Barely Minimum

Substack favors the quick fix for its moderation crisis over the fundamental change, leaving a lot of longtime users in the lurch.

By Ernie Smith

It’s hard to look at the state of affairs Substack has put itself in and not think that they’ve made a bet that most of their users just don’t care.

I mean, it sure seems like that’s what they’ve been saying with their actions over the last month, since the moment when they responded with a kind of disinterested shoulder shrug to the whole controversy about moderation.

On Monday evening, news broke that a pressure campaign built upon by tech journalist Casey Newton, one of Substack’s most prominent users, had led Substack to finally follow its own guidelines for hate speech on its own platform. Newton’s headline on his piece announcing the move admittedly oversold what it was actually doing, removing just a handful of Substack newsletters of minimal influence, but the fact that they made any motion at all is something.

(To read between the lines for a second: Their moderation approach, or lack thereof, feels less interested in hosting controversial views and more interested in not paying the extra costs with moderation. Moderation costs money, and the fact that they made no promises to actively remove content such as that identified by Newton underlines that point neatly. The moment they decided to lean into social signals, they needed to have a moderation plan. That they didn’t is kind of damning.)

The damage, ultimately, has already been done. Some of my favorite newsletters have already left Substack for good, and looking around, one gets the impression that a lot of them didn’t particularly love their options as they looked for an exit.

This is the challenging thing when it comes to platforms like these. First, they start with a promise that they’ll bring together all the things you need in a way that makes it painless. Then they sink their teeth in by adding a bunch of things you didn’t ask for but now need to run your little business, and all of a sudden, you’re stuck with them.

Substack’s version of that model is just as cunning as it is brilliant. They have spent years promoting the idea that you were building a “Substack,” not a newsletter. And as it turns out, if Substack the company fails to remain a neutral party, as it seems like is the case with the recent rounds of decision-making, that association becomes a liability.

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But we need to talk about the landscape that these Substack-centric creators found for themselves when they announced they were going to move. They had a few options: Open-source technologies like Ghost or WordPress, paid options like Buttondown and Beehiiv, and more esoteric choices like whatever the hell I’m doing when I upload a newsletter to the internet.

The reason why stuff like Substack usually wins comes down to the cruft that these options carry—no criticism of these tools, just trying to explain the landscape. As food writer Hanna Raskin put it when she made her exit this week, “In my case, the process took six months and $20,000.” That is a scary amount of money when you’re bootstrapping, and Raskin was only able to make the leap with the help of a grant.

If you’re moving from a platform that gave you access to unlimited audience and unlimited email sending for free, and now you have to figure out how to pay the bill, that is not a small thing! I would encourage the peanut gallery to give these hard-working journalists trying to figure out all this stuff a breather.

I would encourage you to put your energy toward another question instead: The next time this happens and people are stuck making an exodus from a walled garden to their own plot of land, how can we make this easier on them?

Giles Turnbull put this point well in a post on his own little indie website the other day:

If we want the future web we’re all clamouring for, we need to give people more options for self-hosted independence. If we seriously, truly want the independent, non-enshittified personal web to flourish, we need to make it easier for people to join in.

I’m as big an advocate of this kind of approach as you’ll find, and even I’m kind of frustrated sometimes. Recently I had an issue where my website stopped working because a bunch of log files from my database filled up the server space, which was otherwise far from filling up.

I’m a nerd who spends hours tweaking stuff. I recently took a programming course for fun. And I was pulling out my hair trying to figure out what happened.

I can’t imagine how scary that looks for someone who just wants to write.

Substack and similar services win because the alternatives are scary. How do we remove the fear factor?

Unmoderated Links

Journalism and opinion should live together given the times we’re in, Maria Bustillos argues, yet it feels like that’s not the direction big media outlets want to go.

Rick Beato explains why, exactly, rock music fell into decline in the late 1990s. Enshittification before the internet became a major factor.

Is Apple about to face an antitrust reckoning? That was the big headline from this past Friday, and it’s hard not to wonder the role Beeper Mini might play in that whole mess.


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Ernie Smith

Your time was just wasted by Ernie Smith

Ernie Smith is the editor of Tedium, and an active internet snarker. Between his many internet side projects, he finds time to hang out with his wife Cat, who's funnier than he is.

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