The Value Of A Promise

When you hear a company like Substack or Canva make a promise, you may get pretty cynical that they’re going to keep it. Honestly, I get that.

By Ernie Smith

As a quick follow-up of sorts to yesterday’s piece, I want to talk a little about the pledge Affinity and Canva shared with their user base: A promise that they would continue to keep the Affinity suite affordable and subscription-free.

To be clear, I think that they have largely not suggested that this is a promise they will break. But lots of people seemed convinced that this promise wasn’t really worth very much. After all, if a company decides to eat Canva one day, that could reshape the entire discussion. (Who, exactly, would eat them is up in the air, given their size. They are likely too big for Microsoft to digest, for example.)

I think it’s worth considering how the value of a promise made by a corporation has degraded in the era of enshittifcation. It has turned from a bedrock promise to a slippery fish that you may struggle to grab without the right grip. People remember when promises are broken, but often companies are not really punished for it when it happens, except by perhaps a decline in public interest.

And when a new owner comes into the picture, all bets are off. (Just ask Don Lemon’s journalistic foil.)

When a promise starts to degrade, it often doesn’t happen suddenly. People gradually notice that you’ve busted your value prop in the name of an undisclosed pivot. And when that pivot happens, it can really hurt. The quality fades, as does the investment, and your partnership suddenly looks a lot different than when it started.


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This week, Substack users not already scared off by the recent Nazi controversy are starting to figure out this is what happened to the platform they use. They jumped onto Substack with the goal of making money from subscriptions, with the promise that they would be able to eventually leave with their list if they wanted to. But a secondary feature, the “follow” feature, was added to the service last year, which makes it possible to follow along with accounts without actually subscribing to their newsletter.

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(Annie Spratt/Unsplash)

The result has effectively been a decline in subscriber quality. Writers are getting “followers,” but not subscribers. Followers don’t transfer when you move your list to Ghost or Beehiiv or anywhere else. And folks are noticing, per The Wrap. Jeanna Kadlec, a user of Substack who says she has been affected by this decline, suggests that its recent shift to a social-media-like model seems to hint that the ultimate goal may be to become social media first, newsletters second.

“The whole value proposition of Substack is that it’s a newsletter and writer hub,” she wrote on Threads. “This latest intervention is indicative of their efforts to transition to a social media hub where they can sell ad space.”

If that‘s what ends up happening, it would only just underline the great point that undergirds Cory Doctorow’s greatest contribution to the discourse. Enshittification is not fundamentally about a decline in product quality—it is a big promise being broken, often in a way that makes it hard to notice that the big promise is being dismantled.

First, it starts with a growing newsletter platform building an app, then a social network, then claiming it’s not really a newsletter platform after all. Then, despite running a social network, it decides moderation isn’t something it needs to pay for, and then the truth slowly starts to emerge: You didn’t sign up for a newsletter publishing platform upon which you could build a career. You signed up for a slightly more bookish Tumblr.

I have something like 150,000 followers on Tumblr, a number I attained during Tumblr’s early-2010s peak period. There was a time when that meant something. But it did not necessarily mean I could build a career for myself.

When I hear folks becoming cynical about corporate promises, not backed by anything but the word of the people making the promise, I absolutely understand the cynicism. We’ve heard a lot of promises over the years. Some of our most prominent companies have broken them.

Getting back to the beginning of this rant: Affinity and Canva can make a promise, just like any other company. But the important part is, are they going to keep it?

(And point to John Gruber, who I am not agreeing with very much these days. He correctly pointed out that, with this deal, Affinity has already broken a promise.)

Promised Links

Learning that The Hold Steady’s “Stay Positive” is getting done up as a children’s book makes me reflect on the fact that most Hold Steady songs would definitely not be good choices for children’s books. “Your Little Hoodrat Friend” does not seem like a G-rated song.

Jeff Geerling and his dad have a channel together that covers extremely cool engineering stuff, but never did I think I would be so enthralled by a melting hot dog that could transmit radio signals when touching an RF tower.

Jason Bateman is the only person dressed correctly in this photo.


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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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