Substack Is Not Infrastructure

Matt Birchler:

Substack is not open source, they are proprietary software. Substack is not infrastructure, they are a brand that is directly tied to the people using them to publish. Go to any Substack blog and you’ll see the Substack logo and terms and conditions. Subscribe to a writer’s newsletter, and boom, you’ve got a Substack account that you’ll now use to subscribe to anything else (and they’ll make sure to suggest things to make sure you do). No one is talking about Digital Ocean starting up a subscription service where you pay them a flat fee and get full access to all websites using them as a provider. I’m not saying this is bad, I’m just saying this is how social platforms work, not how infrastructure services work.

Ryan Broderick has decided to move Garbage Day:

None of this had to happen. Ghost, a Substack competitor, has almost no real moderation to speak of, but no one seems to care. You know why? Because it’s not trying to jam all of its users into one feed to compete with Twitter or whatever. Substack, meanwhile, has insisted on adding more social features over the last three years, instead of making their email product better. Which is still missing tons of pretty basic features. And so they, predictably, ended up creating a poorly moderated network that was attractive to extremists. […]

There was a time when Substack seemed more utilitarian than the way it now presents itself. It has social network components; it has recommendation engines; its homepage is primarily aimed at readers and promotes the wide range of newsletters published on the platform. It has a “Staff Picks” category.

Substack knows who its writers are, it knows they publish some worrisome stuff, and it works both sides — to the extent there are opposing sides on the issue of whether Nazis should be permitted to broadcast their views using this popular broadcasting platform. To Casey Newton, of Platformer, Substack said it would be removing some Nazi-supporting newsletters. To the perpetually JAQ-ing Jesse Singal, someone leaked the full email from Substack’s founders to Newton as fodder for a broader misleading free speech argument, and a question of whether five Nazi newsletters is such a big deal.

Nazis surely use other platforms; sometimes, they may broadcast their deeply hateful views. But most platforms that are comfortable associating their brand with what is published and promoted within will respond to hate speech by removing those posts or those users. The problem is, of course, the Nazi, but it is a problem to hang out a shingle as a business open to treating all ideas as equally open for debate. Infrastructure companies, on the other hand, tend to avoid associating themselves with those who use their services in such a direct manner.1 Substack tries to have it both ways. As a result, it is affecting its own reputation and that of the writers who use the platform.

  1. Worth noting many web hosts also deny services for all kinds of reasons and, if notified of misbehaviour, will terminate accounts. This famously happened to Nazi forum Stormfront↥︎