable Buttondown anthropomorphization? This is an interesting question!
Because I do think there's an opening, a window to take advantage of where there are more people along the lines of "well, I don't want to be somewhere where things are going to turn out shit, I would like to leave Facebook but everyone is there". I don't know, is there anything even in a November Newsletter Switching Month?
One thing I haven't mentioned is that Buttondown is only free for up to 100 subscribers. That is not a lot, and wouldn't cover a huge middleground of My Internet Friends who definitely have more than 100 subscribers, I bet. If you go up to 1000 susbcribers, it's going to cost you $9/month, which is $9/month more than the nothing it would cost you on Substack.
So the plan Substack's running is super easy. Lose money by providing a free newsletter sending and hosting service for what, essentially, is "a blog that also emits email", and make it up on taking a cut from paid subscribers.
Is "not being on Substack" worth $108 a year? That's what we're talking about here, I suppose.
Look. If I go check the price of 12 eggs over at the Safeway near me, here's the range:
That's a 5x range for eggs. Now I know Lucille is reading this, so the difference between a Cheap Regular Banana is 27 cents/banana to 40 cents/banana at the Organic end.
The thing is, zero moneys is not equivalent to $1.99. Zero moneys is zero moneys, no worries, for the rest of your life, all that jazz. As I'm thinking about this aloud, perhaps one of the tradeoffs is "yes, I know I'm getting this for free, and I know better now that I will get fucked over in the future, and you know what? I'm willing to take that. It's free. It's a headache trying to find the other thing, because nothing is better than free. With not-free, I have to get my credit card out and everything and jeez that's such a bore."
So while I think there's room in education and awareness, that more people than before might be willing to pay because paid-is-better-than-free because "Organic" or whatever or "Support Small SaaS Saturday", the underlying problem is loss-leaders. And I don't think those can be legislated away, not in a way that isn't entirely fact-dependent. The best case here is due to elder protocol open standard interoperability, which means even Substack wants you to know how easy it is to switch from Those Other Newsletter Systems to Substack. The reasons for switching seem spurious to say the least ("All I have to do is hit send!"), or point to a single-mindedness of user experience and getting rid of cruft.
But like I said, the thin end of the wedge is visible. Substack are and have been developing their own reader app. Because sure, you can get newsletters in email, but it would be better if you read them in a specialized app. Sure you could talk about newsletters on email, but it would be better if Substack had its own mini text-based social network to grow a questionably-existent community. The tragedy here, of course, is that at some point, when a collapse happens, all of this text is likely going to disappear, and it will fall to the altriusm of, say, The Internet Archive to race to grab it all before The Easiest Way to Newsletter sunsets that final time.
An aside here is that I've been courted by Substack twice: First in September 2018, when its founder emailed me trying to get me to switch from Tinyletter with the promise of making money (and making the time, back then, to have a call with me about my goals). I did switch from Tinyletter. I did get paid subscribers (thank you!). And then I left when the Questionable Editorial Decisions happened, and then in March this year when Linda from Substack wrote to me personally because Substack could be Relevant to Me. Sales!
Alternatively, things might not get that bad! Substack might end up in some sort of steady state like Medium, where... people don't write anymore? Or they do, but they accidentally leave their blog posts behind a paywall, so what happens now is I get linked to a Medium post I can't read without resuming my membership and I... just don't read it. I also get about 12 cents a year in terms of revshare for a bunch of silly posts I wrote absolutely ages ago. Totally worth it.
Anyway. This has been what caught my attention about Substack's enshittification.
Heh. That's practically 3,000 words on Substack as a case study of the trajectory of VC-funded startups and interoperability. Like I said, an Amateur Cory Doctorow who hasn't taken the time to do the research for citations.
How are you?
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"do people not realize the substack modal subscribe-to-read-or-nevermind is just the thin end of the quora wedge...", me, 8 October, 2023, on Mastodon ↩↩