Today in Tedium: As lots of folks are probably aware, the team at Substack had a fairly eventful weekend, one where the loud guy did the same stupid thing he always does, and in the process, he made Substack look good, just in time for them to launch a new social network. And, as a Substack skeptic, this had basically broken my brain, because all of a sudden, I found myself saying nice things about Substack on Twitter and Mastodon. I got at least a couple messages implying that it was strange that these comments were coming from me, and honestly, yes, it is. But I can admire a company’s business strategy while questioning what their market position represents. And I have questions! Today’s Tedium ponders the new, sudden shift in the newsletter market, now that Substack owns a buzzy social media platform. It kind of sucks for indie publishers, not gonna lie. — Ernie @ Tedium
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Mutual frustration with Elon Musk makes for strange bedfellows
“Congratulations on your free PR win.”
That was the email subject line I found myself sending out to one of Substack’s executives Friday afternoon, after it became clear, through the actions of Elon Musk, that Substack was about to pull off something special with the launch of its new tool Substack Notes.
I don’t, like, make a habit of emailing executives of newsletter platforms, and I certainly didn’t see myself sending that message when I woke up on Friday morning. But this was a unique situation where they had gotten one of the richest people in the world to blink, taking steps to block a platform from his service.
But the optics of what happened on Friday looked especially bad. I do not doubt that Elon Musk is ruthless when it comes to decision-making. After all, this is the guy who laid off three-quarters of a company with thousands of employees in a matter of, like, two months. But actively going against the interests of one of the very audiences that makes Twitter valuable—the small-scale writers with outsized influence that are simply trying to run their small businesses—just looks Snidely Whiplash evil. If Elon was still wearing the Wario costume from SNL, I’m sure he’d be twirling the mustache.
(Side note, Elon was just quoted in a BBC article today, where he said this: “Have I shot myself in the foot with tweets multiple times? Yes.” At least he’s self-aware on a very basic level.)
And at that moment, I saw the future. Despite my desire to not see Substack consolidate the newsletter space any further, I saw a lot of writers that would most likely consolidate their presences around the Twitter-like social network that made most of their money. Hell, Matt Taibbi, who just two months earlier had staked his reputation on his access to the Twitter Files, was the first one to jump ship.
Good gamesmanship is good gamesmanship, and Substack got to time the launch of a new social network around an unforced error by an executive who has proven quite reliable at them. Sure, Mastodon will inevitably continue to grow. But Substack not only has successfully built its moat, but it got a full parade just before it closed the gates.
Hence, my unexpected email. In terms of unexpected messages from critics, it’s up there with, “Welcome, IBM. Seriously.”
But the thing is, you can still appreciate a company’s ability to joust in a battle of corporate overlords while still being nervous about what they represent.
The level of ability that a company has to manage its own technology or business processes without having to rely on outside vendors. (The downside of this, as noted by the Corporate Finance Institute, is that you have to take on the complexity of running the business process yourself.) Apple is a famous example of a vertically integrated company, as the firm develops both hardware and software, including (most recently) processors. In social media, Meta is perhaps the best example of a company with strong vertical integration because of its ownership of many types of social networks, but Substack may have just found a new inroad into vertical integration for newsletters.
Do independent newsletter publishers have something to worry about here?
I tried Substack Notes when it launched publicly on Tuesday, and honestly, I felt like Substack had cracked some sort of code that had eluded most of us normies.
And it’s not something that they would have found on their own without a lot of research and understanding of the market. They know that, as people build influence on social media platforms, people become fans, and as those people gain fan bases, it makes their voice more viable.
Substack has figured out a way to monetize that voice, but the problem is that they’ve struggled to figure out how to ensure people don’t go to the couple-thousand other ways to send an email, many of which don’t require the use of a proprietary platform.
But by building a moat in the form of social media that directly benefits the very types of users that are about to lose their blue checkmarks, Substack has found a potential opening to get people to leave the toxic place in favor of one that actually benefits the real, true, honest reason they use social media in the first place.
At a time when social media is in disarray, I’m sure that looks attractive to people who just want to get a little control over their creative work.
But on the other hand, this plays into the material needs of a larger business.
Look, it’s not hard to see what’s coming. By owning the social media ecosystem, Substack will be able to identify non-creators who prove especially engaging on Substack Notes, then reach out to them, making the case that they can create a newsletter around a topic that is helping them to draw attention.
This is basically how Substack was using Twitter—and it turned into at least one massive success story. Now they not only own a potential farm system but the bats, the balls, and even the thin atmosphere around the stadium that makes it easier to hit home runs.
Substack, if the company manages to hold on in the long run, gets put in a position where it can nurture emerging voices and convince them to stick around forever.
(And yet, they refuse to make it possible to center text. Investing all this money into something they force to be left-aligned is just comical.)
For small-scale newsletter operators like myself, this can be very nerve-wracking. The reason is that we no longer feel like we can find full success while operating the stack ourselves.
A good comparison point to this is Google. Despite the fact that Google was not the first company to enter the search engine space, it eventually became the best-known, because its quality was very high, but also because they gradually got people to think that the only way to search through stuff is via Google.
Some people want the white-glove service, where everything is managed, and they don’t need to think about APIs or bounces or errant design. But those who are skilled or have the resources to build their own thing want their own thing. All things considered equal, I want to self-host and to run my own CMS and my own design.
The real concern I have is that things are no longer equal. When I mentioned Substack Notes yesterday within my community of mostly other newsletter creators who mostly don’t use Substack, many of us felt nervous about it. Would Notes be welcoming to people who aren’t in the moat? Would we have to change our strategy? Does email matter a little less all of a sudden?
Are we in danger of getting disrupted, that the vibe of wanting to have a “default” option for newsletters among some subscribers was going to scare people away who dared to challenge convention?
That’s not a great feeling to have about something you built.
I think the platform era, which probably began in earnest with LiveJournal, Blogger, and Friendster, has led to lots of shifts over time.
We have seen the effects when platforms change the rules or neglect certain audiences. The “pivot to video,” as it was infamously called, caused long-term disruption to the publishing industry that it has pretty much never recovered from. That, to me, is absurd.
I don’t think Substack’s motives are nearly that bad, but ultimately, to make a business that is worthy of its level of hype, it needs to build a moat and strengthen its base long-term, and that means it needs to make other options for running newsletters unattractive. By building a social network that has most of your favorite creators already built-in, at a time when other options are looking wobbly, they’ve created something that we may eventually not be able to ignore.
As far as social media goes, I want Mastodon to win. It is the cleanest expression of the “old” internet we have. But I also have a business to run, and I can’t ignore potential threats to that business. An emerging social network with momentum that treats newsletters outside its walled garden as second-class citizens feels like a potential threat.
So, my strategy is that I’m going to start a Substack. It is intentionally going to be a low-effort Substack, but one that I’ve been thinking about doing for a long time—a newsletter that features highlights from the many thousands of things we’ve mentioned in Tedium over the past eight years or so. I’m calling it Lesser Tedium, to reflect what it is—a version of Tedium that isn’t 3,000 words, crafted over many hours, but highlights small details culled from larger issues that on their own could tell interesting stories. Sometimes, people need a two-minute hit.
I fully admit that this is a defensive measure, but it is one that I encourage others in my position to do. Substack can’t force us to move our apparatuses to their platform, but we can build bridges to our own, even subtle ones that don’t offer the full experience.
Being a publisher shouldn’t require figuring out a way to get around all these damn moats.
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